Varan the Unbelievable / Baran: Monster from the East / The Monster Baran / Daikaiju Baran (1958/1962) **½
Varan the Unbelievable, huh? I don’t know that I buy that. “Varan the Perplexing,” yes; “Varan the Inexplicable” might work too. For that matter, I’d also accept “Varan the Highly Unlikely.” But the only thing that truly defies belief about this almost forgotten late-50’s monster rampage flick from Toho is that it was made after both Rodan and The Mysterians. Why, after adding color cinematography and multiple monsters to the kaiju eiga formula would the studio want to go back and make a straight-up retread of Godzilla: King of the Monsters/Gojira that lacks both the seriousness and the allegorical content of the original?
Keep in mind as you read the following synopsis that it is based on the original Japanese version of the film. If you should happen to track down a copy of the almost equally rare American release, you’ll be watching what amounts to a completely different movie. After a brief and totally pointless prologue that bears no relation whatsoever to anything that will come after it, a zoology professor named Sugimoto (Koreya Senda, from The H-Man and Battle in Outer Space) tells his students about the recent discovery in Siberia of a rare species of butterfly that had previously been believed to exist only in the mountains of Japan. In order to figure out how and why the insects might have made the journey across the Sea of Japan, Sugimoto has dispatched two of his assistants to the remote mountain valley that is considered to be the center of the butterflies’ natural habitat. The men in question look dishearteningly like comic relief, but don’t worry— we shan’t be seeing very much of them. When they arrive at their destination, they find it occupied by a small village of backward horticulturalists whom we may be intended to identify as Ainu. (The Ainu are to Japan roughly as the Basques are to Spain, or as the American Indians are to the US— an imperfectly assimilated aboriginal minority with a very different cultural and linguistic background, who have traditionally been looked down upon as little better than savages by the majority culture. And if I understand correctly, the Ainu are often used in Japanese monster movies in much the same way as the Indians are used in Hollywood horror films.) Then again, they may just be regular old country bumpkins. Either way, the guys from the university briefly note that the village contains a big shrine to a mountain god called Baragi, whom neither one of them has ever heard of. But considering that the Shinto religion accepts the existence of several million gods— and that's just the ones who live and work in the Japanese Home Islands— it isn’t all that unusual to encounter unfamiliar gods out in the sticks, and neither grad student pays it much mind. This is a big mistake on their part, because they happen to meet Baragi in person when they head into the forest to hunt butterflies, and they don’t survive the encounter.
One of those students had a sister, however, so we’re obviously not done with Baragi and his domain yet. The sister’s name is Yuriko (The H-Man’s Ayumi Sonoda), and she appears to be dating another one of Dr. Sugimoto’s grad students, a guy named Kenji (Kozo Nomura, from Battle in Outer Space and War of the Gargantuas). (Incidentally, the US version turns these characters into husband and wife, and renames them Paul and Shidori Isoh. I don’t pretend to see the point, but there you have it.) Yuriko happens to work for a TV studio, as part of the staff of an “In Search Of”-like show called “Mysteries of the 20th Century,” and for some reason she thinks her bosses would want to devote an episode to her brother’s disappearance. With that in mind, and with Sugimoto’s blessing, Yuriko heads for the mountains in company with Kenji and a goofball photographer named Horiguchi (The Secret of the Telegian’s Fumio Matsuo), who unfortunately will not be getting himself killed later.
The three travelers are not well received at the mountain village. It doesn’t help that they arrive right in the middle of a religious observance dedicated to the mysterious Baragi, but one gets the impression that their mere status as outsiders would have been sufficient to make the local priest (Akira Sera, from Half Human and Toho’s The Invisible Man) look askance at them. The priest tells Yuriko and her companions that Baragi is pissed off about their arrival in town— doubly so given that they’re the second bunch of dipshits from Tokyo that he’s had to put up with in as many weeks. If they know what’s good for them, they’ll go back the way they came and never return. Yuriko, Kenji, and Horiguchi don’t know what’s good for them, of course, and insist on sticking around and even arguing with the priest and his people over the validity of their religious beliefs! Then a young boy and his dog, Chibi, volunteer their services as a plot device by charging off into the woods for no particular reason. None of the villagers will venture out after them— they’re all afraid of Baragi’s wrath— so Yuriko and the guys do it for them.
Yeah. You guessed it— Yuriko, Kenji, and Horiguchi run into Baragi while engaged on this mission of mercy. The neighborhood god turns out to be a huge, spiny, vaguely iguana-like reptile, which Kenji identifies with risible speed and certainty as belonging to a supposedly extinct species called Baran (Varan in the American version). The monster emerges from a high-altitude lake and proceeds to chase our heroes down to the village, which it smashes part of just to make absolutely certain everyone knows how little it appreciates all the company.
So having discovered a huge-ass monster that erupts into fits of destructive rage any time it is bothered, what do you suppose Yuriko and her friends do? They go back to Sugimoto, of course, and tell him all about it. That way, word is guaranteed to get out, making the deployment of an army to the vicinity inevitable. I tell you, it’s just one good idea after another from these people… Varan/Baran/Baragi/whatever still doesn’t want the attention, and he responds by routing the army, leveling what’s left of the village, and setting out on campaign of destruction— by unfurling a pair of flying squirrel-like leg membranes and gliding off over the horizon, no less! And like all good kaiju, he sets up shop in the Pacific Ocean not too far from Tokyo, where he starts sinking whatever ships he can get his claws on. Cue the obligatory (and obligatorily useless) depth-charge attack, and the accompanying frantic cabinet discussions with the heads of the Japanese military.
Interestingly enough, the main anti-monster strategy is one you’d expect a real-world military to come up with. While Kusama (Akio Kusama, from Mothra and Attack of the Mushroom People) and Katsumoto (Yoshio Tsuchiya, of Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah and Yog: Monster from Space), the officers in charge of defending Japan against Varan, continue futilely attacking the beast with conventional weapons, an ordnance expert named Dr. Fujimora (Akihiko Hirata, of Rodan and Terror of Mechagodzilla) works to develop an immensely powerful new explosive and a 500mm (19.7-inch) cannon to deliver it. (Nobody mentions this, but there ought to be at least a couple of 500mm guns lying around in a navy warehouse somewhere. The next class of battleships after the Yamatos would have carried six such weapons apiece had their construction not been cancelled in 1945.) The gun never does materialize, but Fujimora does at least succeed in getting his new explosive ready to be used, albeit in a rather less powerful form than he had hoped. That means the only way it can kill Varan is if it can somehow be dropped right down his throat. Yeah, I think I’ve seen that before somewhere, too.
Despite the extremely snide tone I’ve taken throughout this review, Varan the Unbelievable (at least in its original incarnation) is really a pretty entertaining movie. It’s just that it was a whole lot more entertaining four years earlier, when it was called Godzilla: King of the Monsters— or, for that matter, a year before that, when it was called The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Apart from that insane flying squirrel business, there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before, and to a great extent I mean that literally; most of the footage of the military defending Tokyo was recycled from the original Godzilla, and even the monster’s voice is just the familiar Godzilla roar with an extra layer of electronic distortion on it. The Akira Ifukube score also owes a good deal to his previous monster movie soundtracks. What I keep coming back to is my inability to understand why this movie was made the way it was as late as it was. Toho had set the bar higher than this from the very beginning, and the most recent round of kaiju films had outclassed Varan the Unbelievable quite drastically in the field of sheer spectacle. The monster suit is extremely cool, though, and it’s a real pity Toho never used it again except for a brief cameo in Destroy All Monsters. I’d have paid to see Godzilla vs. Varan.
By the way, thanks to Professor Mortis for supplying me with my copy of this movie