Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Varan The Unbelievable

Are you prepared to suspend disbelief? Are you braced to hear The Sci-Fi Fanatic overuse the word unbelievable? You may need to reach back for something extra on this one. The description on the back of the DVD reads: For centuries, it slept... Man, ever searching, disturbed its peace... Fear The Unknown. You have to love the big sell on this kaiju eiga picture. With Varan The Unbelievable [1958], surprisingly, be afraid, be very afraid.

Varan may indeed be little known outside of Japan, because the film really never made the kind of splash Rodan, Mothra or Godzilla made stateside. Varan, as a monster, is simply not well known outside hardcore kaiju eiga fan circles, but it truly is unbelievable. Could it be more unbelievable that this film quietly registers chronologically under the kaiju eiga radar somewhere between Gojira [1954], Rodan [1956] and Mothra [1961]? It's also black and white, a potential budgetary issue, following the colorful Rodan. Would it seem unbelievable if Ishiro Honda phoned it in or agreed to film this script by Shinichi Sekizawa [one of his weakest]? What about Eiji Tsuburaya? Is Varan The Unbelievable as bad as many have suggested all these forgotten years? We find out.

Returning for this one last black and white foray in Tohoscope, director Ishiro Honda, special effects Eiji Tsuburaya, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and composer Akira Ifukube return for a plunge into monstrous unbelievability. I know- I'm really having fun with the unbelievable Varan. The team, surprisingly, returns with a cast outside the usual cadre of characters and not normally connected to most Toho/ Honda success stories for this unusual attempt at Godzilla-lite. This fact may be due in part to Varan The Unbelievable being a planned Japan-USA co-production for television stateside [ABC]. Unfortunately, like the outcome for Latitude Zero [1969], US backing fell apart and Honda and company were left picking up the pieces. Thus, in part, why Varan The Unbelievable feels mildly disjointed and ultimately fails. All of this plus, according to Stuart Galbraith IV in his book Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy And Horror Films, Toho had its creative team spread thin by working on The Three Treasures [1959] with Toshiro Mifune as well.

The mattes in the film are beautiful as always. The score is sufficiently booming and classically brilliant as one might expect from Ifukube. The effects are good, but not overly complicated, still they satisfy. All of this teasing potential aside, we are informed very early on to be prepared for the most mysterious story ever told and therein lies the problem. The story is simply flat, unconvincing and overly simplistic when compared to successes like Mothra or King Kong Vs. Godzilla [1962].

The story begins when butterflies, exclusively native to Siberia, are surprisingly discovered in Japan. Two institute researchers will investigate. Honda and scriptwriter Shinichi Sekizawa would one day prove their fascination with the butterfly or moth with Mothra. Was the idea born from Varan The Unbelievable?

In an area referred to as the Tibet of Japan, two researchers arrive at Iwaya Village and discover a group of semi-primitive villagers. A sign post with Japanese script indicates a gateway to the God of Baradagi. An earthquake ensues. What should be essentially a day of discovery for two butterfly researchers grows ominous. "It's too early for monsters," declares one of the men, almost preparing us for the overly simple-minded monster movie that lies ahead. No worries kaiju eiga fans, Varan is coming, but not soon enough.

The pained cry of a monster, suspiciously too close to the sound effect implemented for Godzilla, standing to reason of course, warns of an imminent attack and the men are killed in the remote mountains. Could it have been the legendary God of Baradagi? The aping of Godzilla's roar aside, the film also props up a suspiciously close set up in the belief shared by these islanders toward Varan that mirror a similar idea put forth in Gojira [1954].

The villagers led by the village priest pray to Baradagi in a ritual reminiscent of the King Kong mythology but on a much smaller scale. A trio of two researchers and a reporter arrive to investigate further. The priest implores them to leave. They ask blasphemously if anyone has ever seen this Baradagi. Once again the deep growl of Baradagi permeates the air. Fearing the great creature will awaken praying recommences.

Varan The Unbelievable was clearly channeling Gojira [1954], but presenting itself to be not much more than a very pale imitation. Nevertheless, the title reflects the brazen acts of outsiders from Tokyo skeptical of Baradagi's existence despite evidence of a massive beast.

The "ever searching" researchers ultimately defy the wisdom of the villagers and the elder priest and seek to chase down a boy and his dog, despite ovations to stop. The Tokyo outsiders call the elder's beliefs "foolish" and exhibit a general disrespect for village lore. Of course, that's never good for anyone in kaiju eiga.

That's a great idea! A series of generally illogical actions takes place particularly when the two men manage to convince the entire village to head out into the thick fog to find their missing boy. Here were these primitive, very superstitious villagers warning the outsiders and being adamant not to go beyond the fence line that separated their world from that of Baradagi suddenly throwing their hands up in the air and joining them. It just seemed to defy the philosophy of an entire people in one fell swoop.

The group eventually finds Yuriko, a reporter, with the boy as the fog lifts.

The whole thing feels a little too conveniently and illogically established to get us to the swirling lake where Baradagi rises from the depths. Kaiju eiga rising from the depths is always a highlight.

Varan the flying squirrel. The breed of creature is the resulting, uninspired mix of "Godzilla, Angilas, and a giant squirrel," according to author Steve Ryfle in Japan's Favorite Mon-Star. In fact, you can make that a flying squirrel. I'll even add part toad in the face. Galbraith called it an "amalgam" of Godzilla, Angilas and Rodan. But yes, this here creature can fly like a flying squirrel.

A shadow effect against a screen. Much running and hurrying ensues. And Baradagi or Varan, for me, too closely resembles Godzilla's voice effects for me to take this thing seriously. One can only imagine, back in 1958, there was no real certainty anyone would notice such a move entirely as a franchise had hardly been born at that point, but given all of the films, that iconic lizard and his equally iconic voice, it's a tough sell seeing it today. It's simply hard to believe.

Koreya Senda would also appear in H-Man. No amount of forgiveness requested from the elder will satiate Baradagi. He has arrived. He is well pissed and people will and must die. There's simply nowhere to hide as the village is wiped out. This is clearly a very petty, slumbering god beast because the villagers hardly did anything to upset it other than find their boy in its sacred land. Varan could only be considered a light sleeper or a bully. It's got unbelievable gall. It's a bit like throwing a Frisbee in the neighbor's yard and out comes the owner with a shot gun. Whoa! Take it easy big fella.

Even the fine Akihiko Hirata can't save this one. The reporters suspect the creature is a Varan suggesting this creature from 185 million years ago is just one of many that existed. Varan is a Varanopode. It is of the Triassic or Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Whatever you do, don't do your homework on this one.

Given the size and destructive capabilities of the creature this is a job for the Defense Agency. All manner of tanks, chemical weapons and military equipment make their way back to the remnants of the village in preparation to destroy Varan ... The Unbelievable ... where it sleeps at the bottom of its lake. Of course no one has any proof that the creature is at the bottom of the lake it's merely an unconfirmed hunch.

So fish die and all manner of human fury is launched against the lake. Varan emerges. Let the onslaught begin. Of course people run and run and run and keep running when it is determined that the creature might better be dubbed Varan The Unbeatable or Varan The Unstoppable, because conventional firepower isn't cutting the mustard against this Varanopode. Clearly there are a whole of believers now. There are so many believers the title of the film was almost modified to Varan The Believable.

Inexplicably, winds kick up around all of the people, apparently the result of Varan, yet there is no wind anywhere to be seen around Varan. There's not a single gust amidst the inconsistent editing. Galbraith noted that new material was shot and was poorly integrated with older footage [Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy And Horror Films] and it shows.

Yuriko is trapped and Kenji, a fellow researcher from the expedition, saves her.

Suddenly, without any visual cues to suggest the existence of flight, Varan spreads its arms to reveal membrane material similar to that of the aforementioned flying squirrel and off it goes into the wild, blue yonder at about mach 1.5. Absolutely uncanny, unexpected and certainly, you guessed it, unbelievable.

If the film wasn't so poor a scene like this would be scary. The Defense Agency is stumped on how to repel and defeat Varan. They sit around a table, groupthink-style, debating whether Varan's skin is tougher than steel. It's all quite silly really.

When Varan is next spotted he is no longer flying like a squirrel, but rather swimming much like Godzilla across the Pacific waters and thus ripe for carpet-styled, rocket bombing accompanied by a patriotic Ifukube score. As Varan makes its way to Tokyo much attacking is levelled upon the great Varan. Like the final battle in The Mysterians [1957], some of the festivities tends to go on a touch too long, but at 87 minutes what's an effects director and director to do? Depth charges anyone?! Up next, depth charges!

It's funny, but several times people shout, "standby for action!" or "ready for action!" and yet somehow I kept waiting for characters and a story to care about amidst all of the commotion. No kidding around, I fell hopelessly asleep during the film when I started watching it on a Sunday afternoon. Normally, Sunday afternoon is prime time creature feature time and yet, sad to say, Varan The Unbelievable just wasn't getting it done.

After all the weapons fail, Varan surfaces and its onto Tokyo. Hundreds of Japanese men, women and children flee in trademark Toho fashion.

Dr. Fujimora has a special weapon, much like Hirata's character counterpart in Gojira. The weapon is essentially dynamite, twenty times stronger, and must be detonated from inside Varan to be effective.

Varan is seen swallowing flares in an absolutely comical looking moment. It is thus determined, the flares shall be the delivery system to detonate the ultimate weapon within Varan.

Varan slinks off into the sea and explodes. Let's face it, if you're an effects director, it's much easier to detonate water than a man in a suit. The film ends on a wholly ungratifying, unbelievably bad ending. Where is EMF when you need them to sing Unbelievable [1990]?

Despite all of the trappings of a classic kaiju eiga, it never quite gets its footing or momentum, because the foundation for its story is shaky and never materializes into anything substantive. The editing is jerky, poorly cut and some of the scenes just look plain disappointing. The horrendous depth charge scene comes to mind. The idea is good, but the execution is okay. The acting is a little flat. Not even a small appearance by the uber-cool of Akihiko Hirata as Dr. Fujimora, minus the patch, yet with a special bomb [sound familiar?], can save this lackluster monster epic. Tension never quite mounts in the intimate scenes in ways many of the Honda productions succeed particularly surrounding a core of three characters, two men and one woman. It simply never manifests the magic of Honda and Tsuburaya's work to some surprise. The film sort of lumbers along like the titular prehistoric creature. Oh well, everyone is allowed a mis-step now and again and Varan The Unbelievable would likely be theirs focusing solely on their source material, not their efforts.

Depth charge explosions and water footage superimposed over a resting monster. Steve Ryfle called the foray into Varan a "lackluster" and "dull yarn" [Japan's Favorite Mon-Star, p.66].

Stuart Galbraith IV found the film "disappointing" and "cheap-looking" as recorded in his fine book Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo [p.179] but also noted Ifukube's score as the exceptional exception eclipsed by a poor film. Galbraith is unabashed in dubbing Tsuburaya's work here as "unambitious" when compared to his normally superior outings. He calls Varan itself "undistinguished." Galbraith expanded on his reflections in his excellent reference Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy And Horror Films [p.41-44]. Galbraith discusses the "mystery" surrounding Varan's production. The flaws are essentially compounded generating "a hurried, sloppy look to the film." He fairly considers Varan to be Toho's "least interesting science fiction film of the 1950s." He refers to the film as "boring," but judges the American cut more harshly.

Miles Imhoff over at the fantastic Toho Kingdom thought the viewing of the American version of the Japanese original made the original look like "Seven Samurai." Well, here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic we watch the originals and it's not in the same arena as Akira Kurosawa's film, despite Imhoff's humor that points out how the subbed and dubbed English versions are normally abysmal to their kaiju eiga Japanese counterparts. He even calls the American version a "failure." Though Imhoff offers a great rendering of the English version of the film.

Toho Kingdom's Anthony Romero also noted the highlights of Tsuburaya's effects and Ifukube's score, but points to facets of the film that are "lackluster," "bland," "uninteresting" and "rather boring." Romero correctly notes one problem, "the story's chief fault is simply that the human cast is extraordinarily dull." Their performances are certainly forgettable. Romero recounts a number of the problems between the cast and the script they were forced to work with. Romero wonders amusingly, "So how does Varan fare as a solo kaiju antagonist? Not very well, and certainly the most unmemorable of the Toho kaiju to be given their own film."

Truthfully, there really isn't much of a story here, which is so surprising because screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa would remain a mainstay of Toho working with Honda on some legitimate classics like the upcoming Mothra. He would pen some of our favorites, which is why Varan The Unbelievable is so unbelievably disappointing. It's not without its merits and for those who enjoy kaiju eiga of any kind, it's still worth a look even if it is a relatively messy, uninspired clunker. The whole production feels a little less polished, a little half-hearted, a little lifeless and quite frankly, based on my love for Honda, Tsuburaya and company, that is pretty, well, I won't say it. To think this was nearly the same team behind the wonderful Rodan just two years earlier does come as a slight surprise. One thing Varan proves, is that there's magic in those Godzilla films. Disappointment aside I'm pleased Varan The Unbelievable was made available because it allows us to truly appreciate Gojira, Rodan and Mothra that much more. It also demonstrates as fantastic as the films of Honda and Tsuburaya were for years, as heralded as they were as creators, they were still human and that makes them extraordinary. Varan The Unbelievable: D. Director: Ishiro Honda. Writer: Ken Kuronuma/ Shinichi Sekizawa.


Franco Macabro said...

I guess everyone is entitled a bomb or two, even the great Ishiro Honda. I'd never even heard of this film, so you are absolutely right that not many people have outside of hardcore Kaiju fans.

Still, I wouldnt mind checking this one out, just out of curiosity.

Many companies tried copying the success of Godzilla, I was recently watching the Ultraman from the 70's and they had an episode in which Ultraman fights a monster that is exactly like Godzilla!

In fact, you can tell its the same Godzilla suit, only slightly altered!

There's still more Kaiju movies I need to check out: Rodan, Mothra, Rebirth of Mothra, and the one with the two giant ape dudes, Battle of the Gargantuas is it? I need to get my Kaiju on soon!

SFF said...

Absolutely Fran. You can't get the variables to all fall into place just so every time out.

And it was pretty clear there was a lot in play at the time and many distractions.

War Of The Gargantuas is terrific. More serious because of the scriptwriter. It's a double bill DVD with RODAN. Get it!

Sean Gill said...

Unbelievable, SFF, quite unbelievable!

A thorough and enjoyable write-up, as always. I can't say I'm going to ever see it, but the flying squirrel aspect seems worthy of some bizarro praise, at least.

SFF said...

Exactly. It's absolutely terrific "bizarro" stuff, as you so rightly put it.

This is the kind of late night picture enjoyed back in the day when being slightly blasted/ plastered on the couch would have enhanced this picture greatly. : )