SciFi Japan

    Does Varan Matter?

    A Look Back at a Lost Classic. Author: CreatureScape More than 50 years after his cinematic birth, Godzilla is essentially a global household name. Like Elvis, James Bond, and Marilyn Monroe, he occupies a space in pop culture that is so large; one need never have seen a Godzilla film to recognize him. In his shadow are still towering figures. Rodan and King Ghidorah (a. k. a. Monster Zero) have both had rock bands named after them and Mothra garnered her own four film franchise . . . not including appearances in several Godzilla films. In contrast, even kaiju fans know very little about Varan, despite the fact that he is one of only a handful of Toho terrors to have his own film. Part of this was fate. Hot on the heels of GOJIRA (1954) and RADON (1957), DAIKIAJU BARAN was originally conceived as a Japanese-made-for-American-TV movie in conjunction with ABC television. Depending on who you listen to, either Toho decided it would be a worthwhile theater release or ABC decided it would be a TV dud. The final product got transformed into what amounts to three films—the original Japanese theatrical version, a Japanese TV version, and the eventual late night American Creature Feature version, VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE, a culturally insensitive, sexist, kaiju diluted chop job that makes Terry Morse look like Thelma Schoonmaker. There are other reasons DAIKAIJU BARAN has never garnered much attention. For one thing, it may have been hampered by the simple fact that it was shot in black and white, but arrived between 1956’s RADON (a.k.a. RODAN THE FLYING MONSTER) and 1961’s MOSURA (MOTHRA), which were both delivered in glorious Toho color. There are other problems as well, including the fact that BARAN begins with a completely irrelevant shot of a rocket launch and thus seems confusing and disjointed from the opening. And, it is a little unclear as to why he heads immediately to Tokyo after being disturbed. Could he in fact have supernatural powers as we might expect if he is indeed the god the Tohoku natives claim him to be? Well, if so, it seems totally forgotten by the producers and the rest of the film is essentially a standard man vs. man-in-latex-suit explosion fest. So, why should we care about DAIKAIJU BARAN? Well, in spite of it’s shortcomings, BARAN is important in its visual and technical improvements, including the fact that the film was shot from angles meant to conceal a problem with the suit design. Varan’s four-legged posture meant that suit actor Haruo Nakijima was often crawling on his knees, which tends to visually break the illusion of a real creature. To compensate, a low camera angle was employed throughout the film and Varan’s knees were often covered by lines of buildings or vegetation. The end result is a clever and viable solution, showing that the studio had learned something from their previous quadruped, Anguirus.

    The suit design itself is of interest too. Varan is the first of Toho’s kaiju to show musculature in the suit, making the physical nature of the creature very prominent on screen. He has powerful muscles sculpted into his arms and legs and this shows more attention to detail in the construction of the creatures. In other words, the suit design process is becoming more sophisticated and refined, a good indication of Toho’s commitment to the genre. A second important aspect of the creature design is the translucent spikes on Varan’s back. According to creature sculptor Keizo Murase in his commentary reel on the DVD, the spikes were intended to be translucent from the beginning. The spikes, which were fashioned from translucent water hoses, come out looking very good on screen, but it is probably more important that translucent dorsal spikes don’t exist anywhere in nature. In other words, Varan is arguably the very first kaiju in the true sense of the word, which means “mysterious creature.” To put it another way, consider the fact that Godzilla, Rodan and Anguirus precede Varan, but all three are given a concrete prehistoric back-story. However, when the young Dr. Fujimura (Akihiko Hirata) insists that Varan is ultimately an animal, the senior scientist, Dr. Sugimoto (Koreya Senda) cannot agree, stating that common sense does not apply because “Varan exceeds the scope of our knowledge.” At the beginning of the film, the audience is promised a story about the greatest mystery of the age, and clearly, it is mystery they wish to create with the spikes, which look supernatural.

    Additionally, there is Varan’s inexplicable ability to fly (or perhaps glide) which shows very little regard for pesky aspects of reality like gravity and physics. When he is attacked in his mountain home, he decides to take the battle to Tokyo (quite mysteriously) and spreads his arms and legs revealing a membrane like a flying squirrel’s. This sudden transformation causes shock in the witnesses, again establishing a kind of mysterious quality. More importantly, he simply extends his arms and takes to the sky. There is no logical way for this to happen (he doesn’t even bend his knees) and so the only reasonable conclusion is that he is in fact a true kaiju, a kind of supernatural mystery beast. From this point forward, explanations will matter very little in kaiju eiga. Gamera will suddenly produce leg jets out of nowhere and it will be three decades later before it is explained that he is a cyborg from a lost civilization. Likewise, Gigan will fly without any explanation what so ever, robots will program themselves to change size instantly and Godzilla will begin to have conversations with Rodan, Mothra and Anguirus in subsequent films. And then there is pretty much everything that ever happens in ULTRAMAN. And all this is paved by Varan’s maiden flight. But, perhaps the most important aspect of the film in terms of the trends it sets is the ground breaking character of Yuriko (Ayumi Sonoda), a female reporter on a quest to “discover the mystery of the 20th Century.” As a general rule, the role of women in society in the 1950s was very limited, especially in Japan. Even today, Japanese women are not expected to have careers after marriage and their lives are often completely domestic. However, in 1950s American sci-fi films, portrayals were starting to change early in the decade. The role of competent female scientist extended back at least to ROCKETSHIP X-M and in IT CAME FROM BENEATHE SEA, there is a frank homily about the “new breed of woman” who are just as intelligent and capable as men. But in Japan’s early kaiju eiga, we see no women scientists at all, with female leads playing in the mold of GOJIRA’s Emiko (Momoko Kochi). Sympathetic and supportive, but ineffectual.

    However, BARAN’s Yuriko breaks that mold in nearly every way. She has her obligatory rescue scene, of course, but she is neither deferring nor sentimental like most screen heroines before her. The simple fact that she is not an “office lady,” is important. She has an important job that requires self-discipline, judgment and courage. Furthermore, her own brother is killed by Varan, but she volunteers to seek the creature out to get “a big scoop.” She stays with the efforts to stop Varan to the end, and when her love interest, Kenji (Kozo Noimora) panderingly tells her not to run so fast because it might hurt her feet, she tells him, “Nothing bothers me at this moment. It’s a great job. Let’s take a good picture.” She speaks forcefully throughout the film and really seems to be in charge more than either of her male compatriots. Ultimately, DAIKAIJU BARAN never got a sequel, but Yuriko certainly did. Her character would be reborn again and again, from MOSURA’s Michi Hanamura to GOJIRA NI-SEN MIRENIUMA’s Yuki Ichinose and many others in between, all trying to get the “big scoop.” If for no other reason, this makes Varan important in the history of kaiju eiga, even if the monster itself is regrettably forgotten.

    © 2022 Your Company. All Rights Reserved. Designed By JoomShaper