Godzilla! One plaintive cry of fear, accompanied by the roar of the biggest baddest monster of the nuclear age, created a cinematic icon that has lasted for well over fifty years. Godzilla, and the associated kaiju movies that sprung up in its destructive wake, not only captured the cultural imagination of people worldwide in the 1950s, but carved out an incredibly vast new genre of science fiction movie that lasts well into the new millennium.
Welcome to Toho Kaiju Monogatari, a year-long weekly series that hopes to not only share the joy of these Godzilla movies, but all the kaiju movies that came out of Toho Studios from 1954 to 2004. Not just Godzilla, but Rodan, Mothra, Japanese King Kong, kaiju-Frankenstein, and dozens more! And you can play along with the adventure, following the full weekly schedule HERE, as we watch men in suits stomp miniatures of famous cities flat for not just our entertainment, but for the history of cinema itself!
One of the most interesting parts of this project is realizing just how unfocused production of the kaiju movies was post-Godzilla. When Godzilla Raids Again! didn’t exactly set the world on fire, it seems like Toho was at a loss on how to proceed. They were trying everything, from color and new technologies, to much more typical 50s science fiction films. Pre-Godzilla as a franchise, it seemed like the guiding principle was to throw literally every idea at the wall to see what might stick.
What makes today’s movie so interesting, then, is that it was originally going to be produced specifically for American television, an hour-long kaiju feature that would be made for relatively cheap and work as an exclusive to the rapidly growing business of showing genre fare on TV. Toho went ahead with producing this version of the movie, only to have the American money back out while it was mostly done. Left with a lot of money dropped into monster design and effects shots, Toho went ahead and finished the movie, and gave us one of the more obscure entries in kaiju history.
A very rare specimen of butterfly, native only to Siberia, is spotted in the forests of Japan. Puzzled, a group of scientists heads into the unknown on an expedition along the unexplored Kitami River, only to end up coming across something offscreen that horrifies them seconds before it leads to their deaths. The police investigate and turn up no clues outside of a local legend the villagers have of an angry spirit of legend called Baradagi, who they pray to in hopes that they will be spared.
A bigger expedition, this time funded by a film company and containing several journalists, heads out into this region in order to solve the mystery of the Baradagi legend and figure out just what caused the deaths of the prior team. In doing so, they get warned multiple times by the locals, all wearing masks to try to scare off the scientists and press, but of course our intrepid heroes of rationality press on to the very source of the Kitami River. There, on the edge of the lake from which the river flows, they find the source of their problems: Varan!
Varan’s an interesting monster, being basically an amalgam of Godzilla and Anguirus, but without anything in the way of powers. He’s the second four-legged kaiju we’ve seen at this point, and even given the small budget and scope of Varan the monster itself is a massive improvement on the suits in Godzilla Raids Again. Varan’s much less bulky, naturally moves on both all fours and while standing on its hind two legs, and it looks great and gross, with its warty skin and giant single row of spikes coming out of its spine. Given this is one of the more obscure Toho kaiju, I feel like it’s a pretty memorable design, even if it’s essentially Godzilla-lite.
Varan, so named because it appears to be part of the ancient species of dinosaurs called Varanopidae by one of the scientists, emerges from the lake and chases the expedition all the way back to the village, which it proceeds to destroy in grand kaiju fashion. This is one of the first heavily forested kaiju scenes, something we’ll see more and more of in later films, and here Varan really stands out as an impressive monster. Watching it tear apart rocks and dig up mountains of dirt and trees to get at the hiding heroes is a highlight of the movie and feels radically different than the usual city-stomping you’d get in other kaiju movies.
Varan eventually destroys the village and then reveals its secret ability: it can fly utilizing skin flaps to glide, which it uses to get out of there and leave our heroes baffled about what they just saw. Heading back to Tokyo to report, they instantly begin building up an armed military response for if or when Varan decides to follow them. This being a kaiju movie, Varan doesn’t disappoint, soon spotted in the ocean swimming towards Tokyo. Even the navy and air force can’t do anything to stop it, as Varan simply swats jets out of the air and dives deep underwater to avoid the normal explosives that the military has. The ammo runs out before Varan’s patience does, and once again the monster heads for Tokyo.
It’s here that the movie becomes a more typical kaiju film, with the military trying to fight off the monster as it makes landfall. And here where the plot twist happens in grand Godzilla fashion, as one of the scientists was working on a new explosive for mining that might be able to kill Varan, but only if they could somehow penetrate its skin. Once they realize that Varan is attracted to flares and tries to eat them like giant fireflies, they attach the bomb to a parachute and a flare and have Varan swallow its own destruction, the explosion causing Varan to demolish a large chunk of the city in its death throes before it plunges back into the water never to be heard from again.
What’s interesting about Varan is just how much it feels like the formula of Godzilla laid bare, redone with a smaller budget and smaller scope but still something that works. A lot of it has to do with the movie being black and white, giving it a lot of the feel of the original movie, but with the added benefit of the advances in technology and adoption of a widescreen format. Compared to all the other kaiju movies, Varan looks great, sharp and full of shadows and with a great if under-used monster design at its core.
The problem, then, is that it’s basically another Godzilla movie without the big monster itself. In some ways, it feels more like a low budget Godzilla sequel than the actual Godzilla Raids Again does, which is meant as a compliment. But for a movie that’s supposed to have its own identity it struggles to be anything more than another one of those. A lot of that has to do with its modest origins, to be sure, but it’s also a problem with the increasing demands on these monsters to try to find new niches. And Varan is kind of a goofy monster, what with his random flight and lack of powers, not to mention the crazy scenes depicted in the pictures today where he’s waving at planes (no, not really, he’s trying to murder them) and creeping under the ocean (that one’s legit).
But honestly, I still think it’s a far more charming film than some of the ones of this era, without any of the moralizing and with a real sense of joy to the monster stuff. In some ways it feels like the first movie that is about the monster for the sake of the monster, just letting it be there and cool and do things that are fun to watch. And maybe that’s enough. Ultimately, I like to think it can be, when it’s done as well as this.
Zilla’s American Counterpoint
So remember when I said this was originally going to be on American TV? Well, eventually the US got a hold of this movie, but only after it was already made. And someone decided to go ahead and pull a Raymond Burr and shoot essentially an entirely new film about an American military scientist played by Myron Healey who encountered the monster while performing experiments at the lake. This movie managed to cut out nearly everything but the effects shots from the original, including the one flying shot and some of the Tokyo attack at the end.
It is supposedly really terrible, but sadly not included on the DVD I watched, and otherwise unavailable as far as I could tell. So just know that it exists, potentially somewhere in some bootleg form, and that I can’t imagine it’s anything other than hilarious garbage.
More importantly, for some reason Toho decided to go ahead and use the finished film to reconstruct the original TV version of Varan as it would have been, a pretty radical re-edit that shortens nearly everything in the movie and jams it all into a crazy jumble of compression. It’s a very strange curiosity, though it’s certainly not better than the original film, but it’s definitely a curiosity. It feels very much in the bad sci-fi vein, though, rife with overwrought narration and a lack of quiet beats that the original film was quite liberal with.
height: 50 meters
mass: 15,000 metric tons
origin: potential mutation of Varanus, or Monitor Lizard
- impervious skin
- gliding powers
- swallowing bombs