The other day I had commented on it being a long time since I had watched a Ray Harryhausen movie for this blog. Well, the same thing can be said for watching a Toho Studios kaiju film. Don’t get me wrong, Godzilla movies are pretty much my go to when I want something to watch or I am feeling down. When I started collecting the movies in the unedited Japanese, today’s movie was one of the first ones I bought off of eBay. However, the seller never sent it, or the other movies I ordered from him. A few weeks later, I found the English version at a video store and quickly snatched it up, but I knew that I still wanted the original Japanese version. Almost a year later, the seller finally responded to my emails, and negative feedback and reporting on eBay, and sent the movies I had bought from him. Flash forward several years later and the original Japanese version was released on DVD and I bought that, then had a friend record my English version VHS to DVD so that I could have both movies in an updated format. Now, let’s enjoy this Sunday morning with today’s movie, Varan The Unbelievable.
The plot: When a rare species of butterfly, thought to only exist in Siberia, is found by a vacationing student in Northern Japan, the university sends two members to the region called The Japanese Tibet to see if more can be found. The two men make their way through the mountain road and eventually reach a village but when they ask if it is Iwaya Village, the villagers all walk away. Thinking the villagers are simply scared of outsiders, the two men continue on and attempt to locate the lake the butterflies were found at. AS some strange tremors occur, they are forced to stop the car and notice a butterfly nearby but as they go to catch it, they hear a strange roar and a sudden gust of wind knocks them to the ground, just as a landslide crushes them. As the newspaper reports on the mysterious landslide, the villagers say that the men were killed by their god. Back at the university, Yuriko, the sister of one of the men that died, arrives to collect her brother’s things and questions Dr. Sugimoto about what happened to her brother. When he tells her they aren’t sure but a second expedition is being prepared to journey there, Yuriko says that she is a reporter and is planning on going there to discover the truth about what happened to her brother. When he learns she is going to be accompanied by another reporter, Motohiko, Kenji, one of Sugimoto’s assistants, asks permission to accompany her as well. The three head out towards Iwaya Village and as they get close, they are met by Gen, the son of the village priest, who tells them not to go any further or else their god, Baradagi. Hearing a roar coming from the lake, the boy warns them not to be seen or else Baradagi will eat them, then heads towards the village, with the three adults following behind him. When they reach the village, they find the priest leading the villagers in a prayer towards a statue that represents Baradagi, begging forgiveness for the people that invaded it’s privacy. When the priest spots the intruders, he tells them to leave or Baradagi will kill them like the other intruders. Kenji tries to reason with him, saying there is no way Baradagi really exists. Hearing another roar coming from the lake, Gen goes rushing off to locate his dog, who had run off, and the priest refuses to let his wife go after him. Kenji, Yuriko, and Motohiko decide to go looking for Gen but as a fog starts coming in off the lake, they get separated and Yuriko ends up getting lost. Kenji and Motohiko return to the village and try to convince the villagers to help search when Gen’s dog returns, carrying a note from Yuriko that Gen is safe. When the dog heads back into the fog, Kenji and Motohiko go after it, followed by several of the villagers. They eventually locate Yuriko and Gen and as Gen’s mother embraces him, they are shocked to see a giant, lizard-like monster emerge from the lake. Everyone heads back towards the village and orders an evacuation, getting everyone out of there but the priest refuses to leave, choosing to stay and pray for forgiveness and mercy but he ends up being killed by the monster as it proceeds to destroy the village. As the observe the creature destroy the village, Kenji says it is Varan and is surprised to see that it could still exist. Some time later, Dr. Sugimoto discusses Varan with members of the Self Defense Force, who are prepared to lead a military expedition to the lake and destroy Varan. As the military begins setting up, Motohiko and some other photojournalists make their preparations to take pictures of the encounter. After all of the preparations are made, the Defense Force begins firing chemicals into the lake, in the hopes that it will lure Varan out from the bottom of the lake. After 25 minutes pass, dead fish begin floating to the surface, followed shortly after by Varan, who makes his way to shore. The Defense Force begins their attack but their weapons have no effect on the monster and they are force to order a withdraw. As Varan gets closer, Kenji tells Yuriko to leave but as she makes her way through the jungle, a tree falls and traps her underneath it. When Kenji returns to the base camp and finds she hasn’t returned, he heads back out and eventually finds her. Managing to pull her from underneath the tree, they attempt to make their way back to the base camp but since Varan is close behind them, they are forced to take shelter in a cave. Motohiko, Sugimoto, and some members of the Defense Force go looking for them and see Varan clawing at the hillside, attempting to open the cave wide enough for him to reach Kenji and Yuriko. Realizing they have to distract Varan in order to save them, Sugimoto has the Defense Force fire some flares away from the cave to lure Varan away. The plan works and Kenji and Yuriko are able to escape the cave but as they rejoin the others, they look on in horror as Varan climbs up the mountain, then spreads out it’s arms, revealing a membrane connecting his limbs, and flies away from the lake and out towards the sea. As the Defense Force begins searching the ocean for any sign of Varan, a meeting is held and Sugimoto says there may be know way for them to kill Varan. After Varan sinks a fishing boat, the Defense Force attempts another attack, using jets to fire missiles at it but Varan manages to grab one of the planes as it flies too low and drags it into the water with it, destroying it. When Varan submerges under the water, the Defense Force use destroyers to locate it and renew the attack, reporting that Varan is making it’s way towards Tokyo. They then try to use a fleet of mine sweepers to try and seal off Tokyo Bay but Varan is easily able to make his way through them. Ordering an evacuation of Tokyo, the Defense Force prepares to engage Varan outside Haneda Airport, where it is most likely to make land. Dr. Fujimara, an associate of Sugimoto’s, says that he has some special explosives that he uses to clear rocks for dam construction which might be effective against Varan and he is asked to go get it. As Varan heads towards shore, the trucks with the explosives arrive and they are asked to drive the trucks towards the shore, but the drivers refuse. Kenji gets in one of the trucks and drives it towards Varan, getting out right before Varan reaches the truck, and quickly runs back to the others. Fujimara detonates the truck just as Varan is right above it and they believe it worked only for Varan to get back up and continue towards the city. As the Defense Force attempts to stop it, some jets flying over head drop some flares to try and lure it back out to sea. Seeing Varan swallow one of the flares, they come up with a plan to load the special explosives in bomb casings and drop them from a helicopter. The helicopter takes off and Varan swallows two of the bombs and one of them detonates inside it, severely injuring the monster. Varan crawls back into the sea and disappears from sight and shortly afterwards, the second explosion occurs and when no sign of Varan is spotted, they all believe they have finally destroyed him.
Almost any time that a Japanese kaiju film was distributed in America, the American studios would always make some changes to it; usually substituting some of the original music for some stock music from other movies or editing/cutting some scenes. However, when Varan was shown in the US, almost 20 minutes of footage had been cut, including all of the scenes where Varan is shown to fly away from the lake. Tt had been heavily edited to the point it was given a completely different plot. In the new plot, Commander James Bradley is sent to Japan to work on a desalinization project to convert salt water to fresh water. Setting up his experiments on one of the outlying islands, he asks for help evacuating the islanders but the military goes overboard in their eagerness, making for some bad PR for Bradley. As the experiments commence, they end up waking a giant monster that had been on the bottom of the lake. The monster goes on a rampage, destroying the village on the island and killing several of the villagers and soldiers, then making it’s way to the ocean. As the military works on trying to kill the creature, nothing seems to work. Bradley comes up with the idea of using his desalinization chemicals to attack the creature, Using flares to distract the monster, the chemicals are loaded onto a truck and driven out to where the monster is and detonated, causing a poisonous cloud to surround the monster, which roars out in agony before diving back into the sea and disappearing.
As much as I love kaiju movies, this one was honestly kind of generic. The acting was ok in the Japanese version but just weird in the English version. I liked the plot in the Japanese version of the movie much better than the English version. Not the bit about butterflies being the start of all this, but rather the whole focus on some of the rural, mountain villages in Japans held fast to their ancient beliefs and being challenged by more modern thinking and skepticism, which was a generational issue in Japan back then. As for the English version, that whole plot felt like a convoluted mess, as the English scenes honestly didn’t seem to mesh well with the original Japanese scenes. The special effects were ok and I did like the rather basic look for Varan, which actually made him appear as a more sinister monster than the earlier monsters of Godzilla, Anguirus, and Rodan. The one thing I honestly thought was weird about this movie is that it was shot in black & white, when Rodan, which was released 2 years earlier, was shot in color. Still, it’s a fun movie to watch, even though there isn’t as much mass city destruction to be seen.
Rating: (Japanese version ) 3 out of 5
(U.S. Version) 2 out of 5