A couple of years ago, Cinema Fearité made the observation that the monsters that were made famous by the Toho Co. Ltd. Kaiju movies were like The Avengers, even venturing so far as to say that the mighty Godzilla would be Toho’s Iron Man, and Rodan is like their Captain America. If all of that is true, then the star of 1962’s Varan the Unbelievable would be one of the less appreciated heroes, someone like Hawkeye or Quicksilver.
Varan the Unbelievable is about an American scientist named James Bradley (Myron Healey from The Incredible Melting Man) who, along with his fellow scientist and wife, Anna (Cry for Happy’s Tsuruko Kobayashi), has figured out a way to desalinate a Japanese lake by using an experimental chemical. The residents of a village on the shore of the lake beg him not to go through with his plan, claiming that the process will awaken a monster that lives in the water. Even Anna, who is local to the region, tries to convince Bradley to use a different lake, but he goes ahead with his plans anyway; with the cooperation of a military unit under the command of Captain Kishi (Clifford Kawada from Suicide Battalion), Bradley drops depth charges into the lake that release his desalinating agent. Sure enough, the disturbance in the water awakens Varan, a giant prehistoric reptile, who rises from the lake and destroys everything in his path. Bradley, Anna, and Kishi have to stop the beast before he brings his reign of terror to Tokyo.
One of Toho’s more obscure Kaiju movies, Varan the Unbelievable was initially a joint production between Japan and the United States, with the bill being split between Toho and ABC. ABC pulled out just before production started, and Toho decided to finish the film on its own. In many ways, Varan the Unbelievable is a fairly standard Toho monster movie, with a gigantic beast rising up and wrecking cities until the humans can figure out how to stop him, but, as a character, Varan never really caught on. Although Varan shows up in the background of other Toho movies, most notably in the all-star monster movie Destroy All Monsters, he never reached the same pinnacle of success as the rest of his Kaiju brethren.
Like many other Toho movies, there are two versions of Varan the Unbelievable: a Japanese one and an American one. The original, known by its Japanese title of Dakaijû Baran, was made in 1958 and directed by Toho veteran Ishirô Honda (who made virtually all of the important Toho films). The original screenplay, written by Shin’ichi Sekizawa (who wrote many of the important Toho films) and Ken Kuronuma (who only wrote one other, but it’s a biggie – Rodan), has no desalinization plot, instead beginning with the disappearance of a pair of scientists who were searching for a rare butterfly. That disappearance prompts the dispatch of a search party which ends up discovering Varan. American director Jerry A. Baerwitz went the Godzilla route; an English-language screenplay was commissioned from Sid Harris (“Miami Undercover”), a few American actors were cast in key roles, a handful of new scenes were shot, and the original film was completely re-edited and musically re-scored to fit the new Americanized story.
Although the footage of the monster in the American Varan the Unbelievable was all culled from the Japanese original, the beast did undergo a few changes between the films. First of all, despite his name being the title of the film, the monster is never referred to as Varan in the American version of the film; during the scant few times his name is mentioned, the creature is called Obake, which is a Japanese term for a shape-shifter (although the movie says it means “prehistoric reptile”). Varan also lost his ability to fly between the two movies; the Japanese Varan would spread some umbrella-like wings and glide from place to place, while the American version would simply walk or swim to get around. Appearance and behavior-wise, Varan himself is a cross between Gamera and Godzilla, sometimes walking on two legs like a T-Rex, and other times dropping down onto all fours in order to use his back shell for protection like an Ankylosaur. In short, the titular creature in Varan the Unbelievable is fairly typical of a giant reptilian Toho monster.
The visual effects in Varan the Unbelievable are also typical of a Toho monster movie; the big fella is brought to life by a stuntman (Katsumi Tezuka, who also donned the original Godzilla costume) in a rubber monster suit stomping around on a miniature set. The destruction footage in Varan the Unbelievable looks even more like a kid tossing his G.I. Joes around the backyard than the average Toho production; the film features tons of tanks, planes, jeeps, and even soldiers getting flipped, thrown, and crushed into oblivion by feet, claws, and tails. Some segments even borrow footage from previous monster movies (most noticeably Godzilla) in an effort to fill in gaps of destruction without breaking the bank. Part of the charm of Toho monster movies is how endearingly cheap they look, and Varan the Unbelievable is as charmingly frugal as they come.
It’s kind of a bummer than Varan never got over as well as the other monsters, because he’s a pretty fun little character. Who knows, with the current resurgence of Godzilla, maybe the Little Kaiju That Could will finally find his way into the pop culture vernacular. However, even if he doesn’t, fans will always have Dakaijû Baran and its American counterpart, Varan the Unbelievable.