Toho In America: Varan

Toho in America
A Critical Comparison between the Japanese and
American Versions of the Toho Fantasy Films

Daikaiju Varan (Giant Monster Varan)
Released October 14, 1958
Official Running Time: 86 minutes

Varan the Unbelievable
Released December 12, 1962 by Crown International
Running Time: 68 minutes

Formerly available on VCI Home Video

Analysis by Brian R. Culver
(Originally published in KAIJU-FAN Issue # 8 Spring 1998)

Legend has it that Toho’s fourth kaiju eiga (not counting Chikyu Boeigun, a.k.a. The Mysterians, which is more like a sci-fi film with a kaiju cameo) sprung into life at the request of an American production company. Although no one can recall the company’s name, it is known that they were interested in selling the film directly to American television. Age of the Gods author Guy Tucker suggests a possible affiliation with the American Broadcasting Company, while August Ragone (co-editor of the late Markalite magazine) has attached the similar sounding AB-PT Films, a small company behind the aborted attempt to turn Gojira no Gyakushu (Godzilla’s Counterattack, 1955. US title: Gigantis the Fire Monster, 1959. Current US TV/video
title: Godzilla Raids Again) into The Volcano Monsters, to this deal as well. Whatever the case, the road from conception
to the first incarnation as the Japanese film Daikaiju Varan and its subsequent, mutated American release as Varan the
Unbelievable (appropriately titled on so many levels) is both rocky and not well mapped.

What little is known of this evolution indicates a midstream shifting of gears and/or indecisiveness concerning the end product. The peculiarity of what was ultimately produced seems to substantiate this and in some ways the few facts, speculation and mystery concerning this evolution is far more interesting than the film(s) that resulted.  Toho policy at the time would have normally dictated that this film be shot in color and Tohoscope. With no plans for release in Japan (theatrical or otherwise), it made no sense to go to such an expense for a film made to be seen on black and white US television sets. Thus the film began production shot in the standard 1.33: I aspect ratio on black and white film stock.

Sometime in the midst of filming, two things happened, although it is not clear when or in what order. One was that the deal with the mysterious American company apparently fell through. The other is that it was decided that Daikaiju Varan would receive a Japanese theatrical release in Tohoscope. As a result all of the previously shot footage had to be re-cropped (similar to what had been done to the 1957 subtitled, Japanese theatrical release of Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the 1956 Americanization of Gojira [1954]), masking off portions of the top and/or bottom of the screen to get a narrower image. In an unusual attempt at honest advertising, the 1958 release of the film was billed as being in “Toho Pan Scope,” reflecting the fact that the film wasn’t all originally shot in the normal widescreen process.

Four years later, the US release of Daikaiju Varan debuted in the country for which it had originally been conceived under the  title Varan the Unbelievable, though the fact that the film is set in 1959 makes one wonder if it took awhile to sell or complete the project. But is it proper to call Varan the Unbelievable, which contains only about 30 minutes of footage (not “less than fifteen minutes,” as has been reported elsewhere) from Daikaiju Varan, a US release of a Japanese film? The credits reference Cory Productions and Dallas Films as making the film, which was released to theaters by Crown International. Although Cory and/or Dallas, company names which mean nothing today, could have been the mystery company (or companies?) that first approached Toho about the project, it is difficult to believe that the film in this form or its distributor Crown International, were part of the plan from its genesis.  Crown International, basically an American International Allied Artists wannabe, is an independent distrubutor/production company which is apparently still in business. Having existed for close to four decades, Crown has survived despite the fact that few of their films have gotten any attention, even in cult circles.  Other than Varan the Unbelievable, their most famous releases include Der Schweigende Stern (1959. US title: The First Spaceship on Venus, 1962), Nightmare in Wax (1966), Blood of Dracula’s Castle (with John Carradine, 1967) and, due to multiple showings on the USA Network’s Up All Night, Cavegirl (1985). Compared to the majority of Crown’s catalog, Varan the Unbelievable is a veritable “A” picture.

Varan the Unbelievable is unique among Japanese genre films released to America in that it truly is an entirely different film, as far away as one could get from the original production.  More accurately, it depicts an entirely new story written around usable footage from Daikaiju Varan, sharing only minimal similarities imposed by the need for the footage to make sense in the new scenario.  In order to adequately discuss the differences of the two films, it is necessary to briefly summarize the plots of both films.

Daikaiju Varan Synopsis:
Daikaiju Varan tells the story of a Tokyo scientific investigation of a small lakeside village in Northern Japan.  Despite the villagers’ warnings, the scientists and a reporter intrude upon the sacred ground of Baradagi, awakening the local mountain “god” which is in actuality a giant “Mesozoic dinosaur” dubbed “Varan” by the scientists. (Editor’s note: The name Varan is apparently taken from the Latin word, Varanus, which describes various species of monitor lizard including the Komodo Dragon. For this reason, we have chosen to refer to the monster as Varan and not Baran, as it is sometimes translated from Japanese.) Military attempts to stop Varan only result in annoying the creature, who continually retreats by either flying or swimming until finally coming ashore near Tokyo. Varan is finally defeated by being tricked into swal- lowing an experimental ultra explosive, which causes it to retreat underwater where it presumably dies in the explosion that follows.

Varan the Unbelievable Synopsis:
Set in the fictitious, Japan-controlled island of “Kunishiro Shima” (Kunishiro Island), Varan the Unbelievable documents the attempts of US Navy Commander James Bradley (Myron Healy) to test an experimental desalinization chemical in a lake. (Editor’s note: While the intended meaning is not known, the Japanese name Kunishiro can be translated to mean pure or untouched country.) The local “Koshutu” villagers, who depend on the lake for their livelihood, warn that the test will anger their god, “Obake” (a Japanese word for goblin or ghost, although the film insists that it means “prehistoric monster”). Sure enough, the test causes a giant monster to emerge who goes on a rampage until military force pushes the creature out to sea and finally towards “Onita,” Kunishiro Shirna’s only modem city. It is here that Obake is defeated by exploding a truckload of Bradley’s desalination chemical shells under it. Obake heads under water, where its final fate is a mystery.

As the above descriptions suggest, it is entirely impractical to compare and contrast the two versions of the film to the level of detail normally seen in “Toho in America.” The following will be a more general discussion of changes made. The emphasis will be on how the Japanese footage from Daikaiju Varan was adapted into Varan the Unbelievable and noting what the original film intended. Noteworthy deletions from the Japanese version will be mentioned as well, where appropriate. Also where appropriate, bold type will indicate footage exclusive to Daikaiju Varan

  • In lieu of the standard Toho Scope logo used during this era, Daikaiju Varanbegins with a unique variation. Based partly on the standard elongated bow-tie shaped Toho Scope logo, it reads “Toho Pan Scope,” the previously mentioned term acknowledging the partially cropped full screen footage. It appears in front of a stationary glittery backdrop instead of the usual rotating light beams radiating from the circular Toho mark.
  • The us version inexplicably begins with a precredit sequence, collecting shots mainly of people fleeing interspersed with scenes of de- struction which don’t reveal the nature of the threat. Some of these shots didn’t actually make it into the American version otherwise; one such shot is of an old woman (Fumiko Homma) screaming hysterically. Although convincing enough to pass for screams of horror at the destruction implied in this sequence, in the Japanese version the woman is actually yelling for her son to return from the sacred ground around Baradagi’s lake before angering the deity
  • The Japanese version credits begin with a slow zoom into the idol of Baradagi. As the close up shot on the idol becomes a still frame, the title comes up on the screen and then fades to black and into a series of shots of the lake over which the remainder of the Japanese credits play. The American version’s credits begin the same way except that the entire credit sequence plays against the still close-up of the idol. Incidentally, the onscreen American title represents the sole time the name Varan is used in the entire US version of the film. Also, Ifukube’s title theme has been replaced, as has been 99% of the original score. The similarities of the two openings contrasts with the remainders of both films, which differ so greatly.
  • Immediately following the credits, the Japanese version opens with a scene of a rocket launching. A narrator asks the audience, “Now that we are …solving the mysteries of outer space…let us not ignore the mysteries still to be explained on this Earth,” providing a transition to a laboratory, the story’s first actual setting. Seemingly out of place, this sequence is possibly a throwback to the film’s US television origins, intended to emulate similar expositions which began countless 50s sci-fi films, including the Americanization of some of Toho’s own films.
  • The Japanese version’s rocket scene is followed by a sequence in the laboratory of Dr. Sugimoto (Koreya Senda) where the biologist sets up the footage that follows by explaining that his assistants are hunting for butterflies in northern Japan. This footage is of note as it appears that Sugimoto is addressing the movie audience.
  • As indicated in the synopses, Daikaiju Varan’s northern Japan locale was changed to “Koshutu Village” on the Japanese occupied island of “Kunishiro Shima” in the American version. The island’s only modem city is “Onita, ” which is later represented by what is Tokyo in the Japanese version. This is established in an opening narration by the character Bradley; throughout the film, Bradley is either on screen or is narrating Japanese footage.  It is via these cinematic devices that the meaning of the Japanese footage is altered.
  • Brief scenes of natives chanting to Baradagi from Daikaiju Varan remain fairly intact (including Akira Ifukube’s chant melody) to depict the Koshutu natives praying to their god, “Obake.”  Guy Tucker has astutely noted that music editor Peter Zinner would perform similar chores on the Americanized Kingu Kongu tai Gojira ( 1962. US title: King Kong vs. Godzilla, 1963) where he would again throw out all of Ifukube’s score except for the native chants and associated melodies.
  • Scenes described by Bradley of government officials visiting Koshutu village are actually of Ichiro Shinjo (Hisaya Ito) and Yutaka Wada (Nadao Kirino) arriving at the northern Honshu village to look for rare butterflies similar to some found earlier in that area.
  • Several shots of the Japanese military mobilizing to attack Varan represent in the US version a reserve force sent to assist in the evacuation of the uncooperative Koshutu villagers from the lake. This oversized force is justified by Bradley’s observation that, “When the new detachment, ..arrived, they brought enough battle equipment to wage a small war …weapons I thought unnecessary to help us move a small village of natives.” This proves to be a critical US plot point as this incident causes the Japanese press to portray Bradley as a bully, prompting him to reverse his evacuation decision.  This conveniently places the villagers, military and the monster in the same place for later use of the Daikaiju Varan footage.
  • Daikaiju Varan’s biologist Kenji Uozaki (Kozo Nomura) and reporter Yuriko Shinjo (Ayumi Nomura) become “Paul and Shidori Aiso,” journalists with scientific backgrounds who happen to know both Bradley and his Japanese wife, Anna (Tsuruko Kobayashi).  It is through the off screen passing Bradley’s messages to this couple that they are to execute his plans at the film’s conclusion.
  • Japanese soldiers firing shells into the lake to provoke Varan become the method Bradley uses to deposit his desalinization chemical into the lake. How’s that for military intelligence?
  • Obake emerges from the lake and returns more than once for the US version, at least once before the monster is revealed. As there was apparently no acceptable Japanese footage to borrow for these sequences, they were achieved by dissolving from a still shot of the lake into a similar shot of the lake with water churning and vice versa to represent the creature returning.  A side effect of this clearly cheap effect is the complete change of the foliage and landscape during the dissolve, which oddly isn’t as obvious as one would expect.
  • As Obake, Varan’s roars were removed and replaced with a number of different monster sounds, from a series of deep guttural sounds to some odd high-pitched hisses. Numerous other sound effects were also replaced. All evidence suggests that the American production only had access to the original unseperated Japanese audio complete with dialog which further necessitated sound effects from other sources.
  • The US version superimposes explosion opticals over footage of Varan emerging from the lake while under fire. This technique allowed for better integration of Japanese footage of Varan in the lake from scenes before the military appears. This technique also seems strangely kindred to later footage from the depth charge attack where Eiji Tsuburaya superimposed overly transparent underwater explosions over dry-for-wet shots of Varan beneath the sea.
  • The US version superimposes flames over a shot of Varan climbing a hill, despite the fact that there were flames present in the original Japanese footage. This expense did payoff when the US version went to TV , however; the Japanese flame from the original widescreen composition is cropped off screen while the superimposed US flame is visible. The one problem with this effect is that it doesn’t extend the full height of the film image, so the flame suddenly ends in a straight line at the top and bottom of the screen!
  • In the most famous deletion from the Japanese version, Varan escapes the fire-ravaged lake area by extending web-like surfaces between his hands and legs which allow the monster to fly at supersonic speeds! While this concept was probably very “out there” at the time, more indicative of the “anything goes” approach later genre films would take, this deletion more than anything else in the American cut reduces Varan to merely a generic giant lizard.
  • Shots of Varan attempting to get at Kenji and Yuriko who are trapped in a cave are added to new footage to give the impression that Bradley, Anna and Captain Kishi (Clifford Kawada) are the ones trapped. In perhaps the US version’s most elaborate special effect, a matte shot depicts the trio in the cave looking at the monster’s hand (a fairly accurate, though stiff replica of Varan’s hand) as it digs at the cave entrance.
  • As Obake leaves the Koshutu village area for the open sea, Bradley and his companions get stranded in an area bearing a striking re semblance to California’s Bronson Canyon, which prevents their physical presence at the center of action for the remainder of the film. They keep in contact via a radio which keeps them abreast of everything that the Japanese footage is being used to represent. So that we don’t forget Bradley and company are still in the film, we keep cutting back to them. These transitions are largely achieved via an optical in which a Japanese scene slides horizontally off screen as a US scene replaces it. The opposite is also done to resume the Japanese footage.
  • Most of the sequences of Varan at sea play out in similar but abbreviated form in the American version. A few notes of an Ifukube’s march can be heard during a shot of an officer giving the order to launch depth charges. The shot is silent except when the man speaks, where the music along with his voice from the original Japanese sound track can be heard.
  • Because of the way the American ending has been rewritten (which will be discussed shortly) the footage of Varan receiving his death blow via swallowed parachute-delivered explosives has been moved to earlier in the film. Also, footage of jets firing has been inserted between the scenes of Varan swallowing the explosives and the subsequent explosion followed by the monster writhing in pain, making it appear as though it was the missiles that delivered the staggering but apparently non-fatal blow to the creature.
  • The US version does Obake in by employing footage from the Japanese version that depicts the first unsuccessful attempt to kill Varan by driving a truck full of experimental explosives directly underneath him. To explain the scene and the presence of Kenji and Yuriko…er, I mean Paul and Shidori, it was established earlier that Bradley had gotten a message through to the Onita military to use his chemical to defeat Obake; he explains that “they can be launched to fire like any other shell” and instructs them that Paul is familiar with the devices. With the footage of Varan heading out to sea following this scene, it appears as though this was what stopped the creature. In a deviation to the Japanese version that Toho themselves would employ in later years, the US version leaves Varan’s final fate a mystery as the footage of him exploding in the water has been removed.

Despite the differences in the two versions of the film, there seems to be evidence that either writer Sid Harris or  director/producer Jerry A. Baerwitz at least saw Daikaiju Varan, as there are similar elements to both films which transcend the need to make the Japanese footage fit. Both films have false scare scenes early on which feature a Japanese boy donning a ceremonial Japanese mask. In both films, the monster is unleashed because the worldly, educated lead characters fail to heed the warnings of superstitious locals. Lastly, the monster is destroyed in both films via some type of experimental compound.
Varan the Unbelievable stands out hands down as the worst Americanization of a Japanese film ever. At least Half Human, the 1958 American version of Jujin Yukiotoko (Abominable Snowman, 1955), stuck to the original story and kept enough of Ishiro Honda’s footage to get a sense of the original film. Varan the Unbelievable, on the other hand, appears to have been conceived with the intention of using the Japanese footage in as different a way as possible than what director Honda and screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa intended, while still making some kind of sense in the new story. Based on the end result, it’s not surprising that neither Toho nor anyone involved in the Japanese production objected to having their names removed from Varan the Unbelievable…unbelievable is right!

As rarely seen as Varan the Unbelievable is in the US, Daikaiju Varan was even rarer in Japan until its almost canceled 1987 video release. Depiction of the Baradagi-worshipping natives as deformed Ainu stereo-types, similar to those which plagued Jujin Yukiotoko, caused Ainu pressure groups to protest the release. A compromise was arrived at when Toho deleted the offensive footage. As a result, the actual Japanese running time now rounds out closer to 85 minutes than Toho’s official running time of 86 minutes.

Varan the Unbelievable was first released on US home video in the 1980s by Video Communications, Inc. under their United  Home Video label. As part of their “Le Bad Cinema” series, the tape began with a mock warning which stated that the film’s content might insult the viewer’s intelligence or result in groans of disbelief.  VCI reissued the tape in 1994 under their VCI Home Video label, this time as part of their “Dinosaurs, Dragons and Monsters” collection. The transfer is better on the newer tape, though both versions appear to be from the same used 16mm TV print source material. Since local stations would place a mark on the film (resembling a theatrical reel change mark) wherever a commercial was to be inserted (even if one was already there), it appears as if someone took a machine gun to the film where multiple stations wanted to put a commercial in the same place!

Editor’s Note: Media Blasters, a division of Sony, released the original Japanses version in May of 2005 on DVD.  the film is presented in it’s original Japanese featuring English sub-titles.

Guy Tucker, Age of the Gods, Daikaiju Publishing, 1996
Horacio Higuchi, The Travelling Monster Hunter, column Monster International, 1992

Article © 1998, 2005 Brian R. Culver/Daikaiju Publishing.