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 ), 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
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.