There may be a reason that Varan doesn’t guest star in a Godzilla movie until 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, and even then, it’s via stock footage. The movie in which he stars, Daikaiju Baran (1958), is definitely a weak link in Toho’s chain of giant monster classics. Arriving fifth (after Gojira, 1954; Godzilla Raids Again, 1955; Rodan, 1956; and The Mysterians, 1957), it’s one of the original darker, more serious efforts, but doesn’t have enough fun with a goofier creature.
Tohokingdom.com lists Varan’s “powers/weapons” as a gliding flight of Mach 1.5, head and back horns, and sharp claws and fangs. He’s described as 50 meters high, and weighing 15,000 tons, so his height and weight are really his deadliest weapons. Crawling on all four legs through the Japanese jungle, he doesn’t seem to be more than what one of the characters calls him: “a big lizard.” However, when he rears up on his hind legs, it’s another story.
Varan is cute when he’s wreaking havoc. He turns around in circles like a dog rooting in a blanket before plopping down on top of a building, or knocking it over with his tail. He’s sort of a cross between Godzilla and Gamera, with a soft shell that looks like is breathing, the sides rising and falling in rhythm. Perhaps that’s what generates the high winds that nearly knock down people whenever he’s near.
When Varan climbs the top of a hill, rises up and spreads his arms, we see “skins” under his armpits that stretch from forearm to waist. It reminds me of classic Spider-man when he had webbing under his arms (or a flying squirrel.) Considering gliding at Mach 1.5 is his marquee power, it’s a shame we see him soaring into the sky only once. He prefers to swim to Tokyo rather than fly when he makes his obligatory voyage.
More a shame than Varan, though, is the movie itself. Apparently, it was intended as a television show, but for some reason was extended in length for a theatrical release. It feels padded. Scenes are repetitive and stretch on and on. I think the heavily edited American version, Varan the Unbelievable, released four years later in the United States and running nearly 20 minutes shorter, might be a less tedious experience (although I haven’t seen it.)
You know how sometimes in a giant monster movie, there are actual subplots about the characters? Sometimes they seem silly and you just want to get to the death and destruction. Well, Daikaiju Baran could use a subplot. The closest thing is that the sister of one of the first two men killed by the monster tags along for the adventure. It’s not because she is necessarily sad or vengeful, though. It’s because she’s a newspaper photographer wanting to get pictures.
The focus of the little plot that’s present revolves around how to kill Varan. In long, talky sequences, the scientists and military strategists speculate about the unknown physical characteristics of the creature and repeat the discussion when each method they devise ends up failing. This is common; I’m sure I’ve seen it before. It’s actually less boring than the extended battle scenes. We get it, nothing’s going to stop him.
Daikaiju Baran is an anomaly for writer Shin’ichi Sekizawa, director Ishiro Honda, and composer Akira Ifukube, who have all done much better work. Ifukube fares worst here; his rousing war march while planes and ships are firing upon Varan is annoyingly out of place. They seem to be straddling middle ground between dark, early successes like Gojira and Rodan, before learning the right mix of horror and humor that would later propel the series forward.
Written by Shin'ichi Sekizawa
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Starring Kozo Nomura, Ayumi Sonoda, Koreya Senda, Akihiko Hirata
Released October 14, 1958 (Japan)
RT 87 min.