4 June 2005 | BrandtSponseller
Veers from decent to 'so bad it's good' to bad
Before I get into the review proper and upset everyone who loves this film, it might help to say a word about the various versions. "Daikaijû Baran (1958)" is the original Japanese version. It has recently been released on DVD, by Tokyo Shock in May 2005, but under the title "Varan The Unbelievable (1962)", which has its own listing on IMDb.
This is bound to cause a lot of confusion, as "Varan the Unbelievable" was an American-produced adaptation, similar to the American adaptation of the original Godzilla (Gojira, 1954). Varan was originally to be a joint US/Japanese production, but that deal fell through. Toho, the Japanese production company also responsible for Godzilla and many other infamous monsters, went ahead and made Varan anyway. A few years later, the American version was produced, with a different title and with additional material directed by Jerry A. Baerwitz.
How do you know what version you watched? Well, the American version is 70 minutes long, has an American actor, Myron Healey, and a plot about trying to desalinize water. The Japanese film is about 90 minutes long, has no American actors, and Varan (or "Baran") makes his first (offscreen) appearance when a couple of scientists from Tokyo make a trip to a remote, mountainous village to research the sighting of a butterfly previously only known to exist in Siberia. The Japanese version also has a different musical score, but since music is a bit difficult to describe well in words (other than technically), that's not a great way for most folks to tell which version they've watched.
To make matters even more confusing, the Tokyo Shock DVD also has a truncated Japanese television version of Daikaijû Baran, clocking in at about 50 minutes, which dispenses with both the desalinization and the butterfly plots. Also, at least some people have reported seeing a color version of the film. I don't know which version that would be, but the Tokyo Shock DVD has the original, black & white widescreen Japanese version from 1958.
So, Daikaijû Baran is the film with the butterfly plot, and that's what I'm reviewing here. It's too bad that it doesn't have more of a butterfly plot, perhaps, or just more of a plot in general, because one of the major faults of Daikaijû Baran is shallowness and a general ineffectiveness of the little plot there is. After the initial scientists head off to the remote village, which happens to worship Varan as a God--the villagers call him "Baradagi"--they quickly get squashed. Once news of this gets back to Tokyo, the scientists send out another team to investigate, and they relatively quickly find the monster.
From there, the film "evolves", if you want--I would say devolves--into a stock Godzilla plot. Perhaps that's surprising given that Daikaijû Baran was made only a couple years after the first Godzilla, but it's a stock Godzilla plot nonetheless. That means that Baran/Varan lumbers around, basically killing time, while the humans try escalating-but-silly, military-based means of fighting him, which all have no effect, at least not until they have to because the film has to end.
For me, the opening, the stuff set in the village and everything up until shortly after we first see Varan all has great promise. I was engaged in the story, I was getting into director Ishirô Honda's atmosphere, and I was enjoying Akira Ifukube's score--the music that accompanies the titles is particularly sublime.
But then it seems like most of that interesting stuff is abandoned (even the fun fact that Varan flies is just dropped after one scene), and three-quarters of the film feels like aimless padding.
It's often funny aimless padding. Of course there is the usual guy-in-a-rubber-suit factor. My wife and I amused ourselves by playing a game seeing who could shout out the "mode" of each shot the fastest. The choices were "studio (standing in for exteriors)", "toys/models", "stock footage", and "real". "Real" meant that Toho actually ponied up for exterior, full-scale shots of exteriors. The challenge has to be who can call the "mode" the quickest, because there's no challenge in spotting the mode at a leisurely pace. Honda makes it very conspicuous when he's switching from "real" tanks to toys, for example, because the toys look like little plastic things with little, fake, immobile people in them. It's a great way to exercise your imagination--you have to work hard to pretend that this stuff could be real, rather than just cinematography of little toys being pulled along by wires. But it's also very funny.
I'm not sure why the military attacks on the monsters in some of these films are shown to be so incompetent. We see Varan lumbering towards models of the Tokyo Airport, then we see the model tanks and guns shooting at him, but the paths of the bullets, missiles and such almost form random patterns across the frame. If they were trying to aim, they wouldn't be able to hit the broad side of a barn if it were as big as China.
In a way, Honda and his screenwriters seem to be trying to state something metaphorical/subtextual about war, and specifically about World War II and Japan's experience in it. This is supported by the fact that most of Ifukube's score consists of military marches, and a lot of the film could be seen as (a satire of?) propaganda for the Japanese military. But aside from the metaphor of an approaching monster from the sea that's going to destroy Japan, and having to fight it from within, what Honda and his crew seem to be primarily saying is that the Japanese military is incompetent.
In any event, it doesn't make for a particularly good film, although it's worthwhile for die-hard Kaiju fans, those interested in the technical aspects (there's a great special effects documentary and commentary on the Tokyo Shock DVD), and those who want to laugh at the film.