Varan The Unbelievable – 1962, Ishiro Honda – Japan


Poor Varan. Turns out Big Papa Toho did not create all his Kaiju equal. Like Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra, Varan, yet another giant, spikey lizard (but with flying squirrel flaps!), was introduced to the world in his very own standalone movie; and like his three, more fortunate comrades, he got the royal treatment. His name was the title of the movie, he didn’t share the stage with any other monsters, and in his film, he was depicted as being a near invincible force of prehistoric fury which threatened all of Japan, if not the world. This is pretty boiler plate kaiju contract stuff. However; whereas Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan went on to enjoy decade spanning careers full of glorious mayhem, Varan fast faded into relative obscurity. In fact, the only time I remember seeing him again was in Destroy all Monsters, and even then, he was basically downgraded to the Kaiju equivalent of an extra. he didn’t even fight anybody. Fucking Gorosaurus got more love than Varan! What went wrong?!

THE PLOT~ when two scientists are mysteriously killed in a remote area of Japan while on an expedition to capture butterflies (really!) the brilliant decision to dispatch three additional scientists to the exact same area is made without haste. Lo and behold, our new team of scientists discover that the superstitious locals believe these killings to have been done by their god, who is, no surprise, an angry monster. This primitive belief is instantly belittled and dismissed by our scientists, who go on to immediately awaken, and subsequently irritate the shit out of that very monster, who then destroys the village real hard. Our dickhead scientists then go back to their big, monster-free city and tell everybody about this creature, who they have named Varan, and Japan says “What’s that you say? A living dinosaur? The most miraculous living creature on Earth? We better go kill that.” So, a bunch of Army dudes descend on the rubble that was once a peaceful Japanese village out in the middle of nowhere and try their damndest to kill what is quite possibly the rarest creature on the planet. While they fail to kill Varan at this time, they are succesful in pissing him off- wildly succesful, in fact. Varan, no longer enjoying his living situation now that the lake he slept in is poisoned and cannon shells seem to be impacting against his head constantly, gets the hell out of there and travels to Tokyo for absolutely no reason. The Japanese, refusing to take “Please don’t kill me” for an answer, assemble their top scientists for Plan B- the focus of which is still killing the hell out of Varan because he is very large and not shaped like a person- a crime they cannot pardon. A new plan is formulated and put into effect, and Varan suffers. Victory!

So, just why exactly did Gojira, Mothra, and Rodan go off with such a glorious bang, while Varan goes off with a muted, humiliated frump? Well…

Varan feels cheap, for one thing- low budget, and crummy. firstly, there were apparently more than one Varan costumes used, and they are of inconsistent quality. That’s a problem, but it’s far from the only area where the producers seemed a little penny-conscious; the underwater sequences are especially flimsy and look devastatingly swimming-pool-like. I don’t think this is what killed the film, however. Budgetary shortcomings can be overlooked, and monsters can be embraced even if they begin their lives as poorhouse kaiju. For Varan, his movie suffers greatly from its simplicity more than anything. It feels underdeveloped and rushed, right off the bat, it’s evident that this is a much more linear, Point A to Point B style monster movie than Gojira, Mothra, or Rodan were. This is 100% the truth, and it sucks.

It’s just so one dimensional! It never really takes the time to breathe or invest in its characters. Every time Varan goes on a rampage the tension is actually actively removed by frequent visits over to the sidelines, where numerous onlookers, mostly scientists, reporters, and military personnel, just hang out and watch the chaos, apparently not at risk of getting Varraned. To be frank, this is a bone-headed mistake, it makes this monster mayhem feel alarmingly safe, and in the end the black and white photography does more to make Varan feel gloomy than the actual on-screen smashing.

Varan’s simplicity is, however, most devastating in it’s tendency to dole out the what, while totally skipping over the why. That’s the greatest folly of Varan; gone entirely from it’s composition is the element of introspection which we had come to take for granted in Toho’s monster films. This thing could have carried the alternative title “SCIENTISTS ARE DICKS: THE MOVIE.” That’s the real moral, and it’s a moral that appears to be lost on Varan’s narrative altogether. This movie totally glosses over the undeniable guilt of the film’s scientists, who are responsible for everything bad that happens in this film, start to finish. It’s not ever even suggested that they could be guilty of anything whatsoever, and damn, they’re super, super guilty, in a big way. I wanna take you through a scene:

When the second group arrives at the remote village near Varan’s den, the same village that is soon after destroyed by Varan, there is a conflict of sorts between the town’s religious leader and Kenji, the lead scientist who has come to investigate what has happened to his colleagues. Essentially; it plays out like this:

Kenji: ‘Sup? Heard you guys think there’s a monster. That’s so stupid- there isn’t!

Priest: …Well, we’re pretty sure there is-

Kenji: That’s stupid!

Priest:…Well, okay, just listen, please, don’t go over there into that area you guys, okay? It’s kind of a big deal for us-


<Barges in, instantly piss off monster>

Kenji: Oh, looks like he is real.

<monster completely destroys village and everything inside it>

Kenji: Well, we’re going back to Tokyo where we have electricity and McDonalds, have fun dying in the wilderness without food or shelter, you fucking assholes.


For real, that’s the bare bones of how that plays out. These people show up, immediately disrespect the locals, blatantly defy their rules, they heed no warnings because they think they know better, and then when they wake up Varan, they just bounce, and the only people left to bare the weight of the consequences are the poor villagers, who are first treated like idiots and then go on to lose absolutely everything, insult AND injury. The fate of these people is never again addressed or considered, and no amount of shame is directed at the scientists who actually provoked the attack in the first place. They appear to forget about these human lives that they’ve destroyed immediately, and move onto the task killing this creature for no reason at all. It’s this attack that drives Varan out of his ultra-remote home and into highly a populated metropolitan area, as well, so it’s actually so, so obvious that this is another hubris story, but I honestly think the film fails to recognize this. It’s never explored or stated, they really just follow it along in a startlingly two dimensional fashion, and I think this is the biggest reason Varan failed to gain traction, and ultimately, could not help establish Varan himself as a monster with a future in the film industry. This is the Toho picture that rushed out a statement before it even knew what that statement was; and it’s not even a new statement. In fact, it’s so overt, that the argument could be made that this isn’t even hubris, so much as a simple lesson in morality. “Don’t be a dick” is another moral very present in Varan, but it too is not acknowledged or expressed in a conscious way by the movie itself. It’s kinda nuts.

This is a real minimalist, cut and dry monster movie that fails to give us a reason to feel anything about what we experience within it’s narrative. Frankly, it’s bellow average. Varan suffers from terminal simplicity, and because of this, his future is a bleak, bleak thing. It’s too bad, he seems like an okay guy.


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The Mysterians!!!

The Mysterians – 1957, Ishiro Honda – Japan


In the eleven years between 1964 and 1975 we saw seven (SEVEN) Godzilla films with essentially the same plot; aliens (or, in the case of Godzilla Vs Megalon, an ancient, futuristic society from the bottom of the ocean, same deal) show up and try to conquer Earth. At first they act like they’re out interplanetary pals, but then they bust out a giant monster, which they control, and start acting like real dicks. Fun fact; unbeknownst to me until NOW, the blueprint for this scenario predates Ghidorah The Three Headed Monster; it goes back at least as far as The Mysterians, in 1957, which is essentially the same idea, but without Godzilla. Yeah, it’s not a very original idea in the first place.

poster5 mysterians bfi dvd cover

THE PLOT~ A highly advanced race of aliens arrive in rural Japan and set up shop, invasion style. These aliens, all of whom look like they should be piloting a damn Voltron or something, claim that they mean us no harm; they just need a place to crash for a while, and they’d really appreciate us being cool about it. PLUS, they want to bang our Earth ladies. So, hopefully we’re into that.

We’re not. Earth maybe would have been cool with them chilling here for a while, but banging Earth ladies is well over the line, and so, plans to kill every last Mysterian are immediately put into development by every organized government on the planet. They all have to die, every damn one of them.

It turns out that reaction was warranted, because, of course, The Mysterians are all assholes and they plan to conquer the Earth after all. The small area of land they’ve taken is being transformed into some kind of Spacebridge, or something, and it becomes important that we manage to stomp out their efforts before construction is complete. The advanced technology the Mysterians wield makes this difficult, but we figure it out and eventually the invasion is repelled. Hooray! Go die in the cold reaches of space, you sons of bitches.

My take on The Mysterians is a mixed one. Apparently, the film was regarded as being quite well done at the time of it’s release, but without that perspective, it’s hard to know how to look at The Mysterians in a fair way. My honest, gut reaction is that time hasn’t been very kind to this movie. We heard this story so many times during the Showa era that it leaves this early effort feeling unremarkable, and it’s difficult to remember that this one predates the many superior versions we’ve already enjoyed. The Mysterians feels like a rough draft of an idea, and it’s just not done well enough to make this the movie you want to see when so many superior variations are available to you.

Additionally, right or wrong, to me, Godzilla somehow feels exempt from the B-movie stigma that would normally be attached to an alien invaders/giant monster movie. His contributions to pop culture somehow earn him a pass, but without Big Green on board, Mysterians can’t claim this same exemption; it feels every bit as hokey and dated as the American saucer and spaceman films of the 1950’s, even with Ishiro Honda and the supremely talented Takashi Shiumra attached to the project.

The special effects are another problem; they further date and cheapen the production quite drastically. Taking into account the limited technology of the era, it is again difficult to assess this in a fair way, but regardless, it’s impossible for more modern eyes not to notice the clumsy use of blue screen and assorted other gaffs. The miniatures look quite nice, as is the case with most Toho productions, but Mogera, the giant, mechanical monster deployed by the Mysterians early in the picture, looks obnoxiously shoddy. Successful neither in design, nor execution, Mogera looks exactly like a man stumbling about in a costume made largely of spray painted cardboard boxes, which has the potential to be hilarious, if that’s what you’re looking for.

moge-01He is the doofus of the kaiju world.

Mogera turns up again in the Heisei era during the events of Godzilla Vs Spacegodzilla. Somehow he sucks much, much less in that movie.

But are we being too hard on The Mysterians? After all, it’s enjoyable enough, it’s certainly ambitious (jam packed with effects shots from start to finish) and it’s nearly sixty years old! If we’re being fair, the movie is probably fairly impressive when put against other films from that era, and it’s not really that The Mysterians is a bad film, it’s just not as good as Toho’s output in the following years… But this IS an earlier effort. Last word: The Mysterians is interesting, and fun for the completist, but if you’re a more casual movie goer, this just isn’t a Must-See.


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Rodan ~ 1956, Ishiro Honda – Japan


Holy smokes, yes.

Rodan is a favorite of mine going way back. This is his/her/their first appearance, dating way back to the pre-Mothra days of 1956, and it holds up pretty darn well for the most part. With the possible exception of the ultra-grim Gojira, and the deliriously funky Godzilla Vs Hedorah, this is also one of the darker, scarier films in the entire expanded Godzilla universe, which is for sure cool. Rodan is also apparently Toho’s first Kaiju film to be shot in color, but it doesn’t feel overly vibrant or gimmicky, the palette is mostly browns, reds, and Earth tones. It’s just like Honda to use the fanciest new toy available such in a reserved, controlled fashion.

THE PLOT~ When a series of bizarre murders strikes a small, rural mining community at the base of Mt. Aso in Japan, rumors begin to spread that Goro, a missing miner with a reputation for hard fightin’, had gone all My Bloody Valentine on his colleagues and was currently hiding out deep within the chambers of the mine to escape the watchful eye of the law. Goro’s sister Kiyo is pretty upset when every person in town throws her brother under the bus like crazy, and her boyfriend Shigeru does his best to console her, but really, what do you say when your girlfriend is down in the dumps because her brother is wanted for viciously mutilating his coworkers? I had a hard time turning it all around when I took my ex-girlfriend to a Vietnamese restraint that we didn’t know was closed on Sunday. This task is doomed to fail.

Well, as it turns out, Shigeru gets lucky, because the real killer turns up and attacks them both inside Kiyo’s own home, and it sure as hell ain’t Goro. No, actually, it’s an enormous, menacing insect, the size of a damn Grizzly bear, so that really changes the course of the evening pretty drastically. “Good news, honey, you brother’s good name has been cleared! The bad news is that the last thing he saw before he died was the pincher end of this fucking abomination as it lacerated the shit out of him in the cold, dark tunnels of the mine he was confined to for most of his adult life. But again, very few people probably still think he was a murderer, so that’s the silver lining here.”

Rodan 2069825_jpg

Soon, the people of this small village discover that in fact there are dozens, if not more, of these giant insects currently living deep inside the mine, and this is a problem the really kind of have to deal with right away. After participating in an offensive strike against these monster potato bugs, Shigeru is lost inside the mine and presumed eaten. Next, a bunch of scientists pow wow to try and figure out what the hell is up, and predictably, they learn that these bugs are prehistoric somehow. Japan had a real bumper crop of prehistoric monsters reemerging back in the mid twentieth century.

Speaking of …! Around this time, the entire planet starts getting divebombed by some super fast, highflying UFO that has been horrifying the shit out of everyone, tearing up any plane that tries to chase it down, and causing sonic booms which have badly damaged several cities. Nobody knows it yet, but this object is actually Rodan, or Rodans, because there are two of these critters. But just what is a Rodan? A damn giant pterodactyl, that’s what- but they fly much too fast for anyone to get a decent look at them. At this point, most people assume Rodan to be some sort of craft, a theory supported by the fact that they seems to leave a vapor trail behind him/her while in flight… Which… Like, what is that? That’s… That’s gross, actually. It’s gotta be monster farts. Rodan has no engine.

So, back at Mt. Aso, our scientists make another startling discovery; Shigeru is alive after all, but he’s dazed as hell and wandering around the mountain like a freaking zombie. They grab him and take him in for hospitalization, and initially he seems to be suffering from total amnesia. When he regains his memory, he drops some serious shit on everybody- apparently he blacked out after the attack on Potato Bug base, and when he came to, he was in a huge cavern somewhere deep within the mine, just in time to see Rodan hatch. The horror he experiences is so great that he temporarily loses his mind, which is totally H.P. Lovecraft status. Cool.

Once Rodan is identified, the rest of the movie is mostly about trying to kill them, which is all pretty straight forward, until the end of the film. See, at this point, Rodan is little more than a winged retread of the same material Gojira explored two years earlier, but the movie distinguishes itself from it’s predecessor in a few key ways, all of which are really driven home in the film’s climax.

Firstly, Rodan is never shown to be quite as horrible as Godzilla. In Gojira/Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the metaphor is clear- this monster represents atomic warfare, he is an evil man hath wrought, and now the hens have come home to roost. In Rodan, the atomic bomb thing really isn’t as cut and dry- the idea that atomic weapons may have been responsible for waking Rodan up is certainly presented, but it’s not as fact- it’s more like “Hey, how is Rodan not dead like he should be?” To which, the answer given is “I dunno. H-bomb? We’re all screwed, though.” Without the direct and implicit ties to nuclear war, Rodan sort of comes across more like an agent of our mistreated environment. For one thing, these animals are freshly hatched- so all the zooming around and flapping at buildings is more a case of children at play than the deliberately destructive monster tantrums Godzilla is known for. The finale takes this concept even further; get ready for a major buzz kill:

At the climax of the movie, our Anti-Rodan team formulates a strategy whereby explosives are used to trigger a volcanic eruption in Mt. Aso. The locals are horrified because of the damage this will do to the environment and surrounding settlements, but the military flatly declares this a necessary compromise and pushes forward with the idea. As the two sibling monsters snooze peacefully inside their cavernous nests, Japan detonates their bombs, and indeed, Aso does erupt, but not before the twin Rodans can escape. However, apparently overcome by smoke, one of the monsters tumbles down into a river of lava, and the other Rodan, apparently much more sentimental than the monsters we are used to dealing with, chooses to join it’s sibling, and willingly lands next to it, thereby committing kaiju suicide… Both monsters die, engulfed in flames, and not at all in the bitter, violent battle we expected… Which… Honestly, is sort of heavy, and probably made all the army dudes feel like serious dicks.


In the end, Rodan manages to pull the old switcheroo on us, and leaves us feeling like we’re the real monsters, who overstepped our bounds, could not deal with the consequences, and rather than learning to live in harmony with the surroundings we have created, we choose to suppress, exploit, and kill that which doesn’t suit us, and it’s not fair. This gives Rodan a different thesis, even with similar content and themes, and it makes the movie a tragedy every bit as potent as the post Hiroshima monster film that kickstarted the Kaiju phenomena.


The are two noteworthy flaws in Rodan, one; Rodan is a flying monster, and therefore this movie serves up numerous aerial sequences, but they are all badly hampered by technological limitations. The resulting shots may have been easier to swallow in the 50’s, but of all the antiquated effects that we see in these old movies, these aerial sequences stand out as being beyond what modern eyes can excuse, this is a few steps passed ‘retro’ and well into “shlocky.” Two; although distinct in small ways, the movie is still a bit of a rehash. I’m not too bothered by that, though. Rehashing is something Toho would earn a damn black belt at in the coming years, and they often manage to do it while still delivering a fantastic film. This is one of those times. Rodan isn’t as well loved as Gojira, but it’s a movie I’ve always been fond of, and I highly recommend it.


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Godzilla; King of the Monsters~ 1956, Ishiro Honda and Terry Morse – USA/Japan


In 1954, the Japanese released a brilliant, gloomy classic of science fiction/horror; Gojira. Two years later, we added a white guy, and it was finally ready for American consumption. This is that movie.

Raymond Burr plays Steve Martin  (……?!?!?!), a reporter bumming around Japan because, dammit, he can, he’s Steve Martin. While there, Martin is witness to a most strange phenomena; the appearance of Godzilla, a towering, dinosaur like monster, poised to wipe Japan off the map. Martin watches and reports what he sees back to a horrified listening audience around the world, but really, he doesn’t do much else. He’s just plopped in here to give close-minded Westerners someone to experience the movie through who isn’t Asian. Monster comes, smashes stuff, people scream, and a scientist sacrifices himself after reluctantly agreeing to use a highly dangerous new weapon he invented to save Japan from this catastrophe. Meanwhile, we have a few subplots going on, but their impact is enormously weakened due to the shift in focus to Raymond Burr.

White washed and watered down though it is, the movie remains great. The original Japanese version is inarguably superior, but King of the Monsters is still an extremely solid film, and much of the fear, tension, and the nuclear subtext is retained. The biggest weakness King of the Monsters has is that it isn’t Gojira, and that in the annals of film history, it will forever be a footnote to it’s Japanese counterpart, but that’s how it should be.

One interesting point; this movie illustrates a massive shift in public perception regarding how world governments behave. These days, 100% of the movie going audience would expect to have something like Godzilla hidden away, buried in a massive, multinational cover up, with media coverage utterly suppressed and an elaborate web of deceptions cast over the masses to shield them from the truth. That is a far cry from what Steve Martin experiences in King of the Monsters. When Martin arrives at the scene of an ongoing Japanese investigation into strange attacks on ships off the coast of Japan, he identifies himself as a reporter and simply asks an official what is going on. The response he gets is literally “Well… I’m not sure it should be printed…” followed by an immediate disclosure of all information available up to that point, after which Martin is continually given unhindered access to all of Japan, and is met with absolute and complete cooperation from authorities at all times. Not only is there no apparent interest in concealing any information, the Japanese government in this film is actively facilitating the needs of anyone who might want to know what’s up, and aiding them in spreading the news, too. In other words, the exact opposite of what we see in reality. While I believe that world governments were just as much a pack of dirty, selfish liars back in the 50’s as they are now, it’s interesting that something like this could be included in a motion picture back then and people would have bought it. Sign of the times, I guess.


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Gojira ~ 1954, Ishiro Honda – Japan


As a Westerner, by the time I had finally seen the original Japanese Gojira, I had already seen the Perry Masonified American version dozens of times. I had long been aware that the Japanese version was considered much better, but I was unprepared for just how much better it really was. I finally saw the original, Raymond Burr-less version about seven years ago, and while Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a sturdy, enjoyable monster classic on the level of Dracula or The Wolf Man, Gojira is a masterpiece, better compared to German Expressionist horror like Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This shit’s off the chain.

The plot centers around mysterious phenomena occurring in and around Japan, the results of which leave many dead, and have Japan’s top minds speculating without much to go on. The film lingers in tense ambiguity for a lot longer than it’s American twin, and when Godzilla is finally revealed to be the cause of these strange occurrences, it remains some time until everybody is on the same page regarding not only his existence, but also what to do about it. Plus, when he first shows up, Godzilla looks a lot like Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

010-godzillafest-godzilla-1954-01“Hey, Japan- your country looks really great!… FOR ME TO POOP ON!” 

There are also multiple human characters we actually care about in this movie, including Emiko and Ogata, two young lovers who face considerable challenges in pursuing a relationship with one another. Firstly, Emiko is already engaged via an arranged marriage to a brilliant, but reclusive scientist named Dr. Serizawa. Emiko does not want to marry Serizawa, but we definitely do not get the impression that he is at all a bad man. Additionally, Emiko’s father, Dr. Yamane, is at odds with Ogata, who feels that Godzilla should be destroyed. Yamane believes the monster to be far too valuable to science, and this disagreement between the two puts further strain on Emiko and Ogata’s relationship. Their romance is actually the heart of the picture, but in the American version it is minimized to such a severe degree that the film loses it’s emotional anchor completely. Presumably, the addition of Raymond Burr in the American cut was done in an attempt to give Western audiences someone to relate to, but it creates an enormous amount of separation from the film’s drama, and I think this is a mortal wound to the picture which downgrades it from an artfully crafted allegory to an easily dismissed B-movie. Burr feels far too safe, even when he’s crawling out of rubble, and he has no investment in the lives of the people around him, so neither do we. Like looking through a window at a storm, the American version has taken all of the bite out of the picture, where the Japanese version feels much more like being the person locked out in the wind and the rain, we feel the misery and the fear much more effectively.

Throughout Gojira, Godzilla’s status as a metaphor for atomic warfare and the ramifications thereof are well solidified, and the film takes this topic seriously. It adds a great deal of weight to the film, this is a tense, gloomy picture that is lightyears from the goofy, fun-time monster slugfests we’d see out of Godzilla in the 60’s and 70’s.  By 1954 standards, this shit is actually kinda scary. The photography is very high contrast, we see Godzilla’s fury in thick, jet blacks and flat whites, like the cover of a Darkthrone album, it exudes gloom and discomfort, and the movie really goes the distance in exposing the viewer to human casualties. In watching Gojira, it’s hard to disassociate the film’s proceedings with the historical events that they are meant to represent, so these civilian deaths are not easily shrugged off. This truly is no fun monster romp, Gojira feels like a movie about the horror of atomic war that just happens to use a monster to tell its story, which is exactly what it is, and because of how well this is done, and because of how direct this metaphor is, I think there is a strong case to be made for Godzilla being the single greatest Fictional monster created since Dracula. The book… Not the movie.

The multifaceted discussion on the topic of atomic war in the film feels very stark, but not preachy. Gojira doesn’t so much as all out demonize atomic war, as much as it just sort of lays it out there and says “This is what happens, and what happens is terrible.” And that’s the major question of our age, the term “mutually assured destruction” is now a part of our lexicon. It’s now very plausible that all life on the Earth could be snuffed out due to the actions of mankind. In the battle of Man VS Nature, we’ve finally got Earth in Checkmate. So, what does that mean, philosophically? Gojira digs into that. Is Gojira the most valid cinematic exploration of these ideas? I don’t know, but I know one thing, on that topic, this is Japan’s two cents, and they know a thing or two about nuclear war. It’s my belief that in the same way Frankenstein’s Monster was a means of exploring hubris in an age when mankind overstepping his bounds was hot in the zeitgeist, Gojira digs into a seminal cold war issue in a way no other horror film can lay claim to, and in so doing has earned a poignancy quickly abandoned by it’s sequels, but still very much worthy of appreciation. This makes Gojira an important movie.

On top of that, it’s also completely enjoyable as an out of context, classic monster flick, so I think it’s reasonable to expect this film to still pack a punch for younger generations upon whom the historical allegory is lost… As a horror film, a science fiction film, and a monster movie, Gojira belongs seated comfortably in a place reserved for the very best.


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