Do you ever just wake up, look out your window, contemplate all the marvels this world of ours has to offer and think ‘God, I love Kaiju so much’?
Like most things that matter in my life, I’ve loved giant monsters since I was a child. I can quite give an exact reason why, but ever since I have memory I have just been fascinated by the idea of giant creatures destroying everything in their path while the helpless humans try and fail to stop them. Humans are weak, you see.
Being Kaiju-inclined as I am, I spent plenty of time during my formative years studying the ‘Daikaiju Eiga’, as the cool kids call them, and bear in mind that this being the mid-90’s it wasn’t exactly an easy task; back then the only reliable way I had to watch Kaiju movies was to change the channel and pray. Nevertheless, when you dedicate your life to a hobby such as this, it is not strange to learn a few interesting stories about the production of these films, stories that can go from the mundane to the bizarre to the incredible.
There are plenty of cool behind-the-scenes stories to go around, but today I want to talk about one that I find to be both unnecessarily convoluted and shamelessly racist, because that’s how we did things back in the 50’s. If you read the title, you know I am talking about Daikaiju Baran AKA Varan The Unbelievable.
But before I dive into that, it’s important that we get familiar with the term whitewashing, or as we called it back in the day, Americanization.
Simply put, whitewashing is the process of removing any and all references of a foreign culture from a property, like a movie, a comic or cartoon, in order to make it more suitable for the tastes of the western culture. Of course, this can apply to literally any culture, but the whitewashing of Japanese properties for their sale in America is by far the most common.
If you are a fan of these movies or you have shared a room with a Power Ranger’s fan for more than five minutes, then you are probably familiar with the concept. Now, I won’t say that whitewashing, or localization as the nerds call it, is necessarily a bad thing, sometimes it is necessary to grasp the meaning of an original work whose cultural sensibilities are too foreign for the intended audience, but there are good ways to do it, bad ways to do it, and the Pokémon way to do it.
Fans of Japanimation are intimately familiar with this, but those of us who walk the path of the Kaiju have known this suffering for an astonishingly long time; pretty much every single Kaiju Eiga from the 50’s/60’s/70’s/80’s was edited in order to suit American tastes. It ranged from minor stuff like changing dialogues during dubbing and adding/removing music to huge edits like removing entire plot lines, inserting Caucasian actors into the plot or simply splicing two or more movies together and releasing it with a completely new and baffling title.
This didn’t necessarily ruin those movies, Godzilla King of the Monsters, the American cut of the classic Gojira, is known for being a pretty good popcorn flick, even if it removes most of the serious content of the original film that dealt with the horrors of war and the atomic bomb. Still, this practice did lead to some awful cases of cultural sanitation to put it lightly, and there’s no example more infamous than the awesomely named Varan The Unbelievable.
But of course, before we get into that movie, we need to talk about its genesis, Daikaiju Baran.
Daikaiju Baran, or just Baran because I don’t want to completely alienate my non-weeabo audience, is a Toho film known for how average it is; I wouldn’t call it a bad film by any means, but with a release sandwiched between massive hits like Gojira, Rodan and Mothra, it is no surprise that Baran fell between the cracks since, aside from pretty nifty special effects, it didn’t have anything that could elevate it beyond being just another monster movie.
Of course, one of the biggest reasons why it is often overlooked is that Baran was actually the last Toho film to be released in black and white; I know you hip millennials might not believe this and label me a witch for my heresy, but there was a time when all media was produced and broadcasted in black & white.
For a little history, because I am a nerd like that, Color film existed since the late 1800’s (tell a spirit medium to ask your great, great grandparents), but it didn’t really become available for movie making until the mid-1930’s. That only applied to movies that played in theaters though, while Television sets became available after World War II, color TV and color broadcasting didn’t really take off until the 60 ‘s and 70’s, and even then, it was a long and arduous process because the National Television System Committee couldn’t decide on a broadcasting standard for the new technology.
That’s actually the primary reason why Baran was produced in black & white; unlike other Toho productions, Baran was originally meant as TV-only movie for the US audiences that would air in two parts, and since this was 1958 and color television was still a few years away, it was decided that the film would be produced in greyscale. Unfortunately, the American production company that was going to air it fell out of the deal, and so the movie was recut into a single installment and released in Japanese cinemas, two years after Toho’s Rodan had blown everyone away with the power of technicolor and one year after the international version created the single greatest typo in the history of movies.
As for the actual movie, well, aside from the always delightful special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya and one of the most underrated monster suits of the era if you ask me, Baran is essentially a by-the-numbers Toho Kaiju film.
The story begins with a group of scientists embarking on an excursion to a remote island in order to find a new species of butterfly, because science can be kind of boring, but end up encountering a giant dinosaur-esque creature with glowing horns, because science can also be kind of awesome.
From there things go exactly as you’d expect; we got our set of plucky protagonists who keep meddling in other people business, the JSDF who gets involved because this was the 50’s and chasing giants monsters was their only job, and a group of Scientist whose only role is to point at Baran and shrug. Unsurprisingly, even with their combined efforts they fail to destroy Baran because this is barely the middle of the movie and also, he can fly.
After a few close encounter with Baran as he heads towards Tokyo, because big monsters dream of the big city as well, the military and the scientist come to a startling conclusion: all of their weapons are crap. Luckily for them, a young scientist that just happened to be in the Baran conference explains that he just happened to be working in a new type of explosive that might take the monster out and what do you know, he just happened to be played by Akihito Hirata.
Finally, the movie reaches your usual Toho climax; the giant monsters invades the city through the bay while leaving untold destruction on it’s miniature path, the military tries and fails to stop it until our protagonists figure out a way to take out the beast and Haruo Nakajima almost gets his balls blown off in the process.
The movie ends with Baran retreating underwater and dying an off-screen gruesome death by bomb ingestion, and we are left with the knowledge that, while humanity might have bested the monster this time, the next Baran could be right around the corner.
Oh boy, we’re finally going into the good stuff.
To be honest, Daikaiju Baran is an okay film, but it so unremarkable that it would have faded into obscurity if it weren’t because of its English version, Varan The Unbelievable, an English dub that doesn’t even try to respect the source material or the Japanese language for that matter.
As I mentioned before, altering a movie in order to accommodate it to American sensitivities was a standard practice back then. Dub the dialogue, remove anything excessively Japanese, mixing in a new soundtrack and adding Raymond Burr during post-production was all part for the course back then.
But then Varan came and everything changed.
But first, there is one thing that I really need to get out of the way: this cut of the movie is kind of racist.
Okay, maybe ‘racist’ is not the right word, but I definitely wouldn’t call this movie harmless; the original film got butchered so bad for the sake of making it America friendly that is actually kind of offensive. Really, this is not just a case of trying to make America look great to the eyes of moviegoers; the new additions to the film range from being condescending at best and embarrassingly offensive at worst.
But don’t take my word for it, let’s take a look at the film so we can all suffer together.
The movie stars an American commander stationed in a Japanese island to conduct tests on a new chemical weapon, because apparently, we only care about the Genova conventions when its the other countries doing it. That aside, it is a pretty sweet gig; he is the Caucasian male in command of the Japanese allied forces, he has a beautiful Japanese Wife who always wears a Kimono in spite of the tropical climate, a Japanese underling/personal servant who relays his order to a bunch of off-screen soldiers and he even got his own Japanese kid sidekick who may or may not have died halfway through the movie.
You could argue that the setup of this movie is a metaphor for the American occupation of Japan, except that metaphors are supposed to be clever and/or not stupid; one of the early plot points in the movie revolves around the native (Japanese) inhabitants of the island refusing to evacuate their homes in spite of the whole “chemical weapon test” thing, so when our Caucasian protagonist is faced with the choice of forcibly evacuating the natives or not ruining their home using a toxic gas, he bravely choses to let them stay and share their military rations with them while he runs the test anyways.
That doesn’t sound so bad… until such display of bravery and leadership earns him a heartfelt ‘Thank you’ from his Japanese underling, who can hardly hold his own tears of gratitude towards the American Alpha male. Suffice to say this scene is so ham-fisted and culturally insensitive that modern theologist use it as the definition of ‘politically incorrect’.
Unfortunately, the movie has just begun.
Against the warnings of the villagers, the chemical test is run anyways and what do you know? The gas woke up the local god/monster sleeping at the bottom of the lake where the test was being conducted. In true monster movie fashion, the Japanese troops stationed in the island fight Varan until he just sort of vanishes.
Yes, you read that right. He just randomly vanishes, because apparently a FLYING amphibious giant monster was considered too unrealistic for American audiences, so all the scenes of Varan taking it to the sky were cut from the film.
And believe it or not, from here on out the movie takes a turn for the bizarre.
See, during Varan’s rampage on the island, our protagonists, Whiteman McAmerican, his Japanese Token Wife and his Japanese underling who clearly isn’t getting pain enough for this get trapped on the island and spend the rest of their movie sitting around their Jeep.
As Varan lays siege to the Japanese City of Not-Tokyo, our “heroes” remain completely helpless while shouting orders through a portable military radio that can somehow get its signal all the way to main land, all of this while footage of the original movie plays. Eventually, using the null amount of scientific evidence he possesses, our lead deduces that Varan’s weakness must be the gas they used to wake him up, and luckily, they have plenty of that gas stored in the same populated city Varan is currently in.
And thus, we reach the climax of our movie, which consists of our protagonists sitting around with a barely working radio and narrating the Japanese footage which for some reason is not dubbed, even though that’s the entire point of making this thing.
In the end, they succeed in driving Varan away instead of gruesomely murdering him using experimental explosives, and humanity can finally rest. At least until the next Obake shows up, that is.
If you’re thinking that seems short, that’s because it was.
The original Baran had a runtime of roughly 86 minutes, which was standard for the time, but it’s American homunculus barely made it to the 65-minute mark, and roughly half of that running time is new footage.
Varan uses less than half an hour of footage from Baran, and the rest of it’s just footage of the same three actors having condescending dialogue across the same two sets. Seriously, they didn’t even pretend to adapt the original material; the only times when they acknowledged the original protagonists was when they couldn’t omit them from the footage, and even then, it boiled down to a small narration from our lead saying “I know these guys, these are their names.”
Actually, that brings me to one of the strangest things about the film, and yes, I am quite aware that’s already a long list.
While Varan uses original footage from Baran, for some reason the copy of the reel they got for the editing is of much lower quality than the original, which makes it really easy to tell the Japanese footage from the American footage, mostly because the former do looks like crap.
At this point I really have to wonder who in their right minds though Varan was a good idea. They took a rather unremarkable Kaiju film, used less than half of its footage, came up with a whole new story that barely resembled the original and turned into an American propaganda movie that made very little sense when you consider that it was a movie made for American audiences.
Seriously, at that point even Haim Saban would find it distasteful.
A Final word.
So now that I am done with that, should you watch either Daikaiju Baran or Varan the Unbelievable?
Weirdly enough, I think both of them are worth watching.
The original Baran is kind of generic and has little going on for it besides the Tsuburaya factor, and its American Frankenstein is kind of like watching a house burn down in real time, but when watched together they make for such a fascinating juxtaposition that it surpasses any entertainment value either of them could have on their own.
Mind you, they are not the most creative films on earth and one of them you might find quite offensive depending on your cultural background, but there’s something equally fascinating and bizarre about how far American productions in the 50’s would go to prevent their audiences from relating to a non-white protagonist.
Luckily, Hollywood learned their lesson and they never did something as dumb as this ever again.