My overwhelming reaction to Toho's 1958 kaiju one-off Varan is to ask, in a variety of whiny voices, why? Why, two years after the glitzy Eastmancolor of Rodan, is it in such ratty-looking black and white? Why is the titular monster's roar cribbed so shameless from the iconic Godzilla roar? Why bother telling what amounts to a remake of Godzilla just a year after the American recut of that film played to such rousing box office success in Japan (actually, that one basically answers itself)? Why is Ifukube Akira, usually such a reliable composer of truly excellent music, trafficking in such dried-up musical clichés about both lumbering monsters and isolated Pacific island animist communities? Why is the American release, Varan the Unbelievable, so different as to be entirely unrecognisable, when Varan was already the most American-style of Toho's daikaiju eiga? Why does the whole thing feel so much more primitive than the kaiju films preceding it, more like Godzilla was the film made in response to this, rather than the other way around?

There's an answer to at least some of these questions. The same answer, in fact, and it has to do with how Varan (as I choose call the original Japanese version, since Giant Monster Varan sounds dumb in English, and the "official" title, Varan the Unbelievable, refers to a different film) first came into this world. The story - so vague about so many details that it might as well be considered legend - goes that Toho was approached by an American production company, dazzled by the money made by Godzilla, King of the Monsters (and perhaps the even bigger hit Rodan; the chronology of all this is certainly not one of the details that emerges from myth), who wanted the Japanese company to make a film specifically for American television. Thus Varan was put into production in black-and-white, in a full-frame ratio. After a time, the American company backed out and Toho decided that the film would end up getting a Japanese theatrical release (it's not clear that there's a causal relationship between these events), which led to the already-shot footage being heavily masked for a widescreen aspect ratio, with the remainder of the project being shot in the anamorphic Tohoscope format. The whole slurry was released under the kludged-together name Toho Pan Scope, an elliptical way of saying, "a lot of this looks like shit, and we're sorry". How Varan the Unbelievable fits into all this, I cannot say, and don't know that I want to.

The point being, Varan was born a cheap little quickie, leading to yet another why - Why did Honda Ishirō, the company's A-list daikaiju eiga director, end up stuck on a project for American TV? Because it sure as hell didn't inspire him artistically, to judge from the slack pacing and limited drama on display in the finished film. Varan is a pokey little bit of nonsense, in which one scenario (military men talk about a plan to destroy the monster, their plan fails) repeats itself over and over until the movie has gotten long enough to drag Hirata Akihiko in at the 11th hour playing a far less interesting version of the exact same role he had in Godzilla, to introduce the amazing new weapon that might just work! if...

As to what happens in the plot, it starts off with footage of rocket launches and a narrator excitedly talking about the march of science, an introduction that has absolutely fuck-all to do with anything that will follow, and is certainly the single element of the film which most feels like an American monster movie of the same vintage. Once this non-sequitur has exhausted itself, we get down to the real business of the film: rare butterflies. Biology professor Sugimoto (Senda Koreya) has been made aware that a species of butterfly known only in Siberia has been found in a remote valley right in the most inaccessible, mountainous part of Japan. He sends a pair of research assistants off to investigate right away, but they've barely had time to raise the suspicions of the local villagers, fearfully worshiping the previously-unknown god Baradagi, before they're crushed to death by something awfully big.

In an unbelievably convenient development, one of these researchers had a sister, Yuriko (Sonoda Ayumi), who is a reporter for a Japanese television program investigating unexplained paranormal events, and who's also dating on of Sugimoto's other students, Kenji (Nomura Kozo), and they head off to the same village, this time to investigate whatever happened with the missing researchers (the butterflies, having spent their usefulness, are never mentioned again. Along for the ride is bumbling, fat photographer Horiguchi (Matsuo Fumito), who bears the sad distinction of being the first unlikable comic relief character in a Toho kaiju production. They're met with outright hostility from the locals, making it worse by all but announcing that they have not interest in paying the merest heed to the reverence surrounding Baradagi, and so, when a little boy and his dog go missing in the forbidden woods, it's up to them to rush out and find him. They also find an isolated lake, and out of this lake comes a huge lizardlike animal that Kenji swiftly identifies as a "varanopid" species (Varanus is the genus of monitor lizards), though basically it looks like Godzilla had a baby with an iguana.

This intrusion pisses off the monster ("Varan" in English, but typically transliterated as "Baran" directly from Japanese) fiercely, and it goes on a village-destroying rampage before returning to its lake. And here the film would end, but our heroes tell the military, and the military freaks out and arranges a raid that does nothing but piss Varan off even further, at which point it breaks out its flying squirrel-like wing flaps and glides right out into the Pacific, where it begins make tracks for Tokyo.

That everything bad which happens in the film is expressly the characters' fault is probably not the biggest flaw in Varan, though I think it might very well be the most irritating. But the film suffers a lot more from how unbelievably repetitive and boring it gets from this point on with the cheap-looking effects of both Varan and the military hardware attempting to take it down doing nothing to make it fun on the level of action spectacle, and Honda's direction offering nothing in the way of tension or suspense about where things are going. Every bit of it feels like Godzilla with all the energy and atmosphere sucked right out of it: Koizumi Hajime's cinematography looks washed-out and plain, Ifukube's score, as I have mentioned, has no heft to it. Everybody involved seems to have held the project in some kind of contempt, putting in no effort at all.

Which goes a long way towards explaining why it's not even fun in the way of other crappy big monster movies. That, and how slackly derivative it is: I won't go so far as to say that it could have been saved with a better monster, but the fact that Varan's shape, behavior, and much of its appearance are so lazily ported over from Godzilla mean that the film falls even on the most basic level of having an interesting suit to look at. It's too sullenly competent to reach the abyssal lows of the genre at its worst, but few and far between are the kaiju eiga that offer so little reason to watch them even in an ironic register; it's just dull and formulaic and quite without personality.