Girl Power: The Surprising Emergence of the Independent Woman in VARAN
Author: Sean Kotz
On March 31, 2010, New York City’s Japan Society launched a fascinating film series called “Mad, Bad… and Dangerous to Know: Three Untamed Beauties” highlighting counter-culture images of women in Japanese society featuring the work of three actresses–Ayako Wakao, Meiko Kaji and Mariko Okada. In contrast to the customary Japanese model of deferring, silent and bashful servants, their upstart female characters challenge the tradition but mostly with negative (and often downright evil) characters. However, as early as 1958’s VARAN (Daikaiju Baran), Toho’s monster films were offering positive, even heroic, alternatives to the accepted molds of housewife and office lady—the female reporter, a role that would develop into a staple during the Showa period and beyond.
It is something of an unfortunate accident of history that VARAN is not well known, even among kaiju fans. Riding the giant monster boom of the 1950s, ABPT Pictures, an affiliate of ABC television, approached Toho with the idea of funding a city-smashing monster flick for their US TV audiences, but midway through, someone got cold feet and the film underwent a transformation and a couple re-cuts (In the US, the film was eventually released in 1962 as VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE, a choppy mishmash of American characters and plots cut into the original).
A rather troubled project from the beginning, VARAN is commonly read as a mere rehashing of the basic GODZILLA (Gojira 1954) nature message. A giant monster worshiped by natives is awakened when a team of scientists push too far into the wilderness, and no sooner do they capture and kill a rare butterfly than the monster-god, “Baradagi” surfaces to punish mankind, eventually finding his way to Tokyo in true kaiju style, flying against all known laws of physics.
In many ways, VARAN is a retelling of GODZILLA, but there is at least one important difference—the appearance of a young female reporter, Yuriko Sinjou (Ayumi Sonoda), the sister of one of the scientists lost in the first expedition. Finding that little remains of her brother besides the mystery of his death, she quickly asserts herself into the next outing with the intent to get to the bottom of things. Her presence and capacity to defend herself are questioned immediately by entomologist Kenji Uozaki (Kouzou Nomura), but she is insistent and despite investigating her brother’s death as a job assignment, Yuriko exhibits a hard-nosed detachment. Even her chin up, chest forward, arms at her side posture through most of her first scene indicates something different about this heroine.
One way to understand the significance of this is to compare Yuriko to the three leading women who come before her in Toho’s kaiju eiga. First, there is Emiko Yamane (Momoko Kochi) in GODZILLA. While she struggles with the role of “the good daughter” throughout the film, trying to balance her own feelings of love for Ogata (Akira Takarada) and her father’s choice, Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), she does so in a way befitting the prescribed formula for Japanese women. She is deferring, averts her eyes, and suffers silently overall, displaying emotional tides only when confronted by horror and guilt. Remarkably, because Dr. Serizawa commits a heroic suicide, she is never actually forced to break her cultural codes and remains a good, obedient daughter.
Following the success of GODZILLA, Toho quickly produced its first monster battle in the 1955 sequel, GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (Gojira no Gyakushu). This film, which was recut and released in the USA as GIGANTIS, THE FIRE MONSTER, is a good testament of how critical character and the human plot of kaiju films really are. GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN is commonly considered one of the weaker offerings largely because it never engages the viewer at that level and portents the plot-thin spectacles that will mark Godzilla’s first demise.
The main female role, Hidemi Yamaji, is played by Setsuko Wakayama. She’s a radio operator for her father’s fishing fleet, in love with an internally conflicted spotter pilot, Shoichi Tsukioka (Hiroshi Koizumi). They initially exhibit a believable chemistry and Hidemi is playful and coy, maintaining lightheartedness most of the time. However, her role in the film is largely to follow her father’s direction and wait patiently for her man to decide he is brave enough to confront Godzilla, but there is not character development to speak of.
Similarly, in the film RODAN (Sora no Daikaiju Radon, 1956) Yumi Shirakawa plays Kiyo, who is best described as safety engineer Shigeru Kimura’s (Kenji Sahara) fiancée. Like Hidemi before her, her main concern is her man and what attention there is to her as a character goes into her role in supporting him and worrying about her brother. In fact, since her brother is suspected of murder early in the film, she is best noted for her portrayal of shame. She makes no real decisions, exhibits no particular will of her own, weeps frequently and more or less disappears once the film gets into full-blown monster chase mode.
In each of the preceding cases, we have very likable characters portrayed competently, but none are decision makers like VARAN’s Yuriko. In fact, the script makes sure she is established as a new breed of woman early on. In addition to putting herself in the research expedition to the remote village of Iwaya, she becomes the de facto leader. When a male counterpart, Horiguchi (Fumita Matsou) wants to rest in their hike, she pushes them forward. In the next scene, she scolds him for being a “coward” when he jumps at the sound of a bird squawking.
Yuriko also shows bravery in the face of danger. She runs off with her colleagues to save a boy missing in the fog, but when the others have given up and returned to the village, she stays with him. Soon after they are rediscovered, we have the first appearance of Varan, and unlike the natives, she does not cower and seems more satisfied that she has solved the mystery.
Admittedly, her leadership role is compromised somewhat when Kenji rescues her from beneath the fallen tree. He also heroically jumps in a truck leaving her behind at one point. However, unlike Hidemi and Kiyo, she stays close to the action. And while Emiko is present for the death of both Gojira and Dr. Serizawa, she frets and weeps and expresses anguish. Yuriko is cut from a different cloth. In fact, as Varan is heading to his doom, she runs to follow his retreat saying, “Nothing bothers me at this moment. It’s a great job. Let’s take a good picture.”
Despite the relative anonymity of VARAN and its heroine, Yuriko, both are important for establishing the new trope of the female reporter. Several other variations on this character emerge in the 1960s in Toho’s kaiju eiga, including photographer Michi Hanamura (Kyoko Kagawa) in MOTHRA (Mosura, 1961), Naoko Shindo (Yuriko Hoshi) in GHIDRAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER (San Daikaiju Chikyu Saidai no Kessen, 1964) and Yuki Ichinose (Naomi Nishida) in GODZILLA 2000 (Gojira Ni-Sen Mireniamu, 1999) to name a few. Moreover, they carve a positive role for the independent woman in Japan… something, perhaps, that could only be done in a fantasy film in 1958.