Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Matango (aka: Attack of the Mushroom People)

(1963) Directed by Ishirô Honda; Written by Takeshi Kimura; Adaptation by Shin'ichi Hoshi and Masami Fukushima; Based on the story “The Voice in the Night,” by William Hope Hodgson; Starring: Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kenji Sahara and Hiroshi Tachikawa; Available on DVD (Out of Print)

Rating: ****

“Normally in a kaiju or a Godzilla film the kaiju is the main character and we act around it. But in this one, we’re on a creepy shipwrecked boat with a group of seven people, all with different personalities.” – Akira Kubo (from DVD commentary)

Ishirô Honda has becomes so synonymous with Toho’s kaiju flicks that it’s easy to forget his other films and contributions to cinema.* Not to denigrate his association with his depictions of giant monsters causing mass destruction, but Honda proved his versatility telling a variety of stories with science fiction as his canvas. One such example is Matango, released in the U.S. under the title Attack of the Mushroom People. In fact, it was that sensationalistic title (and one-star TV page listings) that scared me away from watching it for years. When I finally rented the DVD decades later, I was surprised by the atmosphere, depth and brooding tone of this underappreciated film.  

* Over the years, Honda collaborated with Akira Kurosawa as assistant or second unit director on several of his films, including Ran and Dreams.

Matango is often lauded for its “Lovecraftian” vibe, but the source material actually pre-dates most of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction. The film was based on William Hope Hodgson’s 1907 short story, “The Voice in the Night,” which in turn was adapted by Masami Fukushima and Shin'ichi Hoshi for their story “Matango,” and Takeshi Kimura’s subsequent screenplay. Honda filmed Matango on the islands of Izu Ōshima and Hachijō-jima to simulate the remote tropical locale in the story.

Imagine Gilligan’s Island if the focus was on distrust, discord and paranoia among the castaways, all governed by some hideous malevolent force. The film opens with college professor Kenji Murai (Akira Kubo) in a hospital, recounting his experiences as the sole survivor of a doomed pleasure cruise. Seven individuals, including an egotistical corporate president (Yoshio Tsuchiya), a virtuous college professor (Kubo), a flirty singer (Kumi Mizuno), naïve college student (Akiko Sôma) and a self-centered mystery writer (Etsurô Yoshida) embark on a cruise aboard a new yacht. Everyone’s having a good time - Mami (Mizuno) takes a moment to serenade the crew with an impromptu song (Well, nominally a song, if you consider “La, la, la la” a valid substitute for lyrics). Not unlike the aforementioned classic television comedy, however, the weather gets rough, and before you know it the passengers and crew are lost at sea. Eventually, they become stranded on a remote South Pacific island. When they discover an abandoned research vessel, they attempt to unravel the mystery about what happened to the ship’s crew. Before long, as tension mounts, their fate seems to be headed in a similar direction. They soon face starvation after they plunder the ship’s meager rations and forage for the scarce food sources on the island. Suddenly the prospect of eating the strange, but abundant mushrooms that proliferate around the island doesn’t sound bad, compared to the alternative.

Shigekazu Ikuno and Akira Watanabe deserve kudos for their excellent production and art design, which contribute immensely to the atmosphere. The derelict ship exteriors and interiors are particularly convincing. The passageways are encrusted with fungal growth, suggesting the ship has become a living thing. A colorful forest of mushrooms takes on an otherworldly appearance. The effects crew experimented with chemicals to make mushrooms that grew on demand, and created rice pastry mushrooms for the cast to eat when their respective characters had the onscreen munchies. The unique makeup effects depict people in various states of transformation, as they undergo a metamorphosis into something not quite human, nor quite mushroom.

Matango explores the darker side of the human soul, brought to the surface by isolation and suppressed urges. As the film progresses and things become more desperate, the castaways become more inhuman in their behavior – or is it their true human nature, brought to the surface? Eating the mushrooms result in a loss of inhibitions, as violent and/or sexual urges break free, as exemplified by Mami’s seductive behavior toward the male castaways. The mushrooms themselves, and their phallic shapes, suggest the physicality of lust and desire. But what lies underneath the final, terrifying distorted human forms and twisted behaviors are nothing new. The monsters are us, reinforced by Kenji’s final, sobering monologue.

Honda and company do an admirable job capturing the overwhelming feeling of dread that permeates Hodgson’s original story. For anyone who might have doubted Honda’s mettle as a multifaceted director, I present Matango as a rebuttal. This thoughtful mood piece deserves more acclaim as a genre high point. Sadly, the excellent DVD from Tokyo Shock is out of print, so it might take some tracking down, but it’s well worth the investment.

Sunday, January 1, 2017


(2003) Directed by Takashi Miike; Written by Sakichi Satô; Starring: Yûta Sone, Shô Aikawa, Kimika Yoshino, Shôhei Hino, Keiko Tomita, Harumi Sone and Renji Ishibashi; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Instant

Rating: ***

“…When I was a child the world was more interesting and magical; riding a bike to the next town, you turn a corner, see a place you’ve never seen before… Gozu is how a child sees the world, wandering around.” – Takashi Miike (excerpt from interview with Wade Major)

Once again, my readers have spoken. In the recent Twitter poll about my first review for Japan-uary VI, it was a close race between three titles, and Gozu prevailed. As a fan of director Takashi Miike’s films, I eagerly anticipated watching this title, with the expectation that I didn’t know what I was getting into. I wasn’t disappointed. This movie more than solidified Miike’s reputation as an unpredictable filmmaker, with its bizarre assortment of characters and imagery burned into my neurons. Yet, if I were to recommend a Miike film to someone who had never seen one of his movies, this wouldn’t be the one. The Miike neophyte might consider getting his or her feet wet with Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), 13 Assassins (2010), or even Ichi the Killer (2001) before plunging into the deep end with Gozu.  

In Gozu, as with many other Miike films, nothing is entirely what it seems. It starts out with familiar themes for Miike, as a yakuza drama, but abruptly runs off the rails, veering into uncharted territory. After his older brother Ozaki (Shô Aikawa) is pegged as a liability to the organization, Minami (Yûta Sone) is charged with transporting him to a junkyard in Nagoya for disposal. Along the way, Minami loses Ozaki’s body, and must deal with some less than cooperative townspeople to retrieve it. What follows is a hallucinatory, darkly comic odyssey that seems to have been penned by Franz Kafka and rendered by David Lynch’s paintbrush. The title itself translates roughly as “cow’s head.” According to Miike, Gozu is a Buddhist figure, who stands as a “gatekeeper for both sides,” between our world and hell.

The opening scene should come with a warning attached if you’re a pet lover; even if you’ve already been indoctrinated into the cult of Miike, it might be jarring. In Miike’s defense, it’s presented in a cartoonish fashion, so it should probably be regarded as such. Don’t worry, if you decide to skip ahead five minutes, or look away, you shouldn’t miss much. There’s plenty more weirdness where that came from. And if you’re not disturbed by the scene,* you’re bound to find something else that will set you on edge.

* I probably don’t want to know you if you enjoyed it.

Minami’s reluctant guide in Nagoya is Nose (Shôhei Hino) a man with half of his face painted white (which he tries to pass off as a congenital defect). He spends an awkward night in a motel run by a middle aged woman (Keiko Tomita) and her brother (Harumi Sone, Yûta’s real-life father), which seems to be a portal to hell. As Minami explores the town, searching for his brother’s missing body, danger and uncertainty lurk in every corner. At one point, Miike breaks the fourth wall featuring a scene with an American character reading broken Japanese from cue cards taped to the wall. When he finally catches up to Ozaki, he’s alive and well, but in a woman’s body (Kimika Yoshino).

Gozu really doesn’t belong in the horror category, although it contains scenes that would be at home in any horror film. Depending on your perspective, it’s a dark comedy or a twisted drama, shrouded in a cloud of existential dread. Of course, it wouldn’t feel like a Miike film without at least one nauseating scene, and Gozu is no exception, with several sequences that are almost guaranteed to test your intestinal fortitude. If you drink milk or eat milk products, you’ll probably never be the same again after Gozu’s take on lactation (yes, you read that right). There’s also a scene with a yakuza boss (Renji Ishibashi) and a soup ladle that’s better left to the imagination, or not.

It’s hard to think of another modern filmmaker who could be as consistently prolific and versatile as Miike, but with such a varied resume, Gozu stands alone. Unlike some of his more accessible films, it’s not as driven by story or plot as mood. It’s a film that needs to be experienced rather than described. On the negative side, I wasn’t as drawn to the characters as some of Miike’s other efforts, but I anticipate Gozu will reward on subsequent viewings. It’s not for the faint of heart, nor is it for film-goers who demand everything wrapped up in a neat little bow. For those intrepid viewers who tire of seeing films that swim in familiar waters, and don’t mind a polarizing experience, here’s something that shouldn’t disappoint.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Blog Update: Putting 2016 to Rest

No matter how you slice it, 2016 has been one tumultuous stinker of a year, with the loss of so many beloved public figures and continued political upheaval. As much as I’d like to think that everything will be okay when the ball drops in Times Square and the year officially comes to a close, experience and cynicism suggest otherwise. I can’t shake the feeling it’s all merely a dress rehearsal for 2017.

From a personal standpoint, my 83-year-old mom became ill over the past several weeks. We still don’t have a definitive diagnosis or prognosis, so in the absence of facts, all we can do is hope for the best. I remain in constant contact, however, and look forward to seeing her soon. On a happier note, my family and I will be returning in late February back to the Pacific Northwest. After many months of soul searching and deliberation, we concluded that 11 years in Texas is enough. None of us could have anticipated we’d be here as long as we’ve been, but I’m grateful for the terrific things that have occurred here, including meeting some good friends, earning my master’s degree, finding a career in higher education and founding my blog. In unrelated news (Shameless Plug Alert), my wife also published her first novel in 2016, which you can purchase here. One painful lesson 2016 has taught us is that life is far too short to live in regret, so we’re following our dreams and convictions.

Despite all of life’s ups and downs, this blog continues to keep chugging along. Some 2016 highlights have been the Nature’s Fury Blogathon, participating in several other blogathons, various theme months, and a guest post on the amazing blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks. So what does 2017 have in store? Due to the aforementioned uncertainties, some posts may be delayed or will have to be shifted around, but I’ll do my best to post regularly. I also hope to get back on track with my book project, a companion to Cinematic Catharsis. Some blog previews for 2017:

  • Japan-uary VI returns with a fresh crop of films, featuring something for everyone (maybe).
  • Nothing is officially scheduled for February and March, due to the move.
  • April, May and June will feature new theme months, to be announced soon.
  • In July, I’ll unveil my latest experiment, which is absolutely, definitely not, I repeat, not a blogathon, but something new (new to me, at least). It will be a month-long event, and everyone’s invited to participate. But I’ve already said too much. More on this in the months ahead.
  • Silent September and Noir-vember will also return.

Here’s wishing everyone all the best in 2017. With good health, a little bit of luck and a lot of determination, I sincerely hope we’ll all be here to celebrate 2018. Thanks to everyone who reads this blog, as well as my Twitter pals who help promote this site. I can’t possibly express how much I appreciate your support. As always, stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Demonic December Quick Picks and Pans

Viy (1967) Based on a Russian folk tale, Viy is filled with visual surprises, getting crazier as it goes along. Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov), a young layabout monk, spends the night in the house of an old woman. When she attempts to fly away with him in tow, she reveals her true nature as a witch. He reacts violently, leaving her dying in a field. But she has one more trick before she expires, appearing as a young woman (Natalya Varley). When Khoma returns to his rectory, he’s called upon to hold a three-day prayer vigil over the same woman, who turns out to be a farmer’s daughter. Over the next few days, Khoma reluctantly endeavors to keep evil spirits at bay and contend with a corpse that won’t remain still. Despite its acclaim, Viy isn’t available in Region 1 DVD, but you can catch it on YouTube while it lasts.

Rating: ****. Available on YouTube and Region 2 DVD

Woochi: The Demon Slayer (2009) This charming Korean action fantasy with liberal doses of comedy overstays its welcome by about a half hour, but it’s still fun. The story jumps back and forth 500 years between the past and present, as the roguish Taoist monk Jeon Woo-chi (Dong-Won Gang) pursues a group of demons. He’s accompanied by a bumbling sidekick who sometimes appears as a dog or horse, while pursuing a magic flute and bronze sword. Of course, there’s still room for a time-spanning romance while battling the forces of darkness. Although the CGI effects might not be the most polished, they do the trick, and add a rough charm to the film. Worth a look.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu

Krampus (2015) Expectations were high, watching Michael Dougherty’s follow-up to his brilliant feature film debut, Trick ‘r Treat. While there are glimmers of that film in Krampus, it never quite reaches the heights of its spiritual cousin. A yuppie family hosts their redneck relatives for the holidays, with predictable results. After a snowstorm and subsequent blackout, they’re forced to band together in order to survive the night against the titular Christmas demon and his minions. Krampus starts out strong, with a fun opening sequence involving all sorts of Black Friday-type mayhem. The first half takes the time to establish the characters, with some amusing interplay, and there’s a cool animated sequence concerning Krampus, but the film loses its way by the second half. A string of action sequences overwhelm much of the dialogue, stunting any further character development. Krampus has its moments of terror and comedy, and certainly deserves a watch, but it had the potential to be so much better.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Mystics in Bali (1981) Don’t let the terrible dubbing and iffy acting dissuade you from checking out this little oddity from Indonesia, which examines the occult from a unique perspective. Cathy (Ilona Agathe Bastian), An American writer living in Indonesia, wants a taste of black magic, so she persuades her friend Mahendra (Yos Santo) to introduce her to a powerful witch with a thirst for blood. Before long the witch has Cathy under her spell, and employs the hapless writer to carry out her own nefarious plans. While under the evil shaman’s spell, Cathy’s head (with dangling internal organs) detaches from her body and floats around the countryside to wreak havoc. Mystics in Bali doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s interesting to see another culture’s take on the old “curiosity killed the cat” theme.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Amazon Instant

Phoonk (2008) After Rajiv (Sudeep), a manager of a construction firm, fires an employee and his wife (Kenny Desai and Ashwini Kalsekar) for shady business practices, odd things start to happen. The ex-employees vow revenge, targeting Rajiv’s daughter, who becomes possessed by evil forces. Now it’s a struggle between the unbelieving Rajiv and his devout wife, as they try to make sense out of the strange occurrences. Phoonk isn’t very scary, missing some obvious opportunities for chills, but works better as a family drama with some unique problems thrown in the mix.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

Mother of Tears (2007) Dario Argento ends his Three Mothers trilogy, not with a bang but a whimper (with apologies to T.S. Eliot). Following the law of diminishing returns, the first film, Suspiria (1977), was a genre classic; the second, Inferno (1980), while a notch below its predecessor, was a stylish continuation of the story, and added to the mythos. The lackluster third entry throws out everything that worked so well in the previous two installments, substituting copious amounts of gore, jump scares and T&A for suspense and atmosphere. Set in Rome, the film stars Argento’s daughter, Asia, as Sarah Mandy, an art student. She does little to sell the gravity of her character’s situation with her wooden performance. By the time the film reached her climactic confrontation with the remaining witch, I didn’t care. You probably won’t either. For completists only.

Rating: *½. Available on DVD