(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)
“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.