by Vennie Anderson

[Additions made by this editor appear in brackets, and are initialed]

Aside from those in the Godzilla series, my favorite Japanese horror-genre film is Matango, released by Toho in 1963 and directed by the late, great Ishiro Honda [it was released in America a year later under the title of Attack of the Mushroom People--CN].

In 1907, William Hope Hodgson published a short story entitled, “The Voice in the Night,” later adapted as a short story, “Matango,” by Shinichi Hoshi and Masami Fukushima. The screenplay was written by Takeshi Kimura. The word “matango” applies to a known species of poisonous mushrooms.

Before beginning this article, I read everything I could find about the film. The most definitive information I found was Peter H. Brothers’ MUSHROOM CLOUDS AND MUSHROOM MEN: THE FANTASTIC CINEMA OF ISHIRO HONDA (reviewed elsewhere on this site). Brothers devotes eight pages to Matango, more than most of the other films discussed in his book, and alludes to it in his title. At 89 minutes, Matango is a relatively short film, but unquestionably one of Honda’s best. Besides Honda at the helm, Matango has the benefit of the incomparable Eiji Tsuburaya as director of special effects, with Teruyoshi Nakano as assistant director of special effects. The creepy, mold-encrusted, fog-shrouded derelict ship set, along with the lush jungle set designed by Tsuburaya’s team, provide the backdrops for most of the interactions of the film's seven main (human) characters. Especially frightful is the ghostly abandoned ship the group discovers on the island. As Brothers notes, “…one can almost smell the mold…”, especially since the exquisite sets are enhanced by the talent of cinematographer Hajime Koizami, in what has been described as the best work of his career. The movie’s exteriors were shot on an actual island near Japan. The movie makers had to contend with heat, insects, and poisonous snakes, which may have helped the actors to look creeped out, and in some cases downright crazed.

The composer of Matango’s soundtrack is Sadao (Beppu) Wakemiya. Early in the film, upbeat tracks reflect the behavior of the apparently carefree vacationers who are getting along reasonably well at the beginning of the voyage. Later the music changes, eerily reinforcing the misty atmosphere that pervades the island and the lives of the characters, and expressing tension, foreboding, and horror when the titular mushrooms take on unexpected dimensions. When released in the U.S. to television by AIP in 1965, the film’s title was changed to Attack of the Mushroom People, a cheesy and somewhat misleading bid to ramp up the film’s appeal as a typical “horror movie” [the great 2005 DVD release of the film by Tokyo Shock/Media Blasters combined the two titles into Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People, the main title of preference I will be using throughout this site--CN].

Primarily seen in the U.S. on late-night TV with the customarily poor dubbing often inflicted on this genre of Japanese films, Matango was all but ignored by film critics. Some readers may have seen the film on television “monster movie” shows, but it has virtually disappeared even from that venue. In any case, until you see Matango in the Japanese language with English subtitles, you cannot truly experience its merits. I much prefer subtitles to dubbing because hearing the actors speak in their native language reveals their intended infection and tone. In Matango, the story is so visually well told that subtitles are only marginally necessary, and do not detract from the action as in some subtitled films. As it happens, there is considerable variance between the dubbed English dialogue and the English subtitles. (If you want some chuckles, watch the film again with both English dubbing and subtitles turned on.)

Matango is essentially a tale of seven very disparate, and to some extent desperate, individuals marooned on an apparently uncharted Pacific isle after their pleasure boat is badly damaged in a storm [one of the same islands, I conjecture, which was hit with heavy doses of radiation during the atom bomb tests conducted by the U.S. government during the early 1940s that led to the creation of the kaiju in the Toho kaiju-films; the mutated fungi later seen in this film are other examples of the mutagenic effects of that radiation on living things in the Pacific islands; the mutant Matango shrooms officially crossed over with Godzilla in the 1988 Nintendo video game Godzilla, Monster of Monsters--CN]. The island is lush and colorful, and there is fresh water available, but no evidence of birds or other wildlife, except for a scarce number of turtle eggs buried in the sand. Mushrooms of all shapes and sizes abound on the island’s interior, but the castaways are initially reluctant to eat them; they fear poisoning, as well they should. All seven primary actors give outstanding performances, many doing the best work of their careers in the opinion of Brothers and several other writers. Many faces in the cast are familiar to Godzilla film fans. As in many Japanese films, the seven actors form a true ensemble cast. If there is a true “star,” then it's Akira Kubo (Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, a.k.a., Invasion of the Astro-Monster, and other G-films), who plays psychology professor Kenji Murai. In the form of flashbacks, Murai narrates the events of the main body of the film to a group of doctors in his room within the psychiatric ward of a Tokyo hospital.

Murai has persuaded Akiko, one of his female students (for whom he obviously has the hots), to accompany him and some of his friends on a sailing vacation. Akiko, played by Miki Yashiro, is the ingénue; innocent, trusting, and child-like in a wishy-washy sort of way. Akiko stands in stark contrast to Mami, played by the estimable Kumi Mizuno, an actress memorable to G-fans as multiple Miss Namakwa from Godzilla vs. Monster Zero and nubile, sparsely clothed Daiyo in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (a.k.a., Ebirah, Horror of the Deep). Mami, a nightclub singer, is a blatant siren, ostensibly the mistress of business mogul Kasai, played by Yoshio Tsuchiya (Son of Godzilla). (Kasai’s first name varies among sources, but throughout the film he is only referred to as “Kasai”.) With considerable justification, Kasai is jealous of other males’ attention given to Mami, especially as she struts about the small pleasure craft, clearly intending to inflame the other men on board, and enjoying their rivalry for her attentions.

Kasai owns the boat and likes to play at being Captain, but the boat’s actual Captain is Naoyuki Saduka (“Satuka” in the subtitles), played by Hiroshi Koizumi (Godzilla Raids Again, and several other G-films). Captain Saduka is strong, calm, and competent, but ultimately proves himself to be less than perfect. Assisting the Captain in crewing the small vessel is Senzo Koyama, played against type by veteran Toho actor Kenji Sahara (King Kong vs. Godzilla, and many other G-films.) Koyama is a sneak and a thief, a crude tough guy who is strictly out for number one. Sahara throws himself into the part with a vengeance. His gap-toothed leer and ubiquitous sunglasses give him a sinister appearance. There are various stories about the very real gap in Sahara’s front teeth in Matango. Some versions have him going to a dentist to have the tooth pulled to make his character more believable. However, according to Brothers, Sahara already had an artificial tooth in place and simply had it removed for the film. Either way, it gives him a realistic, thuggish look that he uses to great effect. Sahara’s work in Matango is cited by several writers as his career best. I agree. Rounding out the ship’s complement is an imaginative writer, Etsuro Yoshida, played by Hiroshi Tachikawa, who apparently was not in any G-films but may be remembered by fans of Gorath, and certainly by fans of Akira Kurasawa’s Yojimobo, Throne of Blood, and Sanjuro.

So here they all are, five men and two women in close quarters on the cozy little ship. All except deck hand Koyama wear matching medallions to commemorate the voyage. It’s clear skies and smooth sailing at first, but soon tempers flare even before the storm sets in. Mami teases and embarrasses Akiko. Koyama and Yoshida both set their sights on Mami. When ominous dark clouds loom on the horizon threatening turbulent weather ahead, Captain Sadaka and his first mate would prefer to turn back. Kasai, however, wants to keep going and persuades the others that his expensive boat is unsinkable. A massive storm strikes with predictable results. While the tiny craft remains afloat, the storm leaves it drifting helplessly, sans mast, radar, radio, and rudder. Food and water supplies are dwindling. Peering through the interminable fog, Koyama sights an island, and the survivors flounder ashore. They explore their surroundings and attempt to go about the business of survival TV’s Survivor-style. Deals are struck and broken. Fatigue and dread of permanent isolation take their toll. Physical and emotional hungers roil. Except for Murai, the castaways succumb one by one to fear, greed, and the lure of the island, particularly the tasty and abundantly available mushrooms.

Given that Matango was made in 1963 when the use of special effects had not yet reached the CGI or even mechanized eras, the “monsters” in the film are more likely to make you smile than cringe. However, there is a wonderfully spooky effect of mushrooms rapidly swelling and growing, accomplished by a technique developed by Tsubaraya’s team of special effects artists, using an early form of what became known as “Styrofoam”. I agree with Brothers that the really scary “monsters” in the film are not the noisy, flapping mushrooms but the human beings whose moral decay ends up destroying one another.

The film has a few hinky cultural disparities one has to ignore or smile at, such as the crazed Yoshida stalking off across the beach wearing snow white knee socks. These are essentially negligible compared to the overall impact of the film. Scenes change abruptly a time or two, leaving the viewer wondering what the heck just happened here! (After watching the extra feature described below, I wonder if this could be a result of less than careful editing.) The ending, while somewhat predictable, is still jarring and effective.

Media-Blasters’ 2005 DVD release of Matango offers several extras, including a commentary on the film by then-69-year old Akira Kubo, which frankly I find mostly boring. He and his interviewer talk more about Kubo’s other work than the film that is running in the background. I found myself futilely admonishing them to “Talk about what’s going on in the movie, you dodos!” In contrast, the interview with assistant special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano proves to be fascinating and full of inside tidbits of information about the filming processes and other tricks of the trade. It’s definitely worth a watch. The third extra feature is a narrative by story writer Masami Fukushima, told over clips and stills from the film, filling in some of the blanks. (If you allow that feature to run about 30 seconds past the end, Fukushima picks up reading what is presumably a short story written by him and dramatized on film--kind of a non sequitur, but enjoyable enough.)

Far deeper than an ordinary “monster movie,” Matango is a dark and moody film, with considerable passion and meaning. In MONSTERS ARE ATTACKING TOYKO! (reviewed elsewhere on this site), Stuart Galbraith describes Matango as “a superb, much-underrated picture…fascinating and multi-layered.” Indeed, there is so much going on in Matango that it warrants multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. I’ve seen it perhaps a dozen times, and each time I find something new.

[Buy it here; or, buy it as part of a three-pack box combo set with The Mysterians and Varan the Unbelievable here--CN]

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