Matango (Japan, 1963)

Matango has acquired cult status among fans of tokusatsu films. Directed by Ishiro Honda, it’s based on the 1907 short story “The Voice in the Night” by William Hope Hodgson and the special effects were the work of the great Eiji Tsuburaya. It was released in the United States as a television movie in 1965 under the title Attack of the Mushroom People but has also gone by Fungus of Terror and Curse of the Mushroom People. Its following grew thanks to the advent of VHS and Beta, with copies of the dubbed television movie in circulation due to public domain distributors.

The film opens with a man in a mental institution who tells a visitor that what happened to him was real and he is not insane. The man, Professor Murai (Akira Kubo), was one of a group of people out on the yacht of Kasai (Yoshio Tsuchiya), along with Mami (Kumi Mizuno) the singer, Yoshida (Hiroshi Tachikawa) the writer, Akiko (Miki Yashiro) Murai’s student, Sakuta (Hiroshi Koizumi) the skipper, and Koyama (Kenji Sahara) the sailor. They hit a bad storm, damaging the boat and setting them adrift. Running out of food, water, and hope, they come upon an island. The island seems deserted but a search shows that people have been there and they find a large ship washed ashore.

The ship, which was a research vessel studying the effects of radiation is empty and covered in a strange mold. The group cleans up some of the living areas and make themselves at home, trying to figure out how to survive and get off the island and back to Japan. One night they are attacked by a humanoid creature and their need to get off the island becomes more urgent. While looking for food, they discover mushrooms covering parts of the island. After having seen a rather large and mutated mushroom on the ship and determining it was effected by radiation, they decide that it is not safe to eat them, even though their food is running out. As it turns out, eating the mushrooms does more that cause hallucinations; they transform the survivors into grotesque mushroom-people.

There are some plot holes, such as how quickly they learn about the ship’s purpose and deciding to clean up and stay on board despite the odd fungal growth without questioning it, but it is the characters and their spiral into madness that proves to be particularly gripping. Mantango is actually quite frightening, conveying a hopelessness and bleakness that continues right through to the end with Professor Murai proclaiming that Tokyo is no different than the island with the people all becoming inhuman. It is somewhat reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) with its grim warning to humanity: the yacht’s passengers come from different walks of life but all eventually succumb to the same desperation and violence, while the mushroom people may be monsters, but then so are the survivors.

While the idea of the strange mushrooms and their transformative powers is bizarre, it is not really central to the story. The main theme is what happens to people when they find themselves in an extreme situation, fighting for survival. And it isn’t pretty. Any semblance of civility begins to disappear the longer they are stranded and they soon turn on one another. While some never seemed to have any morals at all, such as Kasai and Koyama, others slowly lose theirs. Kasai locks himself away from the others in the captain’s quarters, thinking he is better than all of them because he is wealthy. Koyama leers at Mami and Akiko and then secretly hides turtle eggs to sell to Kasai for money. Kasai and Koyama both steal food, not caring about any of the other survivors. The men threaten one another while Murai and Sakuta try to hold the group together. Eventually, each breaks down and eats the mushrooms.

Full of suspense and sexual tension, Matango is not a silly, family-friendly kaiju film like many of the B-movies that Toho would produce. It is instead dark and foreboding while laying bare the unpleasant side of humanity when pushed to its limits.

Matango is showing on Friday January 23 at Japan Society as part of the film series The Dark Side of the Sun: John Zorn on Japanese Cinema which runs until February 2015.