Matango (1963)

Class: Staff
Author: J.L. Carrozza
Score: (5/5)
Feburary 1st, 2007 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Matango is a simply wondrous film. Ishiro Honda made many fine and criminally underrated works in his long career as director at Toho, but Matango could honestly be his finest film of all. Better than Godzilla (1954)? I don't know; the two films are rather different and difficult to compare: one's a large-scale anti-war monster epic while the other is a small-scale psychological drama that only veers into genre territory in its final reel or two. The films, at the same time, aren't too different either. Godzilla simply shows us the effects or human greed and callousness on a large scale, whereas Matango presents it on a smaller, more personal scale. Honda definitely agreed that he had made a fine film; he would frequently name Matango when asked to name his all-time favorite of any of his movies. Matango is a hauntingly beautiful and highly underrated little drama that succeeds on every level.

In a padded cell in Tokyo's psychiatric ward, a man sits in the dark. This man is Kenji Murai (Akira Kubo), a former college professor. Months ago, he was with several other vacationers: Kasai (Yoshio Tsuchiya), a wealthy but insecure businessman, Mami (Kumi Mizuno), a promiscuous starlet, virginal college student Akiko (Miki Yashiro), narcissistic novelist Yoshida (Hiroshi Tachikawa), frustrated skipper Sakuda (Hiroshi Koizumi) and sailor Koyama. They had gone sailing the Pacific in a yacht for a few days to leave the stress of their hectic Tokyo lifestyles behind. That night, however, the yacht is caught in a storm and the mast is destroyed, leaving the ship drifting in the Pacific. The group soon reaches a small island and goes ashore. Making their home in the crusty, fungus covered hulk of an abandoned former research vessel, they find that food is scarce and that the only readily available sustenance is a large mushroom that grows in the nearby forest. The log of the ship's former crew, however, who are all missing, warns that mushrooms could be dangerous. There is also the problem of some mysterious, creepy figures that seem to lurking in parts of the island. The castaways, suffering from hunger, fear and paranoia, begin to viciously turn on each other. One by one, they all succumb and go into the forest, eating the forbidden fungi. The consequences prove to be too grotesque to imagine.

Matango has a plot reminiscent of both William Golding's Lord of the Flies and Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit. Like Lord of the Flies, it shows how the laws that keep human society together can quickly disintegrate under desperate enough circumstances. Honda and screenwriter Takeshi Kimura, like Sartre, however, understand that the ego-driven responses of human beings are most often far worse than that the circumstances that trigger them. Matango, like such earlier films as Half Human (1955), H-Man (1958) and The Human Vapour (1960), is a deeper, more personal and more horror-oriented film than Honda's kaiju or space epics. There are no expensive sequences of miniature city demolition; the majority of the film takes place within the confines of an unnamed and seemingly uncharted desert island. In most of Ishiro Honda's films, Eiji Tsuburaya's special effects work always takes precedence over the “people” scenes he would shoot. Here, in a rare but welcome instance, like in The Human Vapour (1960), Tsuburaya's FX plays second fiddle to the story, characters and actors.

Tsuburaya's work, however, is no doubt about it some of his very best here. Rear production, suitmation, pioneering photographic techniques, miniature ships, matte paintings and grotesque monster makeup are all employed here to nearly flawless use. It simply seems far less showy than usual thanks to the smaller scale and nearly invisible integration with Honda's stellar actor sequences. Also quite notable is Matango's look. The film is surely one of Honda's most visually rich and cinematically lovely works, boasting lush, atmospheric and gorgeous cinematography by Honda's veteran DP Hajime Koizumi and excellent production design by Juichi Ikuno with the abandoned ship's interior in particular being extremely visually unsettling and far more stimulating to look at than the average tokusatsu film set, on par with the art direction in any Mario Bava movie or Hammer horror film in terms of atmosphere. It's lyrical, psychedelic, beautiful, fantastical and foreboding all at the same time, like a lush, Impressionist-era painting melded with the lurid cover of a pulp novel. The music by Sadao Bekku, while not as iconic as that of Akira Ifukube, of course, is moody, dream-like and perfectly complements the film's imagery. Matango is not unlike Hajime Sato's later Shochiku production Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, in plot and feel. That film features another group of travelers behaving badly (this time with a plane crash rather than shipwreck) but with a race of alien blobs that possess human bodies and turn them into zombie-like vampires through a vaginal vertical gash on the forehead picking them off rather than mushrooms. Matango, however, is a much more cohesive film than the occasionally sloppy Goke.

Matango is a rare Ishiro Honda film that truly belongs to Ishiro Honda. The performances by all are mesmerizing. Particularly getting a chance to shine are Kumi Mizuno as the prissy and whorish Mami and Akira Kurosawa veteran Yoshio Tsuchiya as the deeply tormented Kasai, who starts off as a rich and cocky executive and becomes a pathetic wraith whose money gets him absolutely nowhere. Hiroshi Koizumi, usually playing egg-head scientists in most of Honda's films, also does well in the role of Sakuda, the yachts skipper who is deeply disgusted by the self behavior of his passengers; the role being something of a departure from his previous ones. Matango is certainly writer Takeshi Kimura's most notable script. Kimura, who wrote such works as The Human Vapour (1960) prior and The War of the Gargantuas (1966) after was Toho's more downbeat genre film scribe. Shinichi Sekizawa would frequently pen the less socially conscious and more escapist fare. The Sekizawa scripted films depict mankind in a more positive light, frequently showing mankind uniting in the face of an alien or monster threat. Kimura, a member of the Japanese Communist Party, had a very different approach. His works were deeper characters studies and far more inquisitive of human nature. Matango is hardly flamboyantly nihilistic, but it definitely questions human's behavior, in the end criticizing the insanity of day-to-day human life as being no better than that on the island, just on a larger, more unconscious scale. The script's character development is impeccable, probably the finest in any Toho produced genre film. If one watches closely on a subsequent viewing, you can notice that the negative character traits the cast exhibits are already slightly evident even in the opening when they are all “happy”. However, the more stressed out, paranoid, famished and pushed to the edge they are, the more their negative “id” personas become who they really are.

Sadly, the film's reputation is only just start to mend. Bypassing a theatrical release in the US, it was released directly to television by American International Pictures under the hyperbolic (and very AIP) howler of a title: Attack of the Mushroom People. Now don't get me wrong, I love the schlocky AIP-produced B-movies like Attack of the Giant Leeches that the title was meant to invoke as much as the next guy, but Matango is at a much higher level than a simple B-movie. The film, for decades, was only available in the West in battered, horrendously dubbed 16mm prints with a panned-and-scanned image that was so faded that everything was in varying shades of pink. It's an experience not unlike watching a film chewed up and spit out. The film was thus often dismissed as high camp, a real crying shame indeed. Thankfully, with the film now available in the States in its original dialogue and aspect ratio, Matango's reputation is improving. Overall, Matango is a triumph, far from a campy monster movie and a seminal work in Honda's oeuvre.