Matango (1963)

Class: Staff
Author: Anthony Romero
Score: (4/5)
August 21st, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

One of director Ishiro Honda's masterpieces, only finding competition from his 1954 classic Godzilla for a superior picture, comes this multi-layered science fiction production. The movie itself refuses to be subjected to genre, beyond the obvious science fiction elements, as it transcends the usual formulaic approaches of what one might consider a horror picture. Is the movie itself freighting? Not really, but then the movie's intent is instead a more eerie and gothic tale that explores humanity's instincts when removed from modern society and faced with survival or starvation. In this sense, the film evokes more similarities between later productions like Kwaidan (1965) and Onibaba (1964) then with the clichés of most modern Japanese horror pictures. It isn't just the concept that allows Matango to succeed, though, as the diverse cast of characters, great performances and nice production values elevate the movie into one of Toho's best sci-fi productions.

In terms of the plot, the movie starts off with a crew of seven on a yacht, five of which are vacationing while the captain Sakuta and ship hand Koyama man the craft. Of those onboard are the millionaire Kasai, the writer Yoshida, the singer Mami, the teacher Murai and his girlfriend Akiko. Unfortunately, the ship is hit by a storm, destroying their communication equipment along with the engine and sail. Eventually the yacht drifts to a remote island where the seven survivors embark in hopes of finding fresh food and water. The island is plagued, though, by a constant fog, while water is abundant although food scarce. The group eventually discovers a giant ship that had crashed there years ago, whose fungus covered interior and cargo relating to the research of radiation spawned abnormalities give off a cryptic feeling. While onboard they discover a gigantic mushroom, which the ship's original crew had dubbed “Matango”. The survivors eventually decide to clean the vessel of its moss and make it a base of operations. Tension continues to rise though, as food is scarce. Eventually some weaken and decide to consume the local mushrooms, while it becomes apparent that consuming them starts an irreversible transformation process. The survivors then try to resist the urge to eat them with the lack of food, while slowly turning on each other to pursue their own survival and desires.

Overall, the plot has a lot in common with William Golding's classic Lord of the Flies: a story about a group of individuals who, when removed from society and left to survive on their own, begin to turn on one another. It's a grim outlook on humanity that simply says: when pushed to the limit, most will focus solely on their own survival, regardless of the consequences to those around them. The concept of the ship's crew turning against each other is really interesting enough in its own right for the plot, yet the movie also incorporates the science fiction elements of the Matango species that work to heighten the eeriness of the island while also better grabbing viewer interest.

Still, it's probably not fair to state that the film's subtext is that cut and dry, as there has been many interpretations of its meaning and intent. Some, in fact, have compared the Matango themselves to sin, as the yacht's survivors are taken by lust or greed before giving into the mushroom's allure. This idea certainly falls inline with Kasai's hallucination near the end of the movie. The manner in which the subtext can be viewed from so many angles, though, really adds to the potency of the movie, as it involves the viewer to draw a sense of it all while not presenting a heavy handed moral. The fact that film has a subtext is hard to miss though, as it's spelled out in the final few lines when Murai states: “Is it really so different in Tokyo?”

Beyond its dark implications, Matango is also much more character driven then most of Honda's work. The cast of characters starts out fairly carefree at the beginning of the movie, with only a hint of the hidden contempt going on among the "friends" that will later come to the forefront. What makes the film's characters work so well is that they are distinct amongst each other and developed to the point where the audience begins to understand their motives. Akiko's uncomforting feelings around the other travelers, beyond Murai, is made clear from even the start of the film as she looks uneasy while Mami begins to openly flirt with the writer Yoshia before straddling the yacht's owner, Kasai. In fact, the two female characters are night and day from each other, with Mami enjoying being sought after as merely a sexual object while Akiko is much more reserved and quite, which eventually leads the others to lust after the young girl's perceived innocence. The character of Kasai, a businessman who's used to being in charge, is also well done as the wealthy individual who sits in his room cleaning a rifle while he's reluctant to work yet opposed to not being treated like he's still the leader. This does well to bring out more resentment amongst the group too, seen quickly from Yoshida and Mami who are silently, yet overtly, annoyed at Kasai's attitude. The fact that he's willing to pay a fortune to Koyama for food supplies that are being kept secret by the resourceful and untrusting man is also a nice element, as the development does well to incorporate multiple characters in how each personality trait plays out.

The meticulous level of detail that goes into the character development shouldn't be missed either, as there are even subtle hints to support their personalities throughout the production. This goes as far as to include minor details such as Akiko being the only one not drinking alcohol during the groups late night toast on the yacht. Other development is more overt, like the captain and his ship hand privately discussing the frivolous nature of the passengers as they see a storm approaching, yet nonetheless effective. It's really this level of planning, though, that helps the cast succeed as a highly memorable group of characters, and it's a shame that this level of character detail is hardly ever explored in other Japanese science fiction productions.

As for the acting, the cast of actors that Honda has assembled for the production do extraordinarily well in their respective parts as a number of them manage to give the best performances of their career. The movie itself is an ensemble cast production between the seven survivors, although Akira Kubo as Murai could still be regarded as the lead. Kubo's performance overall is solid here, especially since he had the difficult task of playing out the final sequence. Kumi Mizuno's performance tends to be the most memorable from the film though, as she obviously enjoys playing the more frivolous nature of her character early on while the actress does an excellent job of expressing her darker and seductive nature later in the picture. Yoshio Tsuchiya, who plays the wealthy Kasai, is another stand out performance in the film. He portrays the stubborn nature of the character well, yet is brilliant near the final act when Kasai breaks down and becomes desperate and nearly suicidal. Kenji Sahara, as Koyama the ship hand, is also excellent in the movie as he finally breaks out of his type cast. 1963 would really be the year that Sahara defined his craft by starring outside of the typical “salary man” hero role in films past like The Mysterians (1957) and King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). Not only would the actor appear as the antagonist in the film Atragon (1963), but also his performance in this movie really showed off his range as he portrays the more self-centered and untrustworthy ship hand perfectly. In all honesty, there is no weak performance in the movie, as all seven actors play off each other well and fit their respective roles incredibly well.

In terms of the production values, the movie is surprisingly solid for a Japanese science fiction film of this era. The sets, for example, are fairly grand as the movie's art crew did a good job of creating the interior of the old ship and its numerous cabins. Special effects are also handled fairly well, with the humans who are slowly transforming into the Matango looking excellent. The creatures themselves, when the transformation is complete, aren't quite as impressive, looking far too dry and stiff, yet their screen time is minimal when all is said and done. The music, composed by Sadao Bekku, is serviceable. It does well to create the more cheerful mood during the opening credits and subsequent scenes, while Bekku also crafts some eerie and foreboding music to accompany the crew's turmoil on the island. It's not particularly memorable on its own, beyond the excellent theme when the storm first clears, yet most horror soundtracks aren't and this one does work well in the context of the film.

All in all, the movie is far darker, with a bleak outlook on modern society, than any of Honda's other films. In fact, the entire proceeding is almost counterbalance from what we expect from the director; whose movies tend to portray over idealistic views of humanity ranging from a scientist willing to take his own life to see the weapon he unwilling created never be used against humankind in Godzilla (1954) to the nations of the world joined in unity in movies like Battle in Outer Space (1959) and Gorath (1962). It's a much more serious film than the American title, Attack of the Mushroom People, would ever suggest, which in itself seems almost clichéd to say with how often that is cited in reviews of the movie. Matango comes highly suggested, though, to anyone who enjoys films that rely heavily on atmosphere and characterization then the more explicit techniques in horror pictures.