Matango (1963)

Class: Staff
Author: Guy Tucker
Score: (5/5)
April 3rd, 2005

So why is Matango Ishiro Honda's greatest film? I dunno, you tell me why not; you pick the ones off the shelf you like better and I'm sure I could make the same case for some of them too (I'm particularly notorious for favoring off-market titles like The Human Vapour [1960] and All Monsters Attack [1969]). I know this much: as a will-be filmmaker myself, I wondered even back in the college days how Mr. Honda pulled this off, Matango, this strange, hallucinatory character study within which nothing makes sense if you think about it objectively, but emotionally it hits every note that anybody with a brain already owns. Nominally based on the short story “A Voice In the Night” by William Hope Hodgson, then adapted into a shape I'm not familiar with (haven't read the first screen treatment and doubt I'd recognize it even if I could read that much Japanese), and then turned into screenwriter Takeshi Kimura's swan song of sorts, Matango remains a masterpiece, something long belittled under its AIP title Attack of the Mushroom People, but which is something a lot more interesting and deep than such an exploitive title suggests.

I've seen both the Japanese and American versions of this movie dozens of times; I could dissect it to an inch of its life, yet even then I would not manage to tell you what you saw the first, second, third, or twentieth time you ever wanted to see this very special motion picture. What I can do is tell you how important it was to everyone who made it. At this point, Ishiro Honda had directed all the actors but one (newcomer Miki Yashiro) in several movies, and felt able to gather them all together beforehand (each one of those actors I've been fortunate enough to know — Kenji Sahara, Akira Kubo, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Hideyo Amamoto — all remembered this specifically), to tell them: “This is a very unusual story compared to what we've done before; it's very serious and I need you to perform accordingly.”

Of course each of them responded in kind. Not one of the actors (which includes Kumi Mizuno, Hiroshi Koizumi and Hiroshi Tachikawa) have done better work in movies; some have been fortunate enough to win equivalently weighty roles, but except perhaps for Tsuchiya (he did, after all, debut in Seven Samurai [1954]), have ever been asked to do as much. Matango is a story both about the nature of humanity, and how we fail to be as good as we hope we are; oh, we may think we know about what good we can do as people, but then there's the case of what we can be reduced to when we're starving and backbiting even at the only people who might help us get through it all. Honda was very careful to cast who he did, all but Yashiro actors he knew very well, and all actors he knew would provide him with what was needed (he saw things in them that hadn't been shown before; Kenji Sahara, until then typecast as a kindly salaryman type, was especially grateful to be shown off as a semi-toothless sunglasses-clad would-be molester; "I think it showed directors I had more range than they thought," he observed).

Technically, too, the picture is impeccable; Honda's usual cameraman by then, Hajime Koizumi, never did better work for him, and the design by relative newcomer Juichi Ikuno is also spectacular. I'm not sure but I think the budget dictated that the score be done by the relatively cheap Sadao Bekku, who in fact did a brilliant job; I've thought that Bekku must've been listening to old Bernard Herrmann recordings when he scored Matango, but have no proof of that.

As for the special effects, there are great miniatures and, per Teruyoshi Nakano, the most elaborate makeup work ever then done for a Japanese movie; uglying up Kumi Mizuno, Nakano joked later “I wondered if we'd ever see her again!” The movie was not hugely expensive, in fact it played on a double bill with the vaguely ironically chosen Young Guy in Hawaii (directed by another future Godzilla helmer, Jun Fukuda), which must have looked like a sort of jokey choice as far as double bills went.

I find I'm not telling you why this movie is so special, and I guess it's because I want you to see it for yourself. If you really like this genre, and really care about the people who made these films, including the actors, this is one you can't afford to miss. Let me close with something that Ishiro Honda did himself:

One day I asked him: “What are your favorites of the movies you directed?”

This was in his own home, and he actually went so far as to get up off the couch and peer at the video titles (no LDs or DVDs then).

He decided his favorite was Matango.

Make of it what you will. Signing off, G.