Viewers who think of Japanese monster movies in terms of Godzilla are in for a surprise with Matango, an adult fantasy as endlessly interpretable as our own Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The threat this time is not an onslaught from outer space but an eruption of secret desires from within. Previously known in America only in a badly-dubbed TV version that attracted the jeers of Z-movie critics, Matango is actually a minor classic - perhaps the most mature of Japanese monster movies.
Media Blaster's second Toho release is another superior presentation, with a number of interesting extras.
The DVD liner notes accurately call Matango "one of the strangest and most horrific Toho productions to date." This bizarre movie is a crazy-mirror inversion of the premise of television's Gilligan's Island. The Skipper is a 'hired captain' who eventually abandons his fellow castaways. Gilligan is a lecherous and untrustworthy sailor. The Millionaire is the millionaire; he betrays his own guests. The Movie Star is a singing diva who likes the idea that all the men want her, and is one of the first to succumb to the horrors of the island. The Professor is a psychologist and the nominal hero, and Mary Ann a demure student carried off against her will by dreaded monsters. There is no Millionaire's Wife, unless an ethics-challenged writer fits the bill. Matango predates Gilligan's Island and there is obviously no point of intersection between the two, but imagining a 'lost' episode of the TV show with this plot is like, wow, far out.
a tale of a fateful trip ..."
Matango isn't like any other Toho film that Savant has seen. The H-Man and Dogora entangle fantastic monsters with gangsters and criminals but stick to genre lines and simple linear plots. The mad doctor movies - The Human Vapor and The Secret of the Telegian likewise hew closely to known formulas. Matango's writer Masami Fukushima uses a spare tale of modern castaways as a framework that can support any number of interpretations. The 'civilized' people soon reveal their true natures. None is willing to sacrifice himself for the others, a convention almost axiomatic in standard Japanese tales. The borderline decadence of the singer Mami and her writer consort is contagious, and at least one castaway is for a while more interested in sex than avoiding starvation. A spooky, derelict schooner becomes their new home, and as soon as they find a small food supply, several individuals start stealing from what should be a communal cache. The captain that seemed so trustworthy at the outset ends up taking everything and abandoning the group. The sailor discovers a nest of turtle eggs, and sells them for a fortune to the millionaire. The millionaire in turn cleans a rifle found on the ship; it's clear that he's up to no good.
Matango at first appears to be some kind of twisted morality tale. Some elements are like a ghost story - the ever-present fog, the empty ship with its rotted sails - but other trappings are definitely science-fiction. The slimy mold that grows all over the ship's interior may be a variety of the runaway Matango fungus from the island. Because the crew has disappeared without a trace, ardent Sci-Fi fans will be reminded of Val Guest's The Quatermass Xperiment, a Hammer film that spawned a world-wide subgenre about lethal blob monsters. In it, the rocket experts can't figure out what happened to two astronauts in a sealed space capsule - all they can find are traces of a kind of slime ...
The Matango island is a sort of Eden in reverse. Everyone wants out but escape is futile; after a failed attempt even an unguided yacht returns under its own power. The sophisticated city folk are aligned toward the competition of life in Tokyo and lack the resolve to front an organized survival plan. Only the academics Kenji and Akiko are capable of seeing beyond immediate hungers and desires. Akiko was insecure with the uninhibited banter during the cruise and is uncomfortable when some of the men consider her a sexual object, a status Mami encourages.
In his Encyclopedia of Science Fiction movies, Phil Hardy (or his contributor) interprets the Matango fungus as an externalization of an individual's desires, a rot that takes over the soul when one gives oneself over to selfish lusts, whether for sex or empty consumer luxuries. Mami epitomizes this - she talks endlessly about the cost of the yacht, and the millionaire's offer to take her to Europe with him. Her essential emptiness won't let her be content with just one lover, and she encourages the writer as well. Under the circumstances, it's almost logical for the sex-starved sailor to want a spot in line for Mami, or to think that he can just claim Akiko because he wants her.
It's easy to attach too much sinfulness to the castaways. They're starving, after all, and so crazy with hunger that they'll eat the 'forbidden fruit' represented by the mushrooms even after seeing walking proof that the phantom ship's crew has been transformed into grotesque mushroom people. Once one partakes of the delicious mushrooms, there's no turning back; it's as if the Matango fungus exudes some kind of instantly-addictive narcotic. Almost everyone is eventually seen happily chomping away on the colorful 'shrooms, even as their limbs and faces are being transformed from within by the mutating spores. For some interpreters, the mushrooms are the new social narcotic of sex, and the "phallic" mold creatures that the people eventually become are simply the moldy matter left over after sexual desire has consumed an individual's humanity. That seems a terribly punitive interpretation to Savant, although it certainly fits in with the Eden/Original Sin concept. 1
The menace of the Matango fungus is that after a certain point its influence becomes socially dominant; once the community of survivors (clearly intended as a microcosm of decadent modern living) slides in the direction of the new sustenance, the weak are easily tempted and the holdouts forcibly encouraged to partake. Although Kenji escapes, it appears that just breathing the spore-laden air of the island is enough to destroy him from within, like The Flesh Eaters that instead become flesh-transformers.
Matango shows director Ishiro Honda transcending special effects and big rubber monsters. He's a master of eerie moods in The H-Man and in Matango shows himself to be adept with intimate dramatic situations. There's nothing laughable or awkward here; by the time the strange 'mushroom people' appear, we accept their purpose in the story.
Production values are impressive. The large ship set is meticulously detailed and the early stages of fungus entirely convincing. The island settings are rich and atmospheric, adding greatly to the ultra-weird conclusion. The only technical flub are a few front-projection scenes on board the millionaire's sailboat where shutter misalignment causes the projected background to flutter and strobe. 2 As in Invasion of the Body Snatchers a wraparound flashback structure is used to isolate the tale as one man's first-person encounter. Matango plays like a superior horror short story.
Media Blasters' DVD of Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People looks great, even better than their first release The Mysterians. Colors are vibrant and blacks are deep and rich. The audio is also excellent, allowing us to appreciate the breezy title theme that sounds like a Nino Rota cue from a Fellini movie. The removable subtitles are easy to read. It's hard to believe that the old, unwatchably dubbed TV prints of Attack of the Mushroom People made us think the movie was an incompetent mess. Unlike The Mysterians, the English dub provided is a 1963 export original. It comes in a mono or a 2.0 stereo version and is the disc default track; to hear the recommended original Japanese (mono only) one has to hit some track and subtitle select buttons.
The extras appear to be sourced from a Toho Japanese release and include a commentary (subtitled) by star Akira Kubo. A filmed interview with special effects cinematographer Teruyoshi Nakano uses an interesting selection of behind the scenes stills. There's an extra called "spoken word from Matango writer Masami Fuikushima" that appears to be the author reading from a short story or screen treatment for the film.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The most satisfactory
interpretation of the purposely ambiguous Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds is from critic Robin
Wood, and it's very similar: The malevolent birds are an externalization of the tensions between
the characters. When human ties start to break down, the Birds mass like harpies to dispense random
chaos and destruction, like the mythological Harpies.