Matango (Ishiro Honda, 1963)


AV_Inferno_DVD_.inddAfter a yacht is damaged in a storm and stranded near a deserted island, its passengers – a psychologist, his student, a wealthy businessman, a famous singer, a popular writer, a sailor, and the boat’s skipper – take refuge on a fungus covered ship marooned on the island’s shore.  With food scarce and the ship’s logs warning that the island’s plentiful mushrooms, called “Matango,” are to be avoided, the castaways find their characters tested, leading to private deals, sexual tension, and violence.  But when the hunger of the shipwrecked party becomes too great and its members begin eating the forbidden fungus, the true horror of Matango is revealed, transforming the castaways in mind and body into hideous fungal monsters!

Famed Japanese director Ishiro Honda assembles an all-star cast from his previous sci-fi films and monster movies for Matango, featuring performances by Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno, Kenji Sahara, Hiroshi Koizumi, and Yoshio Tsuchiya.  Captivating hallucinatory sequences, impressive set designs, and fantastically horrifying special effects by the celebrated Eiji Tsuburaya make this colorful B-movie a little known tokusatsu classic.  Based on the 1907 story “The Voice in the Night” by William Hope Hodgson, Matango is one of the strangest, most horrific Toho productions to date and is presented here, for the first time, in high-definition presentations of its original Japanese version and its American cut, Attack of the Mushroom People.

Special Features:

  • New high definition digital transfer of the Japanese cut of Matango and of the 1965 American version Attack of the Mushroom People edited for TV by American International Television
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard DVD Presentation
  • Uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-ray edition
  • Newly translated English subtitles for the Japanese soundtrack
  • Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Audio commentary by star Akira Kubo
  • Interview with SFX cinematographer Teruyoshi Nakano
  • Spoken word reading by screenwriter Masami Fukushima
  • Vinyl Fungus – Artist Barry Allen Williams on Matango and its collectibles
  • “Voice in the Night,” a 1958 episode of Suspicion based on the same source material as Matango
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Production sketches
  • Collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by scholar Richard Pusateri and William Hope Hodgson’s original 1907 story “The Voice in the Night”

As a Japanese film featuring a group of castaways trapped on an island of walking mushroom monsters, it’s easy to understand why the Internets abound with synopses and discussions of Ishiro Honda’s Matango (1963), aka Attack of the Mushroom PeopleCurse of the Mushroom People, and Fungus of Terror.  The film’s plot can be summarized fairly quickly (or elaborated on more fully with a quick internet search).  A group of seven are stranded on a remote island after their yacht is damaged during a fierce storm.  With food scarce and egos aplenty, tensions quickly rise.  One castaway is murdered and one commits suicide, but most succumb to eating the plentiful mushrooms that they know are damaging.  Those that live to consume the fungi and experience its hallucinatory and numbing influence are consumed by the mushrooms themselves, becoming hosts for the fungus until gradually transforming into one of the massive, laughing mushrooms that roam the island.  Honda reportedly cites Matango as his favourite work of his own, and it is generally cited as a masterwork of Japan’s kaiju kingpin.

Matango CastawaysIt’s difficult to not connect Matango to Gilligan’s Island, viewing the Japanese film as some kind of trippy nightmare version of the CBS sitcom despite the movie predating the TV show.  In fact, it’s often rumoured that Matango did serve as the inspiration for Gilligan’s Island, less the fungal frights and mushroom monsters.  Matango‘s collection of castaways do resemble those of the TV program to a curious degree.  The yacht trip is operated by a skipper (Hiroshi Koizumi playing Naoyuki Sakuta) and his mate (Kenji Sahara as Senzô Koyama), and is organized by a wealthy businessman (Yoshio Tsuchiya as Masafumi Kasai).  His four guests are a famous singer (Kumi Mizuno as Mami Sekiguchi), a well-known writer (Hiroshi Tachikawa as Etsurô Yoshida), a university professor studying psychology (Akira Kubo as Kenji Murai), and his student (Miki Yashiro playing Akiko Sôma).  Most are shallow, frivolous, and narcissistic individuals, and those that are not are likely guilty by association simply for tolerating the terrible behaviour of their colleagues.

PrintThis post contributes to “The Great Villain Blogathon,” but the question of isolating Matango‘s true villain is a difficult one.  While the fungus that gradually infects all of the living castaways and the walking mushroom monsters that attack the last of the survivors could easily be called the film’s villains, but Matango isn’t really a creature feature as one might expect.  In a way, that’s too bad, as the mushroom threat is spectacular.  Sequences showing the fungi growing in the rain is eerily effective – achieved by forcing through an aperture an expanding petroleum by-product that would later develop into styrofoam.  The walking mushroom people are utterly fantastic, being weird and original in way entirely distinctive and unlike anything else, and their strange noises are bizarrely chilling, particularly the low, slow laugh they emit while trying to overwhelm Murai.  But the mushroom giants make few appearances and pose little threat throughout the film, making Matango more of a horror film where the self-destructive impulses and greedy desires of the castaways, both before and after they fall under the spell of consuming the mushrooms, are the real dangers.  The film’s fungal monsters ultimately become simply a final embodiment of the moral weakness and corruption exhibited by Matango‘s human characters.

Ishiro Honda’s Matango is sometimes criticized for its characterizations.  Its castaways are exemplified by narrow apects – Kasai is lazy and double-dealing, Mami is obsessed with male attention, Yoshida is selfish and without any moral grounding – but the film’s treatment of its characters as types is less a demonstration of some deficiency in script or its director, who proves himself capable of such nuance in other films, and more of a suggestion that Matango operates at the level of metaphor.  Even more than The Human VaporMatango‘s criticism is obviously aimed at Japan’s economic miracle and the changes working on its society.  The castaways represent an array of figures flourishing under Japan’s affluence and liberalization – business and industry, art and culture, academics and skilled tradespeople all find themselves challenged by the hardships and temptations of the island.  All suffer to various degrees to materialism and self-interest, and their drive for mindless consumption and shallow achievement ultimately leads to the obliteration of their individual identities into a monstrous mass.

For some, Matango is an anti-drug picture.  Until very recently, psychedelic mushrooms were technically legal in Japan and Matango‘s occasionally bizarre dream sequences and mad visions; particularly Kasai’s neon-coloured, showgirl fantasy; can be read as a cautionary statement on the forthcoming drug culture.  Myths of lotus-eaters exist in both Western and Japanese cultures and mushroom imagery easily underpins a view of a culture drifting toward hedonism, apathy, and resignation.

Matango AttackMatango‘s criticism of Japanese culture during the post-war miracle comes into light when the atomic origins of its conflict are noted.  Just as Japan’s astounding economic recovery flowed directly from the nuclear disaster of two A-bomb attacks, the film suggests that the Matango fungus and the mushroom monsters are spawned by radiation, a detail revealed to the castaways when they explore an abandoned ship left derelict on the island.  Log books of the ship’s former crew reveal their mission to have been the study of radiation on natural environments, and it appears clear that its crew were devolved into the fungal mass that prowls the island. Looking at Matango‘s mushroom monsters, particularly on the Japanese poster below, itself difficult not to see the creatures as walking mushroom clouds.  Some accounts even suggest that Honda’s film was nearly censored due to the similar appearance between the growing fungus on the castaways and the injuries that plagued survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki following WWII.

Matango Japanese PosterThe film ends where it begins, with Murai alone in a darkened hospital/asylum cell overlooking a neon-lit Tokyo, finishing the tale he started at the film’s opening.  He laments his decision to not remain on the island and succumb to the fungus with Akiko.  He reveals in a shocking turn to face the camera that the fungus now grows on him and will presumably consume him (and perhaps metropolitan Tokyo as well).  Honda fans hold Matango in special reverance within the director’s catalogue, embracing its unusual effects and its uniquely dispiriting view.  There are many villains, no heroes, and the monster is neither contained nor destroyed as occurs in the Godzilla franchise.  As such, it’s an excellent candidate for an Arrow Video release, and with the Media Blasters DVD of Matango now out of print and commanding hefty prices on the secondary market, a high definition edition of the movie would be well-timed.  Moreover, Arrow Video releases of The Human Vapor and Matango would expand the label’s Japanese titles away from the gangster films that dominate that portion of its catalogue, introducing some much needed science fiction, horror, and kaiju to the label through a master of the genres.

Matango TrikeCredits:  The cover summary is inspired by a few different synopses of the film, including the summary on the Media Blasters DVD.  The commentary, the reading, and the SFX interview are also ported over from the OOP Media Blasters edition.  We chose Barry Allen Williams to talk about Matango‘s life in collectible vinyl based on his own great work in the form and his obvious admiration for the monster, having issued his own renditions of the creature.  (Plus, it gives me an excuse to post this wacky toy mushroom monster riding a tricycle!)  Richard Pusateri was chosen to provide an essay on the film given his past work on kaiju cinema and his article on the film for G-Fan.

Lastly, we need to thank Kristina, Ruth, and Karen for organizing “The Great Villain Blogathon” for a second time and for letting MMC! participate.  These ladies know their movies, are expert at blogging, and set the standard for blogathoning!  Check out their blogs – SpeakeasySilver Screenings, and Shadows & Satin!

4 thoughts on “Matango (Ishiro Honda, 1963)

  1. Kristina May 23, 2016 / 9:55 pm

    Great analysis, I have to see this. The pics you have here show some great colour and yes, a striking similarity to Gilligan’s Island 🙂 Good stuff and thanks for bringing it to the blogathon.

  2. Silver Screenings May 24, 2016 / 1:09 am

    Yes, one of the photos you posted made me think of Gilligan’s Island, too, but this film sounds infinitely more interesting. I’ve never even heard of this film – this is another one you’ve introduced me to – and I’d very much like to see it.

    I wonder what it would have been like to have been a life-long Japanese resident and to see this film when it was first released. No doubt the similarities between the monsters and the A-bombs would have been disturbing. No wonder it was almost censored!

    Thank you for joining the blogathon, and for introducing us (me) to this film!

    • spinenumbered May 24, 2016 / 2:09 am

      Always a treat to participate in these blogathons. Thanks to all of you for organizing another great event!

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