Monday, September 8, 2008

Matango (1963): or, There's Not Mushroom for Error

I admit it--I went into my viewing of 1963's Matango (aka Matango, Fungus of Terror, aka Attack of the Mushroom People) with a somewhat mistaken idea of what to expect. Still, I think I can be forgiven for this misapprehension. I mean, it's a 1960s Japanese horror movie from the legendary Toho Studios, home of everyone's favorite gigantic scaly radioactive superhero/villain Gojira. It's got the requisite "atomic testing once again prompts nature to point out the folly of men" base story. Hell, it's directed by IshirĂ´ Honda, the man who brought Godzilla and Mothra to the screen, and who even pitted Big Green and Scaly against King Kong! And come on, just look at that poster. Was I wrong in expecting giant mushroom people? Was I misguided in hoping that said fungo-sapiens would, you know, be on the attack? I think not.

However, what I got was not Titanic Toadstools Toppling Tokyo, or even Shambling Shitake Shattering 'Shima. No, what I got was something completely different--which is not to say unsatisfying, not in the least. Instead of giant rubber-suited monsters grappling in the ruins of a once-proud metropolis, Honda gives us a much quieter tale, one of gritty survivalism stirred with interpersonal betrayals and turnabouts, and even spiced with a little Classical Greek Myth and trippy English Lit for flavor. So did it work? Well, let's delve into the minutiae and see...

We open with a lonely man peering out a barred window onto the garish, neon-lit Tokyo skyline, dropping vague hints about some terrible experience he's been through. "All my friends have died--no, I died. They still live..." He gives off a nice H.P. Lovecraft narrator vibe, claiming that once we hear his story, "You'll think that I'm insane!" Thrill me, daddy! The darkened room, the weird shadows cast bay the neon blinking through the slats of the window--it's a nicely eerie set-up, really drawing the viewer in.

Cut to--the high seas! On a modestly sized yacht backed by the kind of matte work you just don't see anymore these days, a crew of happy-go-lucky socialites are laughing it up on what they think will be...a three hour tour, a THREE hour TOUR!

Gilligan's Island: The Groovy Years

I kid, but the Gilligan's Island analogy really holds up. On board we have the yacht owner, a filthy-rich businessman in full yachtsman ensemble--that is, Mr. Howell except younger and unmarried. The Professor in this group is a doctor of psychology from Tokyo University, with his young seasick grad assistant filling the role of Maryann. The closest analog is the Ginger character, a nightclub singing sensation who early on inflames the lusts of all the men on board with her sizzling ukelele-based dance number! The Skipper and Gilligan are there too (really--they actually call the ship's captain "skipper," and his first mate even wears a bright red shirt and a tight-fitting white hat!). Only Mrs. Howell is missing, her space filled by a famous novelist who is Ginger's escort on the pleasure cruise.

(Note--for ease of reference for my predominantly Western audience, I will henceforth refer to all characters by their Gilligan's Island analog names. Also, I didn't note down the names and spellings during my viewing, and now I can't be arsed to figure out which character was which. Trust me, you'll know 'em when you see 'em.)

It's not long before the weather starts a-getting rough, and the tiny ship is tossed. Despite Gilligan having previously labeled the whole crew as "a bunch of parasites!" (he's an altogether rougher and more competent character here than his American counterpart) everyone chips in to try to save the yacht from destruction--everyone but Mr. Howell, who stays below to put the moves on Maryann. (Outside, commenting on the action while battening down the hatches, the Author tells the Professor, "Did you know if you threaten a girl and then pretend to be sympathetic to her, she'll fall for you immediately?" "That's how you writers think!" the Prof spits back. "That's not psychology!") Be that as it may, though Maryann is too nauseated to respond to Howell's advances, Ginger seems moved by his compassion--or at least the sight of his big fat wallet.

The storm gets worse and worse, and we get treated to some very good miniature work as the ship is tossed hither and yon by increasingly destructive waves. (Toho is famous for this kind of shit, and no wonder--it actually manages to become a very exciting scene.) When the main mast breaks it becomes clear that any hope of navigation is vain, so everyone retreats below to wait out the storm. Unfortunately a wall of water comes in with them, dousing the radio and cutting off their one line of communication with the mainland.
"Touch my monkey. TOUCH HIM!"

After the storm dies down the Skipper and Mr. Howell come out to survey the damage, and the situation is dire. (The sight of the ruined ship, wheel spinning aimlessly, the sails in tatters, surrounded by an eerie, thick fog, is really rather creepy.) Without a mast or a workable rudder, they're at the mercy of the currents, which according to the Skipper's estimations will take them somewhere near the equator, away from Japan. With no help for it, they resign themselves to drifting about in the pervasive fog, waiting for death or something else to happen.

An undetermined amount of time later Gilligan spots a fog-shrouded island that luckily is right in the middle of the current they're riding. They crash into a reef and swim for the island, hoping to find food and water and maybe even people. They trek through the jungle for what feels like a LOOOONG time, finding water but no edible flora nor fauna, until at last they stumble upon the ruined hulk of a research vessel stranded off the beach on opposite side of the island.

I mentioned the creepy stranded boat set above as a high point, but the abandoned rusty research vessel really puts it to shame--VERY creepy and dilapidated, its insides totally coated with some sort of strange, powdery fungus. In one of the ship laboratories the Professor and the Skipper find a Geiger counter and some mutated research specimens, which suggest that the missing crew had been studying the effects of atomic radiation. The women quickly discover that the ship is entirely without mirrors--for some reason the crew removed all reflective surfaces before vanishing. One more gruesome discovery awaits them in the captain's cabin--the seaman's moldering corpse, covered by red fuzzy fungus! (The fungus covers the room's only porthole too, allowing Honda to use an atmospheric red gel for the scene's lighting--nice.) They take the log book and go back to the mess hall, hoping to use the larger ship for shelter while repairs are made to the yacht.

"Well, gentlemen--at least we won't be lacking for GIANT VEINY COCK."

The middle half-hour or so of this 90 minute movie becomes a saga of hardship and survival on a desert island, as the group's resources run out and nerves begin to fray. They find some canned food in the ship's hold, but not enough. The women are assigned water-hauling duty, going in and out of the jungle every day to the one fresh spring they've found, while the men forage for food and the Skipper returns to the yacht to attempt repairs. Howell finds a rifle and begins cleaning it obsessively, separating himself from the group and perhaps his own sanity. The professor scours the ship's log for clues, learning that the dead captain thought the mushrooms that grow on the island might be dangerous, and that many of the men sent from the research vessel to find edibles never came back from the jungle. Later the girls think they see a strange humanoid figure moving in the jungle--is it a little man wearing a rice paddy hat?--but upon investigation can't find anything but shroomage. And Howell and the Professor discover that seagulls won't land on the island--there's no game of any kind, just plants with poisonous berries, and those plentiful, tempting mushrooms...

Though we do get one eerie nighttime visit from a barely-seen figure in the shadows, for the most part the drama in the flick comes from the characters and their deteriorating civility to one another. Tired of taking orders from Howell, Gilligan rebels (as we always wished he would) proving himself a shrewd survivalist by digging edible roots and turtle eggs that the other crew members never would have known about. (Also shrewdly, he keeps several eggs out of the batch he shares with the group, some for himself and some to sell to Howell at extremely inflated prices.) As time goes on the sailor becomes a Mephistophelean character, taunting the other men for lusting after the women, claiming if he gets too horny he'll just TAKE one of them--then laughing at their "civilized" expressions of horror. Meanwhile even the first mate's dietary supplements can't fill all the bellies on the boat, and the specter of starvation looms.


It's the Author who first gives in to the temptation to eat the mushrooms, reasoning rather bleakly that if they're going to die anyway, why die hungry? The shrooms have a strange psychological effect, making him feel he's "in touch with the infinite!" (Peyote rituals are knowingly referenced--he's a writer, so he knows about these things.) After a scuffle over Ginger leads the Author to shoot Gilligan and try to assassinate Howell, both he and the singer are exiled from the ship, left to find their own way in the hostile jungle.

The horror elements start to kick in at about the 20-minutes-remaining mark, when Ginger reappears on the boat and tempts the starving Howell with tales of delicious, plentiful mushrooms. He follows her into the jungle, into the midst of a wild Alice-in-Wonderland-esque mushroom field, where she tempts him like Eve to taste the forbidden fruit. He does, and immediately starts tripping! We get some lovely Christmas-light trip effects and a flashback to an acrobatic contortionist dancer at his favorite nightclub in Tokyo (presumably the effects of the hallucinatory fungus on his brain--still, zang). However, when Ginger reveals that the drawback to eating the mushrooms is that "you become a mushroom too!" and shows him the fungal growth on her own body, the trip becomes a very bad one indeed--the mushroom people of the title pop up (presumably the crew of the research vessel, now horribly changed) and menace him in a mad, more than a little horrific scene.

Back at the research vessel, the Professor and Maryann regain the repaired yacht, only to learn that the Skipper has given in to despair and killed himself, leaving them alone with no nautical expertise between. Things get worse when the mushroom people show up and FINALLY, after more than 80 minutes, make with the attacking! They board the boat and make off with Maryann, forcing the Prof to follow them into the jungle. Sadly by the time he finds her she's already eaten the shrooms and thus is lost to him forever. (The scene with innocent young Maraynn chowing down on the mushrooms and letting loose the heavily-reverbed laugh is downright chilling.) The Professor fights his way back to the ship, stopping long enough to punch some Toxie-esque Mushroom Warriors and even separate one from his arm (which doubtless will grow into another Fungal Overlord), then sets himself adrift.

Phallus in Wonderland

Back in Tokyo he finishes up his story, how he was consumed with guilt for not having stayed with Maryann, his true love, and eaten the mushrooms with her to show his devotion. He was picked up by a passing freighter, and ended up in the loony bin after telling his mad story. But the heartsick Professor may just have some proof to back up his tale...

Matango is a movie that's ALL about the slow reveal, preferring to let things simmer rather them bringing them to a full, rolling boil. The acting is pretty good throughout, and Honda throws in some interesting camera work (colored gels, hand-held shots, Dutch angles and the like) to build the feeling of tension and claustrophobia on the ship as the marbles get lost. The effects work, when it finally appears, is pretty amazing, and the seldom-seen Mushroom People are (rubber) suitably creepy in a way they wouldn't be if Honda had them in the spotlight from frame one. (They're shown MUCH more clearly on the poster than they ever are in the film.)

And I for one liked the idea of the mushroom people as the Lotus Eaters from the Odyssey, trading the hardships and uncertainties of humanity for eternal hallucinogenic bliss and fungal transubstantiation. Add some Lewis Carol visuals and you've got a unique slice of Toho filmmaking that really stands apart from the Kaiju flicks for which they're better known.

Even Nice Girls Do It

That said, the slow-burn development does make the plot drag at times, and modern viewers might have a little trouble staying awake during the copious non-fungo-centric downtime. Still, it's worth seeing at least once, for its relative uniqueness and cinematic craftsmanship. I give Matango 2 thumbs. If you give it a chance, you might just have a little fun, Gus.

Oh, come on. You knew it was coming.


Anonymous said...

If you like Matango (and had I discovered this movie earlier, I would've adopted "Matango, the Mushroom Person" as my nom d'Internet), I highly recommend you read "The Voice in the Night" (1907), by William Hope Hodgson, the story on which the screenplay for Matango was based. It's here, and it's a quick read.

Matango is a reasonable Japanese adaptation of the original (like Kurosawa's Throne of Blood is a reasonable adaption of Macbeth, only with more Mushroom People), and it's surprising to me that Hodgson's work hasn't spawned more films. Heck, The Ghost Pirates is 10 times the story Pirates of the Caribbean could hope to be. (Pirates of the Caribbean is the literary equivalent of a tenth-generation VHS dub of Hodgson's The Ghost Pirates.) And imagine what golden-age Hammer could've done with Hodgson's Carnacki the Ghost Hunter stories. (Cushing was born to play Carnacki.)

Reading Hodgson is an exercise in "Why wasn't this unalloyed awesomeness made into a movie?" Matango is, sadly, the only decent movie made from a Hodgson story. But every word Hodgson wrote is online, on Gutenberg or in friendlier formats. Young filmmakers eager to do a period horror film, take note.

Tenebrous Kate said...

Ah--further proof for my "Italian post-nukers are way less downbeat than Japaanese post-nukers and I bet there's a historical reason for this" theory :) Sounds like an interesting little flick that steers clear of silliness in spite of its rubber-monster incorporation, which is refreshing. I was hoping for wall-to-wall INSANITY, I'll confess, but a thoughtfully-crafted horror movie is a nice change of pace, even for me.

prof. grewbeard said...

miss kate, please watch Matango, it is excellent. just be prepared for the "LaLaLa Song" early on, don't let it discourage you!

Karswell said...

This is a great movie, much more horror than sci-fi as alot of review blogs would like you to believe. And stunning Kumi Mizuno a huge part of what makes this movie one of my faves... although nothing could ever top how bad ass she looks in her Monster Zero martian space suit.

Maurizio Ercole said...

This is one my favorite japanese movie of all time!!! The watching is suggested... many kaiju eiga fans consider Matango the best Honda's movie after the first Godzilla.

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