Although you wouldn’t know it from the American release title, the reproachable Attack of the Mushroom People, Ishiro Honda’s 1963 Matango is a creepy little conglomeration of horror, science fiction, fantasy, and human drama. Awash in dream-like imagery and grim atmosphere, this Japanese flick is an underrated gem with a few minor, easily overlooked flaws.
A yacht sails out on the open sea for a weekend pleasure cruise. On board is the ship’s owner, industrialist Fumio, as well as psychologist Kenji, Kenji’s girlfriend Akiko, singing star Mami, and writer Etsuro. Fumio’s employee Naoyuki acts as skipper, assisted by sailor Senzo. During a brutal thunderstorm, the ship’s mast breaks, stranding the passengers and crew on a remote, fog-shrouded island. They discover a derelict, unmanned research vessel, covered in fungus. The captain’s log indicates that the island’s mushrooms are not to be eaten. Unfortunately, the mushrooms grow in abundance – other sources of food, not so much. As panic and hunger set in amongst the shipwreck victims, they turn on each other. If that weren’t enough, deformed, humanoid creatures are occasionally seen skulking around in the jungle… and on the ship,
What’s surprising about Matango is that the large part of the drama comes from human conflict, rather than a struggle against the island’s population of mushroom monsters. Initially, the protagonists set out to “get away from it all,” citing the problems of city living. At one point Etsuro states a clear belief that the pleasure-cruisers are superior to “common” humanity and he doesn’t find much disagreement amongst his friends. Of course, their little “escape” on Fumio’s yacht is a joke – they have an AM/FM radio and they still happily partake in a little classism by treating Naoyuki and Senzo as little more than hired hands. Their geographical position aside, this bourgeoisie bunch are still firmly entrenched in society.
Once the group is stranded on the island – their wish for a break from society granted all too well – it becomes quite apparent that they are nothing without the social structures that hold them in place. Their microcosm of respectability breaks down. Naoyuki takes natural command of the situation, organizing the tired castaways to gather food and water. However, his authority is tenuous and does not allow him control over the mounting interpersonal tensions. Senzo antagonizes his former superiors at every turn. Fumio tries to pretend that he is still the man in charge by taking separate quarters from everyone else. Mami uses her sexuality to drive a wedge between the men. Finally, Etsuro breaks down and eats a mushroom, which is where things really start getting interesting.
Even though human drama is the driving force in Matango, it’s still a damned good horror story. Screenwriter Takeshi Kimura (adapting William Hope Hodgson’s short story “A Voice in the Night”) intelligently pits the castaways against a foe that insidiously exploits their foibles. You see, the mushroom monsters don’t comprise the major horror aspect of the story. They are merely a symptom of the real evil – the mushrooms themselves. The mushrooms turn whomever eats them into a mushroom person. It sounds silly (and, admittedly, it looks silly – more on that later), but Kimura and director Honda wisely focus on the psychological effects of the mushrooms rather than the physical ones. Once you’ve consumed one, you’re not only addicted; you’re completely cool with your final, fungal fate. It’s a concept equally fascinating and disturbing – the process of metamorphosis protecting itself by transforming the mind as well as the body. It also offers the starving, mentally drained castaways the escape they initially sought, removing them from the concerns of human society by transforming them into something other than human.
Unfortunately, there is the feeling throughout the film that Honda and Kimura aren’t quite ready to deal with their conceptual horrors on a visceral level. When we do witness the partial transformations of some of the castaways, they are very partial indeed -- a little fungal growth along the side of the face here, perhaps a moldy hand there, but nothing that a trip to the dermatologist couldn’t fix. The other mushroom monsters on the island have all transitioned into a state of being that is not recognizably human. I never felt in my gut that they were once human beings. The filmmakers never really show a true halfway point between man and mushroom, so for all we really know, our protagonists are merely going to suffer some dermal overgrowth. Of course, I’m speaking from a post-Cronenberg era; I’ve witnessed horrifying physical mutations at all possible stages (in films like Videodrome and The Fly) and I’m more in tune with the dramatic possibilities of the body’s revolt against itself. I recognize that I’m probably asking too much from a film made in 1962, but Honda and Kimura’s reticence does make Matango feel a bit quaint at times.
What Matango lacks in concrete, visceral horror, however, it makes up for with in atmosphere. There’s a feeling of decay throughout the film – the abandoned research vessel is covered in fungus, its wood rotting at every turn. One can almost feel the uncomfortable humidity eating away at both the ship and the will of the characters. Adding to this feeling is the fog that shrouds the island, blanketing everything. As survival becomes more difficult for the castaways towards the end of the film, they are beset by endless rains that dampen their spirits and threaten the continued usability of their temporary home aboard the derelict. Conversely, the same rains also cause the mushrooms on the island to expand in size (an excellent effect done with special inflatable props).
One almost wishes that they didn’t need actual monsters, because the silliness of their costumes causes certain sequences to lose their power. In particular, I’m referring to the climax, where the remaining untainted survivor of the shipwreck struggles to escape from the clutches of his fungal foes. The creature suits embody the concept of a mushroom person a little too literally. Nobody’s going to be frightened by a beast with an umbrella head. Rather than menacing, the mushroom people just come off as surly versions of Toad from the Super Mario Bros. games. At least they don’t have red polka-dots on top.
Inexplicably, Matango is listed in a number of books dedicated to bad cinema, such as The Golden Turkey Awards by Harry and Michael Medved. I don’t dare try to figure out why this is, but it would be a shame for such bad press to discourage fans of fantastic cinema from this underrated beauty. Even with its flaws, it’s a movie experience to savor, not unlike a good Portobello.