This week’s cult film recommendation is Matango, a little-known Japanese oddity from 1963. You might imagine from its full American title, Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People, that it’s a daft and trashy piece of work. Contrary to appearances, though, this is an unusually well-made and thoughtful genre film. It plays by the rules of matinee mysteries, but does much more than just tick its way through a checklist of catastrophe clichés.
(Mild spoilers follow.)
The story, told in flashback, introduces us to a group of seven people at sea. They are in high spirits, which we do not expect to last. Sure enough, nerves begin to fray when a storm hits, lashing the boat about in a cheap but energetic fashion. (Throughout the film, much is done with rather little.) Set hopelessly adrift, the party takes refuge on an apparently deserted island, a damp and murky place with mist everywhere. It’s a fine setting for the rest of the film, and the studio sets don’t diminish the humid, mouldy atmosphere.
As the group explore the island, they try to figure out how to survive. Rescue is unlikely, and they are running out of supplies. There is little to eat on the island except the ubiquitous native fungi, which, though reputed to be delicious, are also said to do weird things to the nervous system. Civility and solidarity progressively give way to paranoia, hunger and desperation. Squabbles become frequent, and the lure of the toxic mushrooms grows ever stronger. Those who succumb are quickly seduced into a languorous, Lotus-eating stupor…
(End of mild spoilers.)
The final showdown is underplayed, and what it all means is open to debate. Like many a B-movie, Matango presents its cast as a microcosm of a threatened society. Its central drama is psychological, exploring how isolation, addiction and the threat of annihilation undermine our better natures. With strong acting, fine cinematography and excellent art direction, Matango is a beguiling film that uses an unlikely premise to examine human behaviour under extreme stress. And because it’s a mild body horror from post-war Japan, there are mutant monsters amidst the violence, desire and betrayal. Fun for some of the family, then.
Ishiro Honda said Matango was his favourite film of those he directed. Honda is best known for the original Godzilla in 1954, but he has a bumper back catalogue of films, and was also Akira Kurosawa’s assistant on several occasions. Matango is based loosely on William Hope Hodgson’s eerie tale The Voice in the Night, and occupies similar territory to The Thing From Another World, Forbidden Planet and the Bodysnatcher films — with a desert-island-fungal twist. “This is how literature developed in the first place,” says a character in Matango. “Every modern story stole its plot from something someone else wrote.”
The film has been removed from the Internet Archive, where I saw it last year, but it’s available on DVD and (at the time of writing) on Google Video, with Japanese audio and English subtitles. You can also watch trailers (with spoilers aplenty) in Japanese:
and dubbed into English: