Fun fact about me: I’m squeamish about mold and mushrooms. Not all the time. I like mushrooms just fine when they come all nicely packaged at the grocery store (I make a wicked good shiitake pasta). But I always get a bit skeeved out when I see mushrooms popping up on my lawn. Similar thing with mold. I love blue cheese, but if a teeny green spot appears on bread, into the trash goes the whole loaf.
I have many virtues. Consistency is not one of them.
These issues surrounding spores, molds, and fungi may help explain why it’s taken me so long to get around to watching Matango – addicts of late-night TV may know it by another name: Attack of the Mushroom People. I’ve seen the movie derided in a number of places, so I was surprised to find it’s a fairly serious, claustrophobic story that’s marred by some effects silliness in its last quarter.
The movie opens with a man, presumably the lone survivor of some tragic event, telling us about his experiences. He keeps his back turned to the camera the whole time, which doesn’t bode well. Then it’s one of cinema’s more jarring transitions as we go into the credits sequence, which has cheerful music over scenes of a yacht full of happy people sailing over the bounding main. Our characters are a wealthy businessman and his pals: a professor of psychology, the professor’s mousy girlfriend, a mystery novelist, and a sultry singer most of the men fancy. There’s also a two-person crew (one of whom wears his sunglasses ALL the time, so he’s obviously a hep cat).
Faster than you can say, “the weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed”, a storm does indeed arise and takes out the sails and the power. The boat ends up on an island that is truly deserted – aside from inedible vegetation, the island has no life on it – no animals, birds, or fish are to be seen. What the island does have is mushrooms, and lots of them. It also has a shipwreck that’s covered in some icky looking mold. But beggars can’t be choosers, so our castaways clean up some rooms and set up quarters in the abandoned ship. Tensions arise as the group squabble among themselves and start seeing strange apparitions. And when the meager supplies of food run low, despite the vague warnings found in the wrecked ship’s log about not eating the island’s mushrooms, those fungi start to look pretty damn tasty, consequences be damned.
Though marred by some silliness late in the game (a six-foot-tall ambulatory mushroom probably sounded good on paper but on screen it’s ridiculous), Matango is a rather effective film. Director Ishiro Honda uses the island setting well: at first glance it looks fairly hospitable, but the lack of food, constant fog, absence of animal life, and evidence of many past shipwrecks give the impression that the place may actually be malevolent. The actors look sweaty and desperate, and even in the dubbed version effectively portray how the situation breaks down friendships and societal standards – and not even true love may save the day.
Matango isn’t a fast-paced movie. There are lots of scenes involving the various characters skulking around the island, desperately looking for seaweed or turtle eggs to eat. And several scenes (particularly the first time the strange humanoid figures appear on the ship) end without any real resolution. Still, it’s a moody, effective film that even in its English-language dub is serious rather than silly, and not deserving of the derision it’s often received.
Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock have put together an excellent DVD. In addition to both English and Japanese language versions and a lovely transfer, the DVD offers plenty of extras that include trailers for The Mysterians and several kaiju films, an interview with Matango actor Akira Kubo, and features with the cinematographer and screenwriter. It’s well worth checking out, if for nothing else than to revisit a movie that probably freaked you out when you were a kid catching it on the Saturday afternoon creature feature.