"Don't you even touch the mushrooms!"
-Matango-Still swimming around the island nation.
While director Ishiro Honda (1911-1993) is best known for his unforgettable, classic work on establishing the legacy of Godzilla beginning with his masterpiece Gojira (1954), Honda first got his start with Toho as an assistant director to Akira Kurosawa. In his later years he would move from the director's chair and offer his hand as a collaborator with Kurosawa (Ran, Dreams, Kagemusha) on a number of pictures. While Kurosawa has always been lauded with praise and affection as one Japan's premiere directors and perhaps its best, revered as a critical darling, Honda has often been relegated to something akin to a second tier director for his work on all things kaiju-eiga.
As David Kalat noted in his book, A Critical History And Filmography Of Toho's Godzilla Series, there was and still is an unfair, pervasive prejudice toward the kaiju films of Japan.
As Kalat wrote, Toho Studios shared cast and crew on both Kurosawa and Honda films. Critics in America would routinely discount Honda's works, while universally praising Kurosawa's efforts. Many of the same actors would appear in both director's works. To underscore the unfair portrait, those actors, praised as brilliant in Kurosawa's pictures would often be ridiculed in Honda's productions. Kalat even cited a terrific example in The New York Times that cited Takashi Shimura as "the best actor in the world" in Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952). Yet for Gojira, the same newspaper noted "not one of [the cast] can act." Right. How is that for ignorance even if a different writer from the same paper? "Kagemusha is a film, Godzilla is only a movie" (p.2). Nevertheless, Japanese actors "gladly" accepted roles within the kaiju genre, pictures that were not frowned upon in Japan as they were in America. Also noted by Kalat, Americans simply could not reconcile that Honda actually had the talent to play a significant role in Japanese cinema for both Kurosawa and defining the growing kaiju-eiga genre.
As we continue to look back at the work and art of those in Japan we turn to a film that enjoyed a regular residency on Saturday's Creature Double Feature out of Boston. It was one Honda's very best films and as a young person was sure to put hair on your chest. We take a close inspection of Toho and director Ishiro Honda's classic Matango (1963).
Honda turned in some of his most sterling work from the 1950s through the 1970s and Matango was a shining example of his genius with mood and atmosphere in the world of the creature feature.
Matango was also known as Matango, Fungus Of Terror and most notably stateside on Creature Double Feature as Attack Of The Mushroom People. That title alone scared the very young in front of tube televisions everywhere in the United States.
Instantly, images of films like Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes might spring to mind, but Attack Of The Mushroom People or Matango was legitimately terrifying as a kid. It was a frightening, creepy little tale that often had both young hands and fingers crossed allowing just one eye to peep through at the terror while sitting Indian style (that's probably politically incorrect now).
Ishiro Honda arrived with Matango during a prolific period beginning with the classic Gojira (1954), the sci-fi heavy trilogy The Mysterians (1957), Battle In Outer Space (1959) and Gorath (1961), Rodan (1956), Toho's first color kaiju film, Varan The Unbelievable (1958), The H-Man (1958), and Mothra (1961). Following King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962) and Gorath (1962), Honda arrived with the sci-fi intensive Atragon (1963) and the freakishly spooky Matango (1963).
With Matango the prolific director gave us all a good scare by downsizing his look at kaiju horror with something much more intimate and effective in Matango.
As a child, I always found these kinds of films even more unnerving than the giant monster films. As a kid, both generated nightmares, but in my kaiju dreams, I always had the ability to run and flee from the approaching Godzilla. There was always a building to duck behind or a basement to hide within. I was able to evade the advancing lightning bolts or radioactive fire breath. Escape was always possible in those dreams. The giant monsters weren't looking for me specifically. But mushroom people! Holy crap, that was a whole different story.
With the more diminutive (all things being relative to Godzilla) creatures that would populate the likes of Matango there was nowhere to run and hide. They were roughly the same size as me and they could be around any corner, thus waking up altogether was an entirely good option. These things were horrifyingly real and creepy and thus left some of the most lasting impressions.
One must look at the wonderful care given to these films by Honda. Shot in Oshima, close to Tokyo, the cast spent the better part of a month in isolation recalled delectable actress Kumi Mizuno in Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! (Stuart Galbraith IV, 1998). Honda told the group, "This is a very grim story, and I want you to take your roles very seriously" (p.84). Mizuno correctly asserted, "It was about man against man. That is, I think, the most attractive part" (p.85) of the film. That, of course, and Mizuno herself. I couldn't resist.
Matango, today, still remains incredibly bleak, haunting and infinitely mesmerizing in its use of atmosphere, silence, set design and a wonderful Japanese cast. Honda's use of color in capturing the ghostly interiors of a shipwrecked nuclear research vessel in the story is just one of those staggeringly beautiful gems of film production. Each room the character enters has its own color, light and look suggesting the vessel has literally become a part of the deserted island's growth. It has been assimilated by the fungus and molds alerting all that the island will usurp all that arrives there.
Matango centers on a group of oceangoing passengers - a Gilligan's Island (1964-1967) type group consisting of a skipper, his assistant, a professor, a celebrity, a writer, a singer - aboard a yacht that is caught inside the perfect storm. Coincidentally Gilligan's Island filmed its pilot, Marooned, in 1963, a few months after the release of Matango. Eerily a ship is spotted in the ocean mist and fog and, and like a siren, almost lures the travelers out of the fog and, and not to rocks, but to an equally life-altering uncharted island of mystery.
Once on the island, the survivors stumble upon the ghostly vessel. It is suggested there is a nuclear link and that the ship was studying its effects on sea life and the region.
This, once again for Honda, brings to the fore the Japanese connection culturally to a people's relationship with the devastating aftermath of World War II and the consequences of the bomb's discovery. Honda infused these concepts symbolically and poetically within Gojira and within his science fiction-heavy The Mysterians. These themes were a part of who Honda was as a director. It was, of course, lost on us as children taking in a thrilling Saturday entertainment, and dousing our eyes from the sight of horrors before us, but there was much more going on within Honda's story. Once again illustrating his substance as an artist as much as an entertainer. Like Gojira, Matango is one of his greatest successes in seamlessly fusing tale with theme.
As much as Honda built radiation into the story of Gojira, not as a "gimmick" like some American monster films would implement (though I think radiation was as much on the minds of Americans as it was the Japanese), but as "a symbol of the bomb," he too infuses Matango with that same message through mushrooms.
Matango relates to the island events of the American nuclear tests and delves into the "narrative device" to "discuss the terror of the nuclear age," according to Kalat in his book A Critical History And Filmography Of Toho's Godzilla Series (1997). While, Kalat speaks directly about Honda's approach to the Godzilla films in his book, the subject is perfectly fitting and applicable to such films as Matango and The Mysterians. These films were a part of who Honda was as a director. They are in step with his vision. Kalat notes wartime left an "enduring psychological scar" on Honda who "lived through the firebombings of Tokyo" (depicted quite graphically in director Isao Takahata's Grave Of The Fireflies). He was directly impacted by the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II and the direct effects of radiation. Honda "felt compelled to translate the horrors of modern war." Again, Kalat speaks specifically to Gojira, but Honda's message is no less pronounced or underrepresented in Matango and elsewhere. Honda saw a chance to "make radiation visible" or "visual" as noted by Galbraith in Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!. He achieved this through the symbol of Godzilla and his trademark radioactive fire breath. Honda achieves it in Matango through the mutation of actual people horrifically disfigured as veritable mushroom people.
On March 1, 1954, the Marshall Islands were subjected to atomic testing with the detonation of the first hydrogen bomb. It was 1,000 more times powerful than those bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Unfortunately, radioactive fallout spread across the ocean region. Once again, unfortunately, the Japanese fell prey to an American test. Off the coast of the Marshall Islands a Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon (Daigo Fukuryo Maru) fell victim. The crew of that ship was impacted by the radioactive cloud and became sick. Aikichi Kuboyama, the radioman of the vessel, died a few months later in September 1954. He was the first casualty of the hydrogen bomb. Anti-American sentiment grew exponentially along with the headlines in Japan following the incident.
This is historically significant to the development of Honda's vision of the ghostly ship in Matango, a tribute to the Japanese fishing vessel lost to radiation sickness, as conveyed through the symbols within Matango. Honda explores a similar set up concept concerning the radioactive event for his film The H-Man, years earlier, to equally gruesome effect. The horrors of nuclear radiation are indeed a visual reality for Honda. The Mushroom people are indeed symbols of the bomb and the consequences of nuclear horror on human beings.
Gojira was released shortly after the aforementioned events. David Kalat wrote, "Honda originally planned to make the connection to the Lucky Dragon even more explicit, and expected to start Gojira with the irradiated fishing vessel floating, completely uninhabited, back to its port like the death ship" (p.34). Honda was sensitive to the proximity of the events to his people. Honda admitted, "We skirted the issue, frankly speaking. We felt that putting a real-life accident into a fictional story with a monster appearing in the midst of it wouldn't sit well in the world of a film entitled Gojira" (p.23). Honda added in Galbraith's book, "I felt the atomic terror would hang around our necks for eternity" (p.23), and it has. Years later, in truth, Honda would bring that original vision to reality with the ghost ship of Matango and in his film's layered cautionary tale that ultimately suggests the fates of those aboard the Daigo Fukuryo Maru. The very island itself, the center of Matango's story, is symbolic of the Marshall Island event itself. The ghost ship, for all intents and purposes, is the Lucky Dragon No.5 (see also the 1959 film of the same name). Matango is Honda's most direct tale. It speaks to the horrors of those events.
As a vision of film, Matango's cautionary tale succeeds in spades due to great casting and a simple affecting story. The tale is told in flashback by one survivor now under psychiatric observation. He tells us the others are still alive, but never left the island. This is the set up and we are immediately intrigued by the premise and want to learn why as we witness Honda spin his web of magic implementing a script that was credited, believe it or not, to five different writers, including in particular Takeshi Kimura (1912-1988; The Mysterians, Rodan and many other classics). Honda's vision comes to life on screen as models (both of the miniature and Japanese babe variety), make-up and simple details are produced exquisitely for the eye.
Matango, renowned as a Japanese tokusatsu film, meaning a live action film fantasy, horror or science fiction film relying on special effects, boasts Japanese legend Eiji Tsuburaya (Gojira, The Mysterians and other Honda classics). Tsuburaya works wonders into the creation of this mythical and otherworldly place that becomes central to Matango. The setting and production design becomes a major character within the film. A selected filmography of Tsuburaya's marvelous and beautiful contributions can be found in the entry of the non-Honda film Godzilla Raids Again (1955) found here. Tsuburaya's suitmation work was particularly stunning on the so-called Mushroom People. They were anything but and when encountered seemingly came to life straight from the mystical island. Complete with a horrifying sound effect, the Mushroom People were one of the scariest things I had ever seen as a child as they moved to and fro in the forests towards their victims. It was truly mortifying stuff.
Matango was adapted from a short story by English author William Hope Hodgson called The Voice In The Night (1907). Hodgson's fungal concepts, found here in Matango, could conceivably have been pulled from another Hodgson horror tale called The Boats Of The "Glen-Carrig" . As a story, Matango is graced with considerably strong dialogue (the English dub is a little challenged, but I still eat that one up like a bowl of portabellas) for an ensemble cast and a good deal is revealed about each of the primary characters as the story grows darker and darker beginning with the revelation of a mutant Matango aboard the wrecked ship.
Slowly, as food considerations become dire and the idea of an island bountiful in fungus sustenance becomes readily apparent rash choices are made. Matango, for a film with its very short length of 89 minutes gradually becomes something of a body horror film and a film about resisting temptation and thus stemming inevitable transformation. Honda's film is as much about mutation as it is about radioactive contamination and its affect on a population and its food supply.
There's clearly something about those shrooms and the group is warned not to eat the mushrooms based on the log books found from the wrecked vessel. Is there something truly different about those mushrooms that affects nerve tissue? Is it the work of man? Could it be nuclear testing that has created a monster island of a different kind?
Furthermore, the log books indicate former ship members left to hunt and gather food, but never returned. With the island often shrouded in fog, these castaways are on their own. They begin to discover the island is a ship's graveyard and that even birds steer clear of it.
Then of course there is the theme of man versus man in this morality play. How far are we willing to go to fulfill our desires? Trust and distrust become central to the story. Gradually the fragile alliance of this loosely gathered makeshift team begins to unravel as distrust, fear, dread and desperation takes hold in this endlessly dreary graveyard. How far will we take our basest instincts? The story quickly devolves and becomes a grim snapshot of humanity and the human condition as driven by greed and weakness. The rain and bleak setting offers the antithesis of a lost paradise - paradise lost.
The hallucinogenic properties of the mushrooms lure and trap their residents like the siren lures ships to the rocks and their inevitable doom. In this twisted Eden of sorts, as Steve Ryfle notes in Japan's Favorite Mon-Star, the actors eat the proverbial, "allegorical 'forbidden fruit'" (p.100). There is indeed something twisted and dark about this place.
Even the creatures are used sparingly here to fill this claustrophobic or isolated tale and as a result events are intoxicatingly frightening.
The film paces itself evenly between the variety of characters and their minor discoveries building upon the creepy and the suspenseful. A mushroom-like figure is spotted in the forest. A disfigured fungal figure boards the vessel one evening. But these images are sometimes obscured or used sparingly to build the genuine horror of Matango.
Matango demonstrates how the human condition devolves throughout the film. Even when efforts are made to connect with others out of love Matango is unrelenting in its sadness. Finding that human connection becomes one of the film's final statements. We are left to believe we are ultimately alone repelled by things we do not know or understand.
Matango is a satisfying, stark piece of horror and science fiction. It has a series of carefully woven, universally appealing themes. It is graced by a well-balanced cast with some uniformly strong performances, particularly by Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno and Hiroshi Koizumi (see below). It is matched with a beautifully-directed and seamlessly crafted film production. Tremendous effects work, set design and some gorgeous cinematography (Haijime Koizumi) populate the film throughout. It uses every minute of its short length to drive home a finely tuned story in riveting fashion, use its limited but exquisite set designs and tell the tale of humanity at its basest working together and against each other to survive. The Akira Kubo character was indeed the hero, but unlike today's super heroes he was but a mere ordinary, good man. It was with him we pin our hopes and yet even through him Honda surprises us. The moral of the story, as the Kubo character notes, even in Tokyo, like the events on the remote island, people are ultimately cruel and unkind. It is a devastating portrait of humanity and not for the faint of heart.
What impresses most is how much this film affected me as a child and how well I remember every frame of it. Even with my hands to my face as a child I was forced to return to this film that still holds up in quality today. That's the craft of a genius at work even if it based conceptually on someone else's material. He did it with a lizard named Gojira and he does it again with Mushroom People. Galbraith called Matango "an exquisite horror film about a corrupt group of urbanites shipwrecked on a foggy, rainy island," likening the human breakdown of social order to William Golding's Lord Of The Flies. And while the title Attack Of The Mushroom People, is a "wildly inappropriate" (p.30) for USA release, it doesn't detract from a quality film. Matango is essentially cinematic poetry connecting Honda's troubled soul over the nuclear past with the present reality and something viscerally traumatic. He digs in the dirt with Matango. It's a magnificent example of fantasy horror done absolutely right. Many Americans really missed the boat on this one, but the kids didn't and for me the film is as haunting today as the ghost ship used by Honda. There is a mood and atmosphere to Matango that is so refreshingly different from the Godzilla pictures. You may wonder how many times you can watch the great lizard stomp across a city or throw it down after seeing this one.
I'm inspired to get back to making my homemade mushroom soup. Even after a microwave reheat, that's one heck of a radiated dish you can eat!
On an anime note: Studio Gainax's Nadia The Secret Of Blue Water offers a riff on this film in one of its episodes.
The exceptional quality of its ensemble cast is one of Matango's great strengths. Mizuno and Kubo are two of the best.
Actress Footnote: Kumi Mizuno (1937-present). You talk about being in love as a child. I crushed on Kumi Mizuno like a wide-eyed Japanese school boy. I was in love with her like you loved your elementary school teachers. She was beautiful, sensual and sexy, a real dream girl. If the Internet existed back then my walls might have been adorned with Kumi Mizuno. Mizuno featured in a number of Toho/kaiju eiga classics including: Gorath (1962), Matango (1963), Frankenstein Vs. Baragon or Frankenstein Conquers The World (1965), Invasion Of Astro-Monster or Monster Zero (1965), Godzilla Vs. Ebirah, Horror Of The Deep or Godzilla Vs. The Sea Monster (1966), The War Of The Gargantuas (1966), Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002) and Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).
Mizuno is beloved within the genre and her chemistry in three films opposite actor Nick Adams was notable. It is believed their attraction carried over to real life. They starred together in Invasion Of Astro-Monster, Frankenstein Conquers The World and The Killing Bottle (1967). The alleged affair took place while Adams was married at the time. Adams sadly died under mysterious circumstances one year after The Killing Bottle. The exotic Mizuno denied the relationship in 1996. Interestingly, Mizuno also starred opposite Kubo in three films. Mizuno was indeed an alluring siren for any man in these films. She was simply stunning.
Actor footnote: Akira Kubo (1936-present): Kubo has appeared in roughly 75 Japanese films. He has appeared in some classic Toho productions including: Gorath (1962), Matango (1963), Invasion Of Astro-Monster (1965), Son of Godzilla (1967), Destroy All Monsters (1968) and Space Amoeba or Yog, Monster From Space (1970). He appeared in Akira Kurosawa's Throne Of Blood (1957) and Sanjuro (1962) as well as Kill! (1968). He resurfaced in kaiju films with Gamera: Guardian of The Universe (1995). Kubo reflected on the always exotic attraction of Kumi Mizuno in Galbraith's Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!. "I worked with her a lot. She got to be really gorgeous. Offscreen she was sexy and unpretentious" (p.79).
Actor Footnote: Hiroshi Koizumi (1926-present). Koizumi has appeared in a host of Toho/kaiju eiga productions including: Godzilla Raids Again (1955), Mothra (1961), Matango (1963), Atragon (1963), Godzilla Vs. The Thing (1964), Dogora, The Space Monster (1964), Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964), Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla or Godzilla Vs. The Cosmic Monster (1974), The Return Of Godzilla or Godzilla 1985 (1984) and Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003).