Toho Studios and Ishiro Honda are famous for kaiju movies, such as Godzilla, but Matango is every bit as powerful. It lacks the usual kaiju rubber-suit monster. Instead, Honda tells a moody tale of a group of castaways who have their humanity slipping away from them as they, one by one, turn into mushroom people. Matango became better known to American audiences through A.I.P's english dubbed version in 1965, for television. Matango developed something of a cult following, but also its share of detractors. The mushroom people themselves are not horrible enough for horror fans, nor monstrous enough for monster fans. Yet, setting costumes aside, Matango weaves a compelling, if gloomy, story about people succumbing to a dark side.
Quick Plot Synopsis
The movie opens in a Tokyo psychiatric ward. A lone man tells his tale. A group of seven people are cruising on a sailing yacht when a fierce storm brews up. The owner wants to maintain course. The wind breaks their masts. The waves take out the radio and engine. They drift helplessly through calm foggy seas. Eventually, they drift up to a fog shrouded island. It is uninhabited, They find an old fungus encrusted old research ship on the other side of the island, but no trace of the crew or passengers. The captain's log warns not to eat the mushrooms. Food and supplies begin to run low for our seven. Tensions rise and the old social order crumbles. The crewman ignores the skipper's authority. The rich man cannot buy obedience. The star uses seduction in a ploy for power. The writer seems to be going mad. One of them does eat the mushrooms. They are at first satisfying, soothing and narcotic. One by one, the castaways join in, becoming strangely placid, yet insistent that the remainder join them. Eventually, only the professor and his girlfriend remain as untainted holdouts. The mushroom people surround the couple on the beached ship. While the professor fights off some mushroom people, other mushroom people carry off the girl. When the professor finds her in the mushroom forest, she has eaten and become one of them. He fights to escape the surrounding mushroom people and makes it to the partially repaired yacht. This, he sails until picked up by a ship. Back in the psych ward, he finishes his tale. Unbelievable? He turns to face the light, revealing that his face has fungal lumps on it. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
The deeper themes and social commentary provide much food for thought. The sets, lighting and camera work create a strong mood.
Cold War Angle
This is left understated, but present. The research ship was guessed to be studying the effects of nuclear testing. Did radiation cause the mutant mushrooms that take over peoples' bodies and minds? Or, did the researchers unwittingly create the the insidious fungii while studying radiation effects? Either way, Honda quietly blames nuclear testing for the loss of humanity.
Print Precedent -- Takeshi Kimura's screenplay was inspired by a short story by William Hope Hodgson. "A Voice in the Night" was published in 1907. Hodgson's story was about two men aboard a becalmed schooner. One night, they hear a voice from an unseen small boat, asking for food. They give him some food and he tells his tale. He and his fiancee were shipwrecked and drifted on a raft to a foggy island. In the lagoon, they found an abandoned ship which was encrusted with many gray fungus growths. They set up quarters in the ship, but after awhile, noticed growths on themselves which would not go away. Out of extreme hunger, the woman, then the man, eat the mushrooms. They were becoming less human and more mushroom. The voice thanks the men on the schooner and departs.
Ancient Precedent -- There is an element of Homer's Odyssey in Matango. Odysseus and his men land on a strange island. Some of his men leave the ship to look for supplies but never return. Odysseus finds them in a village of lotus-eaters. The lotus fruits were both a nutrient and a narcotic. Once tasting the lotus, his men become placid, content and lost all desire to return home. Odysseus has to drag his men away, begging him to let them stay. The mushrooms had this same dual role of life-sustainer and soul-enslaver.
Pod Precedent -- Within the mushroom transformation in Matango is a sort of parallel to the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers ('56). Once having eaten even a little bit of mushroom, the person's humanity fades away. Taking its place is a new, stronger personality. They have a common mind to induce all the remaining humans to join them in mushroom-hood, much as the pod-people worked at turning everyone into pod-people. This creates a very similar feeling to the story about the loss of our humanity -- being taken over by something else.
Social Breakdown -- Another similar sort of tale was William Golding's Lord of the Flies ('54) in which a group of plane-wrecked British school boys start out with a semblance of civilization and order. Yet, as time passes on the island, their civilization breaks down into brutal savagery. We see a similar breakdown among the seven castaways in Mantango. Social order (labor vs capital, authority & obedience, even male & female social roles erode into self-centered savagery. Golding and Kimura spin similarly dark visions of mankind's more primal core.
Gilligan Noir -- It may be a strange cosmic coincidence that the crew of the shipwrecked yacht in Matango had a Skipper, crewman, a rich man, a movie star, a wholesome girl and a professor. Sound familiar? Sherwood Schwartz was developing the pilot for his new TV sitcom "Gilligan's Island" at almost the same time that Matango was showing in the western U.S. Perhaps he had seen Matango (still in its original Japanese), or perhaps he heard a synopsis of it and liked the character mix. With only a few weeks between Matango's release and Schwartz shooting, the former may not have had any influence on the latter. If not, it is a very strange coincidence.
Love Lost -- Another sub-plot is the inner conflict of love vs. survival. Professor Morai loves Akiko. When she becomes one of them, Morai is torn -- be with his love, or remain a human. When the other mushroom men surround him, his instinct for survival proves stronger. He escapes, but is forever haunted by regrets. Maybe escape from the "real" world (of sin and evil) and mushroom life with Akiko was the better path.
Bottom line? This Toho tale is definitely worth watching. The original, with english subtitles is better than the A.I.P. dubbed version (which sometimes comes across too silly). There is much thoughtful commentary on mankind and society in Matango's screenplay.