Release Date: August 11th, 1963
Duration: 89 mins.
Director: Ishiro Honda
Writer: Takeshi Kimura (Script),
Starring: Akira Kubo (Professor Kenji Murai), Kumi Mizuno (Mami Sekiguchi – singer), Miki Yashiro (Akiko Soma – Student), Hiroshi Koizumi (Naouyuki Sakuta – Captain), Kenji Sahara (Senzo Koyama – Sailor), Hiroshi Tachikawa (Etsuro Yoshida – Writer), Yoshio Tsuchiya (Masafumi Kasai – Owner), Yutaka Oka (Doctor),
While Ishiro Honda may be better known as the man who directed Godzilla and numerous other kaiju eiga, he has an extensive filmography that covers different genres. Quite interestingly, he even worked as second unit director on Akira Kurosawa’s later films like Madadayo (1993), Rhapsody in August (1991), Dreams (1990), and Ran (1985). This is a rather long-winded wind up to say that Honda’s a bit of a filmic renaissance man who jumps around genres and roles but the first film of his that I will review on my blog is not anything obvious but Matango (1963), a merciless horror flick that takes a slow-burn approach to its telling.
The story has a killer opening with a man in an insane asylum gazing upon the neon lights of Tokyo while he relates his story of how he got there. He is Kenji Murai (Akira Kubo), a professor of psychology, and his narration will float in and out of the film as he is our main protag on a sailing trip from hell and we will see what went so wrong in one long extended flashback.
It all starts as a bit of fun in the sun for a bunch of playboys seeking to get away from the dust and masses of humanity in Tokyo by heading out onto the open sea in a luxury yacht. This group consists of Kenji and university student Akiko Soma (Miki Yashiro), Mami Sekiguchi (Kumi Mizuno), a singer and flighty lady, the ship’s owner Masafumi Kasai (Yoshio Tsuchiya), a novelist named Etsuro Yoshida (Hiroshi Tachikawa) and two men hired as crew. As the ship coasts along the sea around Kyushu, the gang are suddenly blown off course by a sudden storm which leaves the yacht wrecked, the mast snapped, sails torn, radio busted.
Adrift and in dire straits they face almost certain doom as food runs low, tension runs high and alcohol flows but soon these sozzled sailors end up washed ashore on an uninhabited island. It looks like their luck has turned as it is a verdant place that has a few vegetables but a far more abundant supply of fresh water and, in the mist-wreathed swamps at the centre of the island, mysterious mushrooms that grow in huge numbers and to huge misshapen sizes. Indeed, while flora is all around, fauna is notably absent apart from the occasional turtle that uses the beaches to lay eggs and so the only sound present is the wash of the surf and the whisper of the wind, the chatter of these desperate castaways and a mysterious helium-voiced giggling that can just be heard floating around the shrooms.
Things take a menacing turn when the group discover a fungus-covered derelict ship of unknown origin which has a laboratory packed full of chemicals and scientific equipment. While the rotten state of it alone clues these castaways into something terribad having happened, a search of the vessel confirms it as they uncover those mysterious misshapen mushrooms in a laboratory, an untouched cache of canned food, a lack of mirrors, and a captain’s log with menacing notes about “the crew disappearing every day” and a warning saying “don’t eat mushrooms.” The mushrooms are a new variety labelled “matango” and are very delicious, have hallucinogenic effects and addictive enough that people get hooked on them like a drug. With their options limited, the group of five men and two women decide to hole up on board the mould-encrusted ship to figure out how they can survive little realising that the crew are still around on the island but maybe not in a form that is recognisable...
Despite the possibility of mutagenic mushrooms, body-horror, and monster attacks, the tension of the story is more dictated by the squabbles, disagreements and some sexual tension between the characters as survival takes precedent and they each play one another off for an ever-dwindling supply of canned food and clean water and the attentions of the women. Each of the characters has a strong and distinct personality and these clash out in the wilderness where social class gets turned upside down because money is useless, the novelist, already a massive egotist lapping up this situation for material, begins to act out the character of a madman, and Mami hooks up with whoever looks like they will be the dominant one.
This creates an atmosphere of ego-driven conflict and betrayal to keep viewers on edge but dread is fostered by the mysterious mushrooms and the missing crew whose fate on that island also feeds into a sense of mystery which gets teased out by the discovery of footprints around the derelict and through the forest.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the gradual warping of bodies and minds of the characters, surreal fantasy scenes created by eating mushrooms, and some creeping monster POV shots eventually give way to eerie monster antics as the creatures begin to manifest themselves from the depths of the island and while Honda lets loose some rubbery suits and gnarly make-up, the deadliest conflicts that take place in the film happen between the humans who give way to their worst impulses and murder each other. Indeed, the desperation and tension of the film comes from the discord and betrayals of the humans and their horrid situation and one of the central ironies of the film is that it ends with the suggestion that turning into mushrooms might be more preferable to being a human, an individual with an ego ever at odds with others.
While the real threat comes from people, the mystery of the island and what the mushrooms do adds a sparkle of great horror. Perhaps the psychological battles are based in reality because this was a time when the CIA were experimenting with the hallucinogenic effects of mushrooms, drugs were becoming a problem and, according to the Wikipedia entry on the film, it was partly inspired by a real-life incident as well as William Hope Hodgson’s short story The Voice in the Night. Whatever the case, the film has a solid story full of conflict but the highlight is some brilliant art direction and set dressing and a prime location that allows the setting to be a character itself. The island looks desolate, the derelict ship is like something out of a supernatural story written by Edgar Allen Poe, the mushroom swamp and fungus-filled landscape alternate between being menacing and a colourful carnivalesque place with some truly menacing mushrooms that are squishy and gross looking, with lots of squelching sound effects to boot, to create a distinctive look.
Honda’s penchant for special effects may be kept in check for the majority of the film but it comes out in the final sequences which are more gut-churning and upsetting of the thought of bodily dissolution rather than seeing it in action as the special effects and costumes can’t quite rise above the silly. However, his visual panache allows this film to still be atmospheric and so even if the monsters don’t scare, the feeling is one of bleakness and despair so that ending hits hard and we understand that becoming a mushroom is not as bad as being a human and having terrible shipmates.