Creative Director - Los Angeles Arts Society
Please be advised that the following review contains spoilers.
If you’re a fan of Godzilla or Japanese cinema in general, then chances are you’ve at least heard of Matango. One of a number of non-kaiju science fiction productions from Toho, the film was the first of director Ishiro Honda’s monster movies to not receive an American theatrical release, being packaged in edited form for television instead as Attack of the Mushroom People. Although it enjoyed a decent half-life as a midnight movie, Matango has enjoyed a certain resurgence in the past decade or so, with critics and audiences alike regarding it as something of an under-appreciated classic.
This development was obviously occasioned by the original Japanese version being made available to Western audiences in the 2000’s, but Honda’s own regard for the film (he reportedly named it as his favorite project) as well as the aborted efforts of one Steven Soderbergh to remake it likely played some small part as well. Against this backdrop of critical reevaluation and with revived interest in the Godzilla franchise that Honda helped mold, it’s worth seeing if Matango warrants the critical evaluation.
Despite what the American TV title might have led you to believe, the primary threat comes not from the mushroom people or any attacks they launch but from the protagonists themselves, shipwrecked on a remote island and unable to contact the outside world. Indeed, the first two thirds of the film play more like an adult version of Lord of the Flies (the film adaptation of which, incidentally, came out the same year as Matango) with light horror elements thrown in than any of the other sci-fi films Honda made in the 50’s and 60’s. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how invested viewers feel in the characters and their plight: those who do may appreciate the time spent developing them and focusing on their interactions while those who don’t may find themselves bored and wondering when the titular monsters are going to show up. I found myself inclining to the latter tendency, but I recognize other viewers’ mileage on this matter, so to speak, may vary.
As time goes on and chances of rescue look increasingly remote, tensions between the socially-stratified castaways boil over and they fight over food, control, and even, as I’ll discuss later in this review, the attractive young singer Mami (Kumi Mizuno). This breakdown is all very Hobbesian in its brutishness and nastiness, but it’s not at all subtle, with one of the characters outright stating in a voiceover that man reverts to a state like theirs in the absence of civilization. Considering the clarity with which the preceding events made this point, one wonders why anyone thought it necessary to verbalize it.
Though the movie takes place primarily on the island, it’s bookended by shots of the neon-lit Tokyo skyline, creatively realized by special effects guru Eiji Tsuburaya’s miniatures. A seemingly random sight to open and close on at first glance, but in the context of both the events in between and the film’s final lines, it takes on new significance: namely, that there is no difference between the phantasmagoric world of the Matango, with its encroaching mists and maddening laughter, and the consumer-driven existence of post-war Japan, with its bright neon signs and endless traffic hum. It’s a pre-Cannibal Holocaust example of the “Humans are the real monsters” deepity that was later refined to lurid perfection in that film, but, as was the case with Cannibal’s closing query of “who the real cannibals are,” it falls apart under the slightest scrutiny.
It may be compelling to draw a equivalence between the two, but the fact that Honda and Kimura refuse to see the difference between people being influenced by other parties competing for their attention, time, and resources and mutants who apparently have little else to do than eat a single substance that dominates their lives and bodies says more about them than it does about mankind or Matango. It’s not entirely surprising however, as Honda expressed a populist anti-consumerism in such films as King Kong vs. Godzilla and Mothra. As for Kimura, a reported member of the Japanese communist party, it would be a surprise if he had anything good to say about the soul of man under liberal capitalism, much less mutated mushrooms.
This isn’t to say that Honda is a poor filmmaker. Far from it, he actually captures a couple shots in this film that are more engaging and more memorable than any seen in any number of recent movies helmed by big name directors. The first that comes to mind involves one of the female characters going below deck on the yacht. To capture the motion of the boat, the camera slowly sways back and forth as she makes her way into the cabin, tracking her as she comes down the stairs and across the room. Simple, yes, but the effect is hypnotic, strong, and reflect a level of cinematic technique and thought that is not always seen in A-list productions today, much less genre films.
The other money shot consists of Mami pondering at a makeshift grave for another castaway. Standing alone in the rain, Mizuno affects a stone-faced countenance that contrasts strikingly with the warm type of roles viewers are undoubtedly accustomed to seeing her in and stays with them long after the momentary horror of the mushroom men she plays against fades from consciousness.
Mizuno’s character stands out further from her other Toho roles in how blatantly sexualized she is by the male characters and even herself at one point. Sure, any Godzilla fan worth their salt will fondly recall her skimpy turn as Dayo in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, but Dayo was an innocent island girl at heart. Mami, on the other hand, has no heart to speak of, powdering her face as she boasts that the men all want her and are at ends with each other on account of it.
This sexualization goes beyond the verbal when, in what might be the two most brazenly sexual moments in a Showa-era Toho film, she is passionately kissed by a half-naked Yoshida (Hiroshi Tachikawa) and has her bottom grabbed by a pleading Kasai (Yoshio Tsuchiya). Again, it’s not like sex is something that’s never been invoked in a Toho film before: Honda’s earlier H-Man infamously featured a scantily-clad nightclub dancer getting melted down to little more than her bra and Matango itself includes similarly-attired dancers in flashback scenes. What differentiates these moments from these other instances is the intimacy they're infused with. The darkly-lit ship interior is itself suggestive of the shady nature of Mami and Yoshida’s embrace, while the tightly-framed camera that captures Kasai’s slow, deliberate movement down Mami’s body conveys the desire and desperation he feels. It’s not just sexy, it’s sexy in an voyeuristic, illicit way.
While its suggestive elements are certainly dangerous, the same can’t really be said for its monsters. That is, until the very end, when they emerge in all their morbid glory and emit an unforgettably disturbing sort of laughter. It may seem like a small thing to get creeped out by, but it emphasizes not just how important sound is to a movie, but how well this particular one utilizes it. Prior to this point, the film made excellent use of its sound and music, effectively deploying an ominous boat horn early on and allowing Sadao Bekku’s off-beat score to cover a wide amount of musical ground as it retains an unsettling quality all the while. But even these feats would be for nothing without that slow, distorted laughter that sells the menace at the end. Without it, the Matango are just men in goofy rubber-suits. With it, they become something hideously, deeply evil, and even as I write this review I find myself more chilled by it than by anything they actually do in the film.
Would I say Matango is Honda’s best film? Compared to the perfect balance the original Godzilla struck between monster mayhem and sociopolitical allegory, it leans too heavily on the latter and treats the former as almost an afterthought. That being said, the mushroom people do manage to leave a lasting impression and there is much of interest from a filmmaking perspective. Even if one isn’t completely sold on the story, the camerawork and sound design are compelling and speak to the director’s dedication to his craft. It may not be Honda’s best film but it’s certainly not his worst, and if you go in with the right mindset you’ll find plenty of bright spots amidst the murky gloom of Matango.
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