Sunday, December 11, 2011

REVIEW: Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People

マタンゴ (Matango)

Released: 1963

Ishiro Honda

Akira Kubo
Kumi Mizuno
Hiroshi Koizumi
Kenji Sahara
Hiroshi Tachikawa

Running time: 89 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

Seen today, "Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People" serves as a refreshing reminder of the pure fun of B-movie creature features. It contains not a pixel of CGI, and is in fact fairly economical in terms of the special effects it does use. Cleverly, it leaves a sizable amount of its out-there premise up to viewers’ imaginations while simply focusing on keeping the story rolling along at a good pace. It is all too fitting that this film was made by Ishiro Honda, whose classic "Gojira" (1954) pulls off the same tricky feat of making credible entertainment from a highly incredible premise.

After a brief opening sequence set in a Tokyo-based psychiatric ward where we meet Murai (Akira Kubo), a young professor and the lone survivor of a terrible disaster, the film jumps back in time to a sunny, carefree yacht trip. On board with Murai is the ship’s skipper, Sakuta (Hiroshi Koizumi); its owner, Kasai (Yoshio Tsuchiya); hired sailor Koyama (Kenji Sahara); rising singer Mami Sekiguchi (Kumi Mizuno); Yoshida (Hiroshi Tachikawa), a writer; and Akiko (Miki Yashiro), one of Murai’s students. The ship soon gets caught in a violent storm and is afterwards left severely damaged and off-course. It eventually reaches an island that, at first, appears to be completely deserted, yet the stranded vacationers start to think otherwise once they discover a derelict oceanography vessel on the beach. Puzzlingly, there are no corpses to be found on board – just ever-spreading layers of mould and a mysterious cargo of giant mushroom specimens. As the crewmembers struggle to find food and conserve their remaining supplies, they are increasingly driven apart by disagreements and selfish motives, all the while threatened by the strange beings that live in the island’s dense jungle.

Initially, one might expect Honda to primarily focus his main energies once more on using monsters as a means of disguised social commentary as he did in "Gojira." That view certainly has some credibility considering that the titular mushroom people – the hideously mutated shipwreck survivors, rendered so from eating the strange fungi – were thought to resemble survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, threatening the film’s release in Japan. Surely enough, at one point the ruined ship is said to be affiliated with nuclear testing, suggesting that Honda is yet again underlining the perils of meddling with science. But tellingly, most of the action unfolds amongst the seven members of the yachting party as they grow more fraught with frustration and hostility towards one another. Thus, in the spirit of "Lord of the Flies," humans and their inclinations towards greed, betrayal and violence are presented as far more dangerous and bestial than the moaning mushroom people, who in fact only appear in a handful of scenes and are given little in the way of actual character development.

Consequently, "Matango" can perhaps be best described as an adventurous survival drama with mildly silly doses of science fiction and horror thrown in for flavor. It contains some wonderfully creepy scenes of lurking dread and slow suspense as the mostly unseen creatures stalk the characters. But just as compelling to watch is the human drama that unfolds through secret alliances, hidden stashes of food and clashing egos that all gradually wear down the group’s sense of order and loyalty. These episodes unfold in wonderfully decorated sets for the abandoned ship, humid jungle and a grove filled with mushrooms of different shapes, sizes and colors while practical special effects like the model yacht batted around by waves and the grotesque costume and makeup effects for the mushroom creatures all exemplify the charm and fun of schlocky, old school–style studio filmmaking that no computer can replicate. Those looking for a good, pulpy movie night will get exactly that – and a little more in terms of solid character work and thematic depth – with "Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People."

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog

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