Monday, July 1, 2013

Matango, aka Attack of the Mushroom People (1963)... Angie's Pick for July


After our group of friends finished watching The Calamari Wrestler together, we started discussing other crazy movies we had seen. One guy talked about a Japanese movie he had watched at a young age that contained giant mushroom people and had given him nightmares. It was decided immediately that a follow up party was necessary to track down this film and give it a watch. The party was even themed, with mushroom pizza, mushroom soup, and even cupcakes that were decorated to look like mushrooms from Super Mario Bros. The film we watched was Matango, also known as Attack of the Mushroom People for its U.S. release.

We start with a man telling us that all his companions are dead - but no, not really, only one of them is dead. He then says that if he told us what he meant, we'd think he was crazy.

From there, we flashback to a group of people out on a boat together while the credits roll. Our cast of characters has striking similarities to the Gilligan's Island crew, with one glamorous woman and one shy girl, a rich man, a professor, a skipper, and not one but two characters who are reminiscent of Gilligan himself, at least in dress if not personality. While their excursion seems to be a little longer than a three hour tour, they do still hit a bad storm along the way.

A thick fog surrounds them and their radio dies out until finally they drift toward an island. With it appearing to be uninhabited and their boat in no shape to sail, they set about trying to find food and water. Some of the shots of them wandering the island remind me of Lost, particularly the brief glimpses we got of The Others early on in that show, and while I know this is most likely a coincidence, I can't help but wonder if any of the creators saw this film, as the island does have its own mysteries to be discovered.

They find water as well as traces that suggest humans have been on the island recently. After climbing one of the higher mountain peaks, they notice a wrecked ship on another shore. On closer inspection, they realize the ship has been abandoned for a long time, and there are traces of fungus and moss growing on all its interior surfaces. They also find a sample of a giant mushroom, matango, that is native to the island, along with a week's worth of canned goods and the captain's log.

The log tells them that the mushrooms have nerve altering effects, and so they decide that they must gather food and try to repair their ship, but definitely not eat the mushrooms. While two of the men are out hunting, they find the remains of a broken mirror, and are shocked when a bird seems to refuse to fly close to the island. As they travel further, they see a strange creature moving between the trees. So naturally they shoot first and ask questions later, but the creature gets away.

As they go to sleep, a strange creature is once again seen peering into the windows of the ship. It creeps inside and appears before all of them, a humanoid monster covered in fungus growth, before disappearing before their eyes. Gilligan 1/Koyama insists that these rich spoiled people are all going crazy because there are women stranded with them and they are driving the men mad. There's then some drama about who Ginger/Mami is spending her time with, but it's not really relevant. The important part is that they are running out of food and tensions are high.

While they find some root vegetables and turtle eggs, Gilligan 2/Yoshida ends up eating mushrooms anyway, and tries to kill them all. The other men manage to overpower him and lock him up. The skipper works on repairing the yacht, and when Kasai/the-billionaire-sans-wife offers for the two of them to take the food and split, he tells him to leave. But in fact he's planning to take it all for himself and just go. Meanwhile, Mami has let Yoshida free. He seems to be developing a rash, and he kills Koyama without hesitation. They boot Yoshida and Mami off the ship to go live in the forest.

After many days of rain, mushrooms have sprouted everywhere, and Mami comes back to tempt Kasai into eating them. His hunger prevents him from resisting, and he sees visions of dancing girls. Only after he's finished indulging does she tell him that it will turn him into a mushroom. He runs away and hears laughter all through the forest. One by one, the giant mushroom people appear all around him.

The professor sees the yacht return to the shore. Inside, the skipper transcribed a suicide note before jumping into the water once he ran out of food. Only the professor and Mary Anne/Akiko are left whole. Akiko wonders if it would be better to just eat the mushrooms and transform because they would at least survive, and he then slaps her before telling her he can't live without her. There's a knock at the door, and a fungus covered arm pushes its way inside. He shoots it away, but more appear at the portholes. The creatures are coming for them. The professor heads out to try to attack them, but all he really does is leave Akiko defenseless so she can be captured. He follows the sounds of frenzied high pitched laughter to a grove full of the mushroom people. He tries to shoot them, but there are too many. Akiko calls for him, and he finds her eating the mushrooms. She tells him how delicious they are with a huge smile on her face. He manages to fight his way out amongst the creatures and make it out to the yacht to escape.

We come back to the beginning scene, and we see that he is trapped in a cell and being observed by doctors. If you didn't think anything of the fact that we only saw his back at the beginning, you're no doubt noticing it now. He asks if he should have also eaten the mushrooms, says that if he truly loved Akiko, he would have joined her there. Surely it would be better than his current life. He turns to face the camera, and we see that he too now has the mushroom growth all over his face. The doctors tell him they are glad he returned and he says that the people in Tokyo are just as inhuman as the creatures on the island.

The movie runs at a pretty slow pace, though at 90 minutes, it is brief. The trouble is that, the moment the mushrooms are introduced, we pretty much know exactly where this film is going. At least we know it's inevitable that they will eat the mushrooms, even if we don't realize it will transform them. They try to inject it with more plot by making Mami a temptress and introducing some class based conflict of the poor vs. the rich, but I don't think it's resolved very well.

However, where the movie does excel are its horror moments. While the costumes are cheap and even downright silly looking at times, the music and sound combined with the way the scenes are shot go a long way to increase the creepiness of these the mushroom people. While I was shocked on our first viewing when our friend told us this gave him nightmares, with this second viewing, I can actually see very easily how that could happen. We see the humanoid creature through shadows first, and then only bits and pieces at a time before we see the whole thing. And through a child's eyes, I can see how these otherwise very unrealistic creatures could be seen as frightening. While as an adult, the effects border a little too much on cheesy to scare me, I do appreciate what the director was trying to do and I think he pulled it off as best as he could with what he had. If you look at this as a decent attempt to emulate films like It Came From Another World, you may be able to enjoy it despite its thin plot.

While Jak was at that original party with me, I'm interested to see if he gained something new from the film this time around, or if he still finds it as silly as we did the first time we watched it. I'm also curious to see if this one is going to appeal to Noel's sensibilities or not.


Oh, this absolutely appeals to my sensibilities, and don't agree that the characters and themes are poorly resolved. In fact, I find them very deep and complex.

Our young "hero", Kenji, is a university teacher off on an affair with a young female student, and while they seem to be the plucky "one true love" of this story, they not only fall apart at the end but go through a rough patch on their way there (the slapping her then saying he loves her scene being the peak moment). The skipper, Naoyuki, is the most dependable member of the crew, always keeping calm and taking charge... until the day he bundles up all their food for himself as he sails off alone, then commits suicide off screen. Singer and tv star Mami, instead of being a vapid ditz, is probably the sharpest member of the crew, using her whiles to win her favors, but also never backing away from doing hard work and holding her own alongside the men. Her one mistake is putting her stock in Yoshida when he makes his play for power at the end, which is ultimately her downfall.

As for Yoshida, it amuses me that you pointed him out as a Gilligan, because his beach hat look was specifically modeled after Akira Kurosawa, a close friend of director Ishiro Honda. Yoshida, a best-selling novelist who's always putting pen to paper, even while delighting in the pleasures of his privileged lifestyle, goes through a fascinating shift from bumbling tag-along to the closest this story gets to a villain as he uses the philosophy of their separation from humanity to justify ignoring social norms, making repeated advances on Mami, then getting a hold of the rifle and drawing first blood. And speaking of that first blood, Senzo is almost a false villain, openly talking about doing things to the others that Yoshida ends up doing for real, and even as he hordes away his own supply of food, he's still giving the majority of what he finds to the main group. Aside from the bits he sells to Masafumi, which I'll get to. The moment where he's suddenly blown away by Yoshida caught me completely by surprise and is a great "this shit just go real!" twist.

If anyone does fit the Gilligan's Island comparison, I'd say it's millionaire celebrity Masafumi, in that he's always lording himself above the group and trying to use his class and his cash to win favors and preferential treatment, even as he's stealing cans of food from behind everyones' back. And just like Thurston Howell III, it often bites him in the ass and leaves him the most unliked of the group, and I love the moment where he has to buy his share of food off of Senzo instead of getting to partake in what the mate gives to the rest of the group.

This is a very deep cast of characters, and I like that they don't fall into easy archetypes, and that they do unexpected, yet very human things. And all the performances are surprisingly grounded and naturalistic, given the often over-the-top nature of Japanese acting. Even the 60s-era English dub track I listened to is remarkably well produced, giving everyone distinction and nuance, as well as keeping the dialogue realistic and naturally delivered. This isn't a film about Mushroom People, it's a film about people. Horrible, ugly, everyday people who speak to the worst of what we could all become if forced outside of social norms. This film is not only remarkably ahead of its time in that its cast is almost completely composed of yuppie assholes who hate one another, but in how it uses them to make a nihilistic statement that some forces can't be overcome, some battles can't be won. Especially if they're really yourself.

And that's what the Mushroom People are: they're our characters, they're ourselves. Everyday survival is a difficult thing, represented by the lack of animal life on the island and the sporadic roots and turtle eggs our heroes have to seek out for each meal. The mushrooms represent the complacency and delusion of wealth. They're abundant, they'll keep you full, they'll keep you alive, but they'll erase your identity as you're forced to conform, to put on a false face and hide the real human underneath. Note how only the wealthy characters are those to succumb to the mushroom, even our idealistic young professor. The two poor men, skipper Naoyuki and shipmate Senzo, are both killed for their efforts to stay alive. They crossed the wealthy and were discarded, whereas the wealthy have become complacent and lethargic, and will continue to do so until they're just another mushroom in a grove exclusive to fellow mushrooms.

And I think the mushroom grove is a marvelous piece of set and costume work, especially with the hallucinatory barrage of sounds and images of our rich cast delighting in their consumption of that which is destroying them. I do, though, have problems with how some of it is shot, as there are too many full-figured shots of foam suits with mushroom heads wobbling around. They should have obscured them more, and not lingered so much that the well-sculpted suits can be so closely scrutinized.

I think your inability to connect with this movie, Angie, has less to do with its pace (which is a marvelous slow boil) and its character drama, than it does the expectations with which you approached the film. You wanted something silly with mushroom people you could laugh at. Instead, the film is a character piece where the mushrooms themselves are as much of a background element as the Cenobites in Hellraiser. They may have been the selling point of the film, but they aren't what it's about. It's about the people, about the desolate island, about the Lovecraftian foreboding of an ultimate doom from which only one person will partially escape. A doom that seemingly comes from without, only to be revealed as coming from within.

I think this film is magnificent, and thank you for picking it as it's one I've heard about for years and have been waiting for an excuse to finally hunt down and watch.


"We're watching Matango this month."

It's a rare film that leaves me with a blank slate impression years later, and Matango was one of them. I had seen it at a party five years ago, and all I could recall was that the characters reminded me very loosely of the Gilligan's Island cast early on, enough that I remember wondering which had come first (Matango did, though I keep reading that the similarities are purely coincidental, which seems extremely odd). Beyond that, I couldn't remember a thing else about it. At first, I liked that I couldn't, because I wouldn't have any bothersome preconceptions clouding my experience. Then, I got worried - if it was really that forgettable, what kind of a bland 99 minutes was I in for?

I noticed the Gilligan's Island analogues again almost immediately from the beginning, though as the first act goes on, the characterizations don't follow that show's cast too closely beyond the general occupations and wardrobe direction. Still, it's hard not to hum "the weather started getting rough" when the storm begins. The first six minutes do a great job of setting up a false air of levity, even in spite of the psych ward introduction's ominous setup. It's an aspect of movies like this that I think would be so much more effective if the genre was unknown prior to viewing. While I understand why that's impossible - everyone wants to at least know what kind of film they're going to watch - it's always been an interesting thought to me how much more gripping some movies might be with no advertisements or even titles beyond "Here is a movie".

The hopeless situation post-storm is very well done. Once they reach the island and begin exploring the shipwreck, the early parts of Alien keep coming to mind. Any movie that can evoke Gilligan's Island and Alien in the first half hour is a pretty neat accomplishment. The set design is especially effective in the derelict, really making the walls look like places you wouldn't want to set your bare hands on for too long.

In lesser hands, this could have been an extremely boring setup. The characters are written with believable developments and they're never taken to the point of parody, even those jerks Koyama and Yoshida, as they easily could be with the kinds of archetypal personalities we're dealing with here. Yoshida playfully blowing smoke rings while the skipper details the dire food situation is an example of this kind of subtlety that takes this beyond the average monster movie's cannon fodder. This is good because, for its type, this one is extremely slow paced to the point that it almost subverts the genre - here is a monster flick that is all about the characters, for a change, to the detriment of the monsters themselves, as we'll soon see. Kasai's fall from authority to desperation, the skipper's calm assurance leading to the shock of his surprise betrayal, Koyama's shift from obvious villain to initial victim - with the exception of Yoshida's babbling expositional monologue when he's threatening the group with the gun, this movie has consistently strong dialogue. I highly recommend keeping the Japanese audio, though. I had English subtitles with three audio tracks available on my copy (Spanish, English and Japanese), and switched between the English and Japanese audio a few times. I found the readings on the English dub to be extremely poor in nuance in comparison. Delivery is everything, especially for this kind of survival drama.

Unfortunately, the last quarter of the movie is marred by the ridiculous premise, which is an admittedly odd thing to say considering the whole story has been leading up to the payoff of mushroom people. While I admit I can't come up with a better idea off the top of my head, I can say that I believe the movie would have worked well, maybe even better, without a monster angle at all. As a story, the conflicts between the characters have everything to do with survival and personality clashes, and the mushroom people element seems to be in there largely to sell tickets for its "wait, what? oh, weird!" factor.

Why this movie wasn't more memorable for me the first time I watched it is a mystery. It's definitely in its own class out of the films I've watched for the Monthly Midnight Movie Exchange, and is one of the better older movies I've seen, in spite of its unfortunate, ultimately silly end, complete with an obligatory "who are the real monsters here". It's a slow burn through the 99 minutes, with a fizzle at the end instead of a bang, though it's one I don't regret sitting through and one I'll likely not forget twice.


So it seems I stand alone in my opinion on this one. I should state that I made the Gilligan's Island comparisons because I don't see how an American watching this film these days couldn't see them, purely by coincidence or not. But that doesn't mean I think these characters are cookie cutter, and they obviously cannot be rip-offs.

The problem I have with them is the sexist tone that runs throughout the movie. I had a hard time enjoying the original King Kong thanks to the idea that the characters strongly suggested it was Fay Wray's character's presence that damned them, and I don't enjoy it anymore here. I know it's an old superstition about women at sea, but that doesn't stop it from rubbing me the wrong way. Add to it that Mami really is just a temptress always out to help herself and no one else, and Akiko is a demure woman who only follows around the man she loves and easily falls into the temptation of eating the mushrooms, and I'm done.

That said, I can see Jak's comparisons to Alien, as well as a film like Night of the Living Dead or a story like Stephen King's The Mist. This is definitely a film about the characters reactions to what is happening around them, and that is why not much happens beyond the character conflict. Perhaps these characters are meant to be unlikeable, making their punishment fitting for them. I'm just not a fan of watching a movie full of nothing but unlikeable characters, regardless of their eventual comeuppance.

I also think Noel hit the nail directly on the head as far as what the mushrooms stand for in the film. All good monsters should represent something, and I find, more often than not, it is Japanese cinema that often uses them most effectively. This film definitely ranks high on the list of using them properly. I may have missed it on my initial viewing, but reading his analysis makes it plain.

I also don't think this is a bad film, despite my problems with it. While it may not be something I would return to, I do think it is worth a viewing, and it's entirely possible that it will appeal far more to you than it did to me.

We'll be back on the 1st of September with a pick from Noel: Rad (1986)

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