Matango: Fungus of Terror

Matango: Fungus of Terror!

Posted on Tue 2 Oct 2012

On Saturday night monsters will be among us for a double bill of cult classics from legendary Japanese sci-fi director Ishiro Honda: in Mantago: Fungus of Terror, scientists fall prey to mutated mushroom creatures, while in King Kong vs Godzilla, the two mighty monsters duke it out to see who will rule Mount Fuji.

On Saturday night monsters will be among us for a double bill of cult classics from legendary Japanese sci-fi director Ishiro Honda: in Mantago: Fungus of Terror, scientists fall prey to mutated mushroom creatures, while in King Kong vs Godzilla, the two mighty monsters duke it out to see who will rule Mount Fuji. Presented in their English-dubbed versions using glorious 35mm in full super widescreen TohoScope and followed by an After Party in the Café/Bar, this is a triple monster experience (with limited free Asahi beer!) not to be missed!

To get you in the mood, monster film expert Jason Varney has kindly shared his programme notes produced for 'Famous Monsters of Filmland' #262, where he talks about the reputation of Matango as one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made, its amazing sets, creepy score and dedicated cast (including one actor who removed a tooth especially for the role!)...

(You can read more about King Kong vs Godzilla, the other film in the double bill, in this news post)

When it comes to Toho visual effects films, the first thing that often comes to mind are the "Kaiju Eiga" (or "Monster Films") best represented by Godzilla and his brethren; Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah, et al. These films, perfected by director Ishiro Honda (Godzilla), producer Tomoyuki Tanaka (Yojimbo), composer Akira Ifukube (The Burmese Harp), and special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya (Battle In Outer Space) thrilled audiences the world over and continue to gain new fans to this day.

However, Toho had another series of films that were being made in the late 50's and early 60's that were dubbed the "Mutant Series." Consisting of Honda's The H-Man (Bijo to Ekitai Ningen, 1958), Honda's The Human Vapor (Gasu Ningen Dai-Ichigo, 1960), and Jun Fukuda's Secret of the Telegian (Denso Ningen, 1960), which catered to sci-fi fans, but focused more on story and characterization for the uninitiated. The final film in this series is Matango (1963), which is to this writer, the strongest film in the series, and to some, one of the best science fiction films Toho ever made.

The storyline, at least on its surface, is refreshingly unconvoluted. A yachting party heads out from Tokyo for a relaxing day at sea. Among them are the yacht's owner Masafumi Kasai (Yoshio Tsuchiya), college professor Kenji Murai (Akira Kubo), his girlfriend Akiko Soma (Miki Yashiro), nightclub singer Mami Sekiguchi (Kumi Mizuno), and a writer, Etsuro Yoshida (Hiroshi Tachikawa). Also along with them are the skipper Naoyuki Sakuda (Hiroshi Koizumi) and his first mate, Senzo Koyama (Kenji Sahara).

It is never stated where they are going or when they are aiming to return, but Mother Nature has other plans for them as they soon enter a fierce storm that all but demolishes the yacht. Adrift and helpless, they finally reach a deserted island, but the helplessness and hunger they encounter there will be far worse than they could have realized. There is also something evil waiting for them there. But the biggest enemy they face just may be each other!

The first time I came across this film was probably the same way many people of a certain age did. On Boston's "Creature Double Feature or some such show, on a UHF station, curled up on a chair in the basement. Matango was never released theatrically in the US, and was instead first shown on television in 1965, now rechristened with the much more exploitive title Attack Of The Mushroom People, I would have seen this when I was around 4, back in 1976 and there were images from the film I was never able to escape. The glowing heads of the phantom mushrooms through the dense trees, Akiko happily eating mushrooms as her boyfriend looks on in horror. In fact, it would probably be another 6 or 7 years before I knew which film those images came from again through another showing on television.

It's no secret, what waits for them on the island, due to the rather misleading title the US release was saddled with. Indeed, the "attack" such as it is, does not occur until we are approaching the end of this sinister little film. But with such an amazing cast in place, and director Honda's mastery of direction and storytelling, what we get before the climax of the film is just as rewarding.

The fact that Matango exists at all is a bit of a mystery. Audiences in Japan were eating up the sci-fi/monster spectacles that were popular at the time. Indeed, just before Matango was released, Toho had thrust upon the world Mothra in 1961, and Gorath and King Kong vs Godzilla in 1962. The mutant series of films were simply not bringing in the crowds that these bigger pictures were. The fact that Toho would allow one more, and one that would leave such a hauntingly unnerving impression, is interesting (especially one based on an obscure short story by William Hope Hodgson). As the late Guy M. Tucker pointed out in his fantastic book "Age of the Gods," 'given that it could be produced on a low budget, perhaps Toho felt like tossing their hitmaker a bone.' Indeed, no film like this would again be made, and instead, Honda would be relegated to monster films throughout the remainder of his film directing career, which ended with Terror Of Mechagodzilla (Mekagojira-no Gyakushu) in 1975.

There is a pall of dread that hangs over the film from beginning to end, thanks in part to a dark screenplay penned by Takeshi Kimura (from a treatment by noted science fiction authors Masami Fukushima and Shinichi Hoshi), who had previously written Gorath (Yosei Gorasu, 1962). Indeed, aside from the out-of-nowhere tune that Mami sings ("Yes, that was me singing", Mizuno says) in the early minutes of the film, the film is devoid of any humor or lightheartedness, a quality Honda usually had in all his films, save perhaps for his early work.

There are several aspects of the film that stand out, chief among them the amazing sets designed by Shigekazu Ikuno (Godzilla), who won a Japanese Academy Award in 1995 for Seijiro Koyama's Tower of Lilies). From the derelict ship the survivors take refuge on, to the dreamlike (nightmarish?) mushroom jungle that becomes even more bizarre as the film progresses. One standout set is the Captain's cabin. Crimson red, the portholes look like eyes peering back at our heroes, and the audience can't be blamed for first thinking there is some massive creature within, until the camera peers further around the cabin and we then know what we are looking at. It's scenes like these that are quite unnerving.

A word must also be said about the music, composed by Sadao Bekku (The Strange Ceiling at Utsunomiya). The unrelentingly creepy score (just try to imagine Ifukube trying to compose for this) adds immeasurably to the tension in many scenes, particularly when Kasai is trying to rob food from the others, but is interrupted by an unwelcome visitor. Bekku only scored about a dozen films, two of which were part of the "International Secret Police Series", which would later be edited into Woody Allen's What's Up Tiger Lily? in 1966. He also scored the third Toho film Nick Adams starred in, the stubbornly elusive The Killing Bottle (Kokusai Himitsu Keisatsu Zettai Zetsumei) in 1967.

Of course, one of the major reasons for Matango's popularity is the stellar cast that Honda assembled for the project. As has been written elsewhere, Honda wanted each character to take their role extremely seriously. And do they ever.

Akira Kubo is great as the hero, Murai. A star who appeared in a wide variety of genres throughout his career, he would go on to other heroic roles in Jun Fukuda's Son of Godzilla (Kaiju-to no Ketto Gojira-no Musuko, 1967), Destroy All Monsters (Kaiju Soshingeki, 1968), and Space Amoeba (Gezora Ganime Kameoba Nankai-no Daikaiju, 1970), and his final scene in Matango his gave me nightmares as a child. Also fantastic is Kenji Sahara (Rodan) as the slimy Koyama.

"I had never played an evil character before, but Honda really wanted me to challenge myself," recalled Sahara in his 2005 autobiography. "I decided perhaps my character would have poor vision, so I had him wear glasses at all times." There was also quite an extreme step he took. "I went to my dentist and had him remove a tooth a week before filming began!"

Hiroshi Koizumi (Mothra) breaks out of his usual scientist roles to play one of the only characters with any moral compass. At least, that's what we initially are led to believe. And nobody can play a crackpot like Yoshio Tsuchiya (Seven Samurai) as Kasai. Tsuchiya has a bit of a penchant for playing conflicted characters, as the lead in The Human Vapor and the research scientist who cracks in Son Of Godzilla, but it is as Kasai that Tsuchiya really left his mark. He conveys hunger and desperation so well, that we sympathize with him by the end, even though throughout, was the most repulsive character. Hiroshi Tachikawa (Throne Of Blood) is equally good as the egotistical novelist, Yoshida.

The female characters are equally fantastic. Mami, played by Kumi Mizuno (The Gambling Samurai) is the very definition of "femme fatale." Just look at the evil delight in her eyes when Koyama and Yoshida are fighting over her.

"We filmed in Oshima (an island off Tokyo) for about a month," Mizuno recalled. "Every night we would play mahjong, drink, and dance. It was a lot of fun!"

As Akiko, Miki Yashiro (High And Low) underplays her role quite well, but the final scene of her eating mushrooms is unforgettable. She would be back in the following year's Mothra vs. Godzilla (Mosura tai Gojira) as a schoolteacher.

Haruo Nakajima, famous for playing Godzilla and other monsters from 1954 to 1972, also made an appearance in Matango. As he recalled in his 2010 biography, Tsuburaya had come up to him and told him of the next film he needed him for. "You won't be Godzilla, so you'll have it easy this time. You're going to be a mushroom monster." Nakajima had no idea what he could have meant by that, and had no way of imagining what such a creature would look like.

"I read the screenplay, and it seemed kind of boring," Nakajima recalled. "But, when I saw the finished film, I realized its themes about the danger of drugs and the weakness of man were very strong."

One thing many people who watch the film want to know is exactly what the characters were actually eating. It was "mochi," or a Japanese rice cake, which is usually slightly gelatinous and chewy. The special effects staff would have fun playing with the colors and flavors of the mochi. Mizuno recalled that she would never know exactly what the mochi of the day would taste like, but she claimed they were usually quite tasty.

Matango is simply one of Honda's best films, and those that have not come across it yet are in for a treat. Media Blasters released the film in 2005 on DVD, and I encourage all to seek the film out. There is simply nothing quite like it.