Matango (1963)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Rochester’s bio says, “Librarian. Mad about movies, traveling, books and film soundtracks. Perfect night – Watching The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes with Ornella Muti.”

Matango is a Japanese horror flick from Ishiro Honda, director of Godzilla, based on the short story The Voice in the Night by English writer and bodybuilder William Hope Hodgson.

Rumored to be the inspiration for the American sit-com Gilligan’s Island that ran from 1964-67, Matango, also known as Attack of the Mushroom People has people turning into mushrooms on a mysterious island. Sounds great, doesn’t it?  

Well, it did to me, anyway, and I was buzzing with anticipation when I settled down to watch it, late at night, with, for effect, a cup of Heinz Mushroom Soup with double croutons.  However, twenty minutes into the film and I was having second thoughts – about the film, that is, not those extra croutons.  Our small cast, led by Akira Kubo (Son of Godzilla), have not yet got their yacht wrecked on the eerie, deserted island, the setting for most of the film, we have had a strange musical number on board the yacht, and it is all a bit slow and… dull. Even after Kubo and co start exploring the island it is another twenty minutes before we see a mushroom man, creeping about the boat at night, attacking the crew, in what is one of the best moments in the film. Bafflingly, the next morning almost everyone is in denial over seeing anything, and carry on as if nothing has happened. Maybe it was all a dream? Too much sake – or mushrooms?

Much of the rest of the film is spent watching the shipwrecked group struggling to survive on the island, fighting one another, mostly for the attractive Mami, played by Kumi Mizuno (Invasion of Astro-Monster), and slowly starving to death, unable to eat the dangerous mutative Matango mushrooms that seem to grow everywhere on the island lest they morph into “mushroom people.” There are a couple of clunky flashback sequences that pop up as the group looks for food – one is used to squeeze in another musical number, and the other a “risque” dance sequence.

The film is colorful, but rarely atmospheric.  The mushroom people effects, though good for the time, are now hopelessly amusing – not a good thing for “horror” movie. But there are some unforgettable moments – like the scenes in the jungle with the exotic-looking mushrooms blooming and mushroom people wobbling about, and the ominous sequence near the start when the crew find another wrecked boat completely covered in fungus. Although this all sounds a bit wacky, and “creature-feature” tacky, Ishiro Honda intended Matango as a serious movie warning of the way the Japanese people were changing after the war, and striving for things that would ultimately change and destroy them. Unfortunately, it is now easy to overlook this subtle message today and see it as a cheap monster movie.

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