Tuesday 29 March 2005

Matango: Attack Of The Mushroom People

Matango posterBrowsing through the Recent Releases in the International / Avant Garde > Asian Languages > Japanese Language category at DVD Empire yesterday I noticed an unfamiliar title. Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People. How could I resist clicking on the link?

Then, as I read the synopsis, my heart skipped a beat and my mind raced back nearly fifty years:

After a yacht is damaged in a storm and stranded on a deserted island, the passengers: a psychologist, his girlfriend, a wealthy businessman, a famous singer, a writer, a sailor and his skipper take refuge in a fungus covered boat. While using the mushrooms for sustenance, they find the ship’s journal describing the mushrooms to be poisonous, however some members of the shipwrecked party continue to ingest the mysterious fungi transforming them into hideous fungal monsters.

One of the strangest and most horrific TOHO productions to date.

I’ve never forgotten seeing this movie on TV at a friend’s place when I was nine or ten years old. Although television was introduced into Australia in September 1956, my family didn’t get a television set until I was well into my teens. But a neighbor, Gordon Charles, worked for the Australian subsidiary of the British Radio Rentals company so his family owned the first TV set in our street. Since I was close friends with his two young sons (Duncan and Humphrey), I would often stay over on weekends to watch TV until late into the night.

One Saturday night we watched a movie about a group of people who are shipwrecked near a mysterious island. Any attempts to investigate the island are repulsed by the dense foliage so they make camp on a tiny beach. While exploring the perimeter of the island in the yacht’s dinghy, they discover an abandoned freighter in which all the mirrors have been smashed. They soon run out of food and resort to eating the fungus that covers much of the island’s vegetation…

No, that’s not correct. The yacht wasn’t shipwrecked, it was moored near the island although the skipper and his girlfriend found that they couldn’t penetrate the dense foliage. One night they hear the sound of a dinghy bumping against their hull but, when the skipper goes on deck with a lamp to investigate, a voice pleads with him not to shine the light in that direction.

Wait, that’s not quite it. Now I’m uncertain as to whether the guy on the yacht had a girlfriend or whether he was sailing alone. But I’m sure that the man in the dinghy agrees to tell the yachtsman how he had come to be marooned on the island. He and his wife were passengers on a freighter that ran aground near the island. When they were out of food, the ship’s crew went scavenging but all they could find was a kind of fungus covering all the vegetation. At first the fungus appeared to be quite nourishing but, after a while, everyone who’d eaten it became covered with a kind of fungal growth. The man in the dinghy was the sole survivor, his beautiful wife gradually being covered with fungus before perishing, along with the rest of the crew.

The yacht’s skipper gives him some food and he starts to row away. But the skipper can’t resist the impulse to shine the lamp towards the dinghy and its glare reveals an elderly man, covered completely in fungus. The End.

While the credits were rolling, Mr Charles crept in behind us and shrieked “Fungus!” Three young boys jumped out of their skins.

Although it took me a couple of attempts to remember the actual story (and even now I’m not confident I’ve remembered the narrative correctly), I do recall many details with great clarity: the yacht glistening white in the darkness, the tiny beach surrounded with dense vegetation, the beautiful young wife, the swinging lantern, the final shot of the fungal man in the dinghy, even the cramped fifties living room where we watched the program, and—most clearly of all—the feeling of terror when Mr Charles cried out “Fungus!” Yet I don’t remember any mushroom people. Nor do I recall that the actors were Japanese. In fact, we couldn’t have watched Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People that night because Matango wasn’t made until 1963—by Honda Ishirō (本多猪四郎), the director of the first Godzilla movie in 1954 (and many other monster movies, including some of the best Godzilla sequels). And by then my father had finally succumbed and bought us a television.

Matango DVD caseAs Jasper Sharp’s highly favorable Midnight Eye review reveals, Honda made Matango (マタンゴ) “in a brief break between two of his more characteristic monster movies, King Kong vs. Godzilla (Kingukongu tai Gojira, 1962) and Godzilla vs. Mothra (Mosura tai Gojira, 1964)”.

Never released theatrically in the US but dubbed and sold to TV by American International Television in 1965, Matango, or Attack of the Mushroom People to give it its alternative title, is one of those films that is better known for its title than the actual film itself.

Sharp’s analysis of the film’s subtext is fascinating, whether one has seen Matango or not. He argues persuasively that its supposedly humble B-movie exterior masks a sophisticated critique of Japan’s rapid post-war economic growth, human estrangement from nature, and the hallucinatory appeal of the drug culture.

But, even if I missed it, plenty of people saw and loved the dubbed version of Matango on TV, if the Amazon.com user reviews are any guide:

‘Matango,’ like ‘Carnival of Souls,’ is one of those movies that people accidently stumbled across when they should have been sleeping, and remembered forever after. It would insidiously etch itself on your tired brain. And, if you were lucky, maybe it gave you some pretty f***ed up dreams whenever you finally got to sleep. I actually first found this in the middle of the afternoon at the babysitter’s house. It was still too much.

Wow! Was I glad when I discovered “The Attack of the Mushroom People”, as I always remembered it, was coming to DVD! I remember seeing this on tv years ago, and never forgot how damn creepy it left me feeling.

It’s here. One of my favorite movies - and most eagerly-awaited DVDs - ever. And EVERY single bad scenario I could think of for its DVD release has been stamped out soundly by Tokyo Shock/Media Blasters. Because THIS is exactly what I wanted from a DVD of “Matango” (Attack of the Mushroom People). My dream came true, and it’s sitting in my hands.

One reviewer, Nick Tropiano, asks: “Was this the Inspiration for Gilligan’s Island?”

…and that’s a serious question. It predated the premier of Gillian’s Island by several years. There’s a millionaire who owns a yacht that looks like the Minnow. On board is a professor, the captain, a goofy (though somewhat sinster in the film) first mate, a pretty but shy country girl named Okiko, and a singer/movie star. There are seven castaways in all. “Lovey” is replaced by another male character, a writer named Roy. The boat crashes into an island where they are castaways… Course on Gilligan’s Island they didn’t all turn into mutated mushrooms monsters. Rent or buy the DVD (one of my favorite films in Japanese cinema, finally getting its due…) and you tell me if Gilligan’s Island isn’t a complete rip-off of this film.

If I was Toho I would have sued Sherwood Schwartz for copyright infringement.

(Just as Kurosawa Akira, who—realizing that Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was “nearly a scene-to-scene, shot-by-shot remake” of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo—sued Leone and won 15% of the profits from Leone’s film.)

Of course, I couldn’t resist adding both Matango and Honda’s The Mysterians (地球防衛軍, Chikyū Bōeigun, 1957) to my current DVD Empire order. Now I can’t wait until both DVDs are sitting in my hands.

Still, the question remains: What Fungus Island film did I see on that Saturday night all those years ago? And should its producer have sued Tōhō and Honda Ishirō for copyright infringement?

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I've done a little poking around, and I believe I have an answer for you. _Matango_ turns out to have been (loosely) based on a 1907 short story by William Hope Hodgson, "The Voice in the Night". The IMDB lists one other entry based on the same story - an episode of a TV series called _Suspicion_, first broadcast in 1958.

Would this fit the timeframe of your memory?

You can read the original story here: http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/gaslight/voicenig.htm

Posted by Tim May on 30 March 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Tim, that's it! (And, to my embarrassment, William Hope Hodgson's story is actually credited on the IMDB "Matango" page.)

While I was writing this entry, I had a vague feeling that what we watched that night wasn't a movie at all, but an episode from a series. But, given my uncertainty about the details of the story, I decided against mentioning that hunch.

Sure enough, it was "Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion", a program I must have watched frequently.


Yet, although the episode list is packed with famous names, I can't recall seeing any of the other programs.

Thank you for solving the mystery for me!

Posted by Jonathon on 30 March 2005 (Comment Permalink)

HP Lovecraft seems to have been quite a Hodgson fan:

I especially like this description:

"The House on the Borderland (1908) -- perhaps the greatest of all Mr. Hodgson's works -- tells of a lonely and evilly regarded house in Ireland which forms a focus for hideous otherworld forces and sustains a siege by blasphemous hybrid anomalies from a hidden abyss below. The wanderings of the Narrator's spirit through limitless light-years of cosmic space and Kalpas of eternity, and its witnessing of the solar system's final destruction, constitute something almost unique in standard literature. And everywhere there is manifest the author's power to suggest vague, ambushed horrors in natural scenery. But for a few touches of commonplace sentimentality this book would be a classic of the first water."

Posted by language hat on 31 March 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Happily, LH, the complete text of "The House on the Borderland" is available here:


I'm hoping that the story might be of sufficient linguistic interest to warrant a Language Hat post. Perhaps we can bring William Hope Hodgson's work to a new generation of readers.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 31 March 2005 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour