Direction: Ishiro Honda
Special Effects: Eiji Tsuburaya
Producer: Tomoyuki Tanaka
Although no giant monsters stalk Matango's sodden shores -- unless you consider people-sized mushrooms to be daikaiju -- this film fits comfortably within Toho's kaijuverse of the fifties and sixties.
Based loosely on W. H. Hodgson's "The Voice in the Mist," Matango deals with seven stranded castaways who find themselves marooned on a South Seas atoll -- only unlike Gilligan's Island, this atoll features no laugh track, and for good reason. Except for its loopy opening credit sequence, Matango takes itself deadly serious, an atmospheric horror film quite unlike anything else director Ishiro Honda attempted for Toho.
After a well-lensed typhoon at sea (SPFX courtesy of Eiji Tsuburaya), a rich man's sailing ship runs aground close to an apparently deserted island. As fog gathers, the beached group discovers a half-rotten ship that apparently ran aground years before. An investigation yields more questions than answers -- it was apparently a research vessel working with nuclear radiation experiments, and thick fungus coats the interior walls.
The group decides to clean a portion of the interior and live in it. That's when tensions rise and the true fate of the old research vessel's crew becomes evident. The worst of human nature comes to the fore as food grows scarce and the only plentiful source of sustenance on the island -- the omnipresent but addictive mushrooms -- becomes ever more beguiling.
Most of the castaways are spoiled society types, and from the entire lot of them, only two characters ultimately emerge as sympathetic. But the predicament of the entire bunch fascinates. For example, one presumably stand-up character takes a selfish turn mid-way that leaves the viewer genuinely surprised. Indeed, in some ways, Matango is like a Japanese version of Lord Of The Flies with adults substituted for the children; just as Flies' juveniles give in to tribalism, so Matango's grown-ups give in to desire.
The wrap-around plot device basically lets you know where this film is headed long before it gets there, but it's still a disquieting journey. Tellingly, one of the film's eeriest sequences rivals those of literal ghost movies. To the terror of the stranded protagonists, one night one of the Mushroom People troops unseen onto the beached ship, the sequence culminating with a shot of the thing's shadowy, misshapen face. Later, the protagonists are not sure what they've seen.
In another standout scene, the Mushroom People come after the hero and heroine, who are stranded inside the beached ship. The Mushroom People's assault on the ship echoes that of the zombies assaulting the deserted farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead. In a surprisingly graphic touch, one of the Mushroom People's arms is amputated.
The one major mistake in the movie is the sight of the Mushroom People at the end, when we see them as literal six-foot mushrooms with arms and legs. The costumes for these scenes are a little too obvious, and are seen far too clearly. But the Matango Folks' high-pitched laughter is unsettling. The film's final scene has been telegraphed long in advance, but it proves effective nevertheless.
Thematically, Matango is more ambitious than most (all?) Toho SFantasies of the fifties and sixties. This is one Toho movie that was clearly made for adults, as among other motifs it explores temptation and compulsion. Indeed, sexual undertones and overtones are evident throughout the film.
Overall, Matango is a dark, mist-enshrouded journey into the worst of human nature, demonstrating the ease with which human weakness and want can enable us to cave in to self-destruction. We may ultimately become ambulatory mushrooms (or victims of stroke or heart attack or other maladies born of willful self-indulgence), but for the present, we can sit back, satiate ourselves on immediate self-gratification, and pretend that tomorrow will never come. Only problem is, it will.