A group of people stranded, looking for a way to survive; a deadly fungal infection; people changed into fungus-encrusted monsters hunting them. No, this isn’t The Last of Us, this is the plot of 1963’s Matango, a surprisingly dark horror movie from Ishirō Honda, director of films such as Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan.
Based upon the short story The Voice in the Night by English writer William Hope Hodgson, Matango was a stark departure from the previous work in Honda’s career, and leaned much more into the horror elements of his story than even something like the original Godzilla would. It would be Matango, not Godzilla, that would almost become banned for being too horrific, and for having characters that resembled the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Due to the lack of giant monsters that would go on to join the same universe as Godzilla, Matango often gets overlooked when talking about Honda’s career; yet it remains one of his best works.
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Matango begins in a hospital in Tokyo, where a university professor named Kenji Murai (Akira Kubo) is being questioned about what happened to his group of missing friends. From here we go back in time, to see Kenji and several of his friends setting out on a day trip on a fancy yacht. The group includes rich socialites, a famous writer, and a popular singer. Whilst out sailing a vicious storm rolls in and causes damage to the boat that causes it to drift without control. The boat eventually drifts its way to a ghostly island deserted of all life.
The group abandon their yacht and begin exploring the island, hoping for a way to either fix the boat, or leave another way. They discover another ship washed up upon the beach, a ship covered in a strange mushroom-like growth. The group discover that cleaning product kills the fungus, and set to work trying to remove it from the ship so that they can use it to leave. As the days pass, the group’s supplies run low, and one of the group decides to try eating the bizarre mushrooms growing across the island. Those that eat the mushrooms begin to become more and more erratic. As the mushrooms begin to take effect on the group, their bodies slowly begin to change and mutate, turning them into the monstrous mushroom men that stalk the islands forest.
Matango makes for a rather dark entry in both the work of Honda, and the Toho catalogue. Made at a time when monster movies were more adventure films than horror, Matango was something very different, and marked a departure from the kind of monster movies that Honda had helped to create. Instead of relying on spectacle, Matango was a more grounded and human led drama, with the breaking of relationships and the loss of sanity amongst the small group of friends being the main driving force of the film.
In a lot of ways, Matango feels similar to a zombie movie. There’s the group of people trapped and needing to find a way to escape, the mounting paranoia, the risk of infection, and the obligatory fights that break out amongst the survivors. There’s even the looming threat of the mushroom people that stand in for the zombies lurking outside the safety of whatever stronghold the survivors have made for themselves. It’s also not hard to see how this went on to be used as a basis for the drama in The Last of Us, (though I’m not suggesting that the creators of the game stole their ideas from Matango).
That being said, there are times where Matango refuses to make it clear exactly what’s happening or how this situation began in a way that works to the film’s benefit. There’s a point in the movie where the friends, upon discovering the ship covered in mould, postulate that it was caught in a nearby nuclear test, and that the radioactive fallout may have been responsible for the strange mutations. This isn’t too bad a theory, and it fits well with the well established tropes and themes that were used in Japanese cinema at the time.
With it still being less than two decades since the barbarism that was enacted on Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these incidents were still being heavily explored in their art. This wouldn’t even be the first time that Honda had done so. But, there are some wrinkles to this explanation, as at one point in the story one of the mushroom men literally vanishes into thin air, and the group witness a ghost ship earlier in the movie. The suggestion that there could be a paranormal reason for things makes the movie stand out amongst its contemporaries as something a bit different.
The filming for Matango was something of a rushed affair, with the studio editing the movie together whilst parts were still being filmed. There are some accounts that claim that the production was so rushed that the island location for the movie wasn’t properly scouted or cleared, and as such the cast and crew had to contend with venomous snakes and large centipedes more than once. The filming didn’t stop until the 28th July, with the editing carrying on for another week right up to the release date. Despite the film being made so close to the wire, it works incredibly well, and ended up being one of the more stand out movies of the era.
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Matango was well received in Japan by fans of the horror and monster genres, but critics at the time didn’t know what to make of the film, and it received mixed reviews in the media. The film would receive a television distribution deal in the USA, where it would air multiple times during the 1960s and 70s. It was during this time that American film director Steven Soderberg would watch the film as a child. He tried to remake the movie later in life, saying that it ‘scared the shit’ out of him as a kid and that it was due to being unable to make a deal with Toho that led to him abandoning the project.
Matango is something of a black sheep of a movie. It doesn’t quite fit into the other monster movies of the time, but thanks to some interesting ideas, some great atmosphere, and themes that would catch the imagination and be used again and again even until today, it’s a film that will stand the test of time, and is worth checking out if you can find it.
Metango was released in Japan on 11th August 1963.