Matango’s Island

We start here: Seven passengers on a yacht.  There’s the millionaire who owns it, his hired skipper, and the weirdo first mate.  Their passengers include a sexy starlet, a virginal country girl, and a professor.  The ship encounters a terrible storm, and the travelers are soon shipwrecked on a Pacific island with no hope of rescue.  And that’s when things start to get interesting.

I could be talking about GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, the amiably stupid CBS sitcom (1964-1967).  But as it happens I’m talking about the 1963 Japanese horror flick MATANGO.

Movie poster

When I first introduced MATANGO to some friends recently (“Lou and Harriet, meet MATANGOMATANGO, this is Lou and Harriet.”), they couldn’t stop noticing the exhaustive parallels to GILLIGAN’S ISLAND.  “I can just imagine Sherwood Schwartz going, “I’ll do something like that, but with more jokes and fewer monsters!”  The thing is, despite the palpable similarities, it’s a tough case to say the similarities are anything but coincidental.  Weirdly, unnervingly, coincidental.

I won’t spend too much time here talking about GILLIGAN’S ISLAND.  I’ve looked at the stats for TCM’s web sites and I know that you, gentle reader, are most likely my age—and I grew up watching GILLIGAN’S ISLAND on perpetual reruns.  We can take that one as read, shall we?

But I do need to introduce MATANGO (“Morlocks readers, meet MATANGOMATANGO, these are the Morlocks readers.”)

Matango kid's toy

When it came out in Japan in 1963 (one year before GILLIGAN), it was greeted with resounding, enthusiastic disinterest.  Audiences stayed away in droves.  It was a categorical flop if ever there was one.  AIP picked up the US TV rights and syndicated it as ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE starting in 1965 (one year after GILLIGAN).  Of the half dozen or so Americans who caught it on its 1960s TV rotation, MUSHROOM PEOPLE enthralled them.  Smitten by this nutty little movie, they carried the torch—and over time this accrued to a modest cult reputation.

Thanks to that cult-movie street cred, MATANGO has been rescued from its temporary exile and rehabilitated on DVD.  I’d venture to say it has more fans and a higher pop culture profile today than ever before.  Which is to say, it’s a long shot Sherwood Schwartz ever saw this.  And I do mean ever.

Stylistically and thematically these two don’t have much in common.  The connection is visual—in those images of the castaways, in that pairing of the Professor and Mary Ann.  But MATANGO is a very different kind of entertainment.  I mean, it’s a very different kind of entertainment.

Italian poster

Now, let’s pause here for a second to clarify something:

The makers of MATANGO weren’t in the habit of making flops.  Tomoyuki Tanaka (producer), Ishiro Honda (director), Eiji Tsuburaya (special effects guru)—these were the guys behind GODZILLA and the entire franchise of Toho’s populist fantasy films.  They’d built a veritable money-factory for Toho—except for MATANGO.  What was different this time?

Matango still

Tonally, this thing isn’t of a piece with those other Toho spectacles.  No giant monsters.  No humor.  Just a grim fable, which unfolds patiently.

The shipwrecked survivors have washed ashore on an island with virtually nothing to eat.  There’s no indigenous wildlife (birds avoid the place) and the only remotely edible plant is a bitter root that doesn’t even grow in enough quantity to qualify as a meal.

Matango still

The usual social dynamics start to tear at the group: rich vs poor, athletic survivalist vs reedy intellectual, horny men vs outnumbered women.  All this plays out against a backdrop of crippling starvation.

Matango still

Ah, but there’s a catch—the island is overrun with ginormous mushrooms, irradiated by H-bomb tests (natch).  Apparently, if you eat the ‘shrooms, you won’t starve—but you will mutate into a mushroom person (hence the English title).  Which would you rather do—starve to death, or become an inhuman fungoid thing?  If those are your only two choices, would you opt to survive, even if survival meant giving up who you were?

It isn’t hard to see this as a parable of selling out.

Ishiro Honda had been Akira Kurosawa’s neighbor, friend, and co-director.  In the late 1940s Honda is directing second-unit stuff for STRAY DOG.  In the 1950s he’s helming some of Toho’s biggest money-makers—serious dramas about war and bravery and the human spirit.  And then, in 1954, he makes GODZILLA and his destiny is forever changed.  No more arty dramas for you, Honda-san—you’re gonna spend the rest of your life making movies about guys in rubber suits hitting each other.  Did Honda ever regret this course change?  Did he ever wonder what his life and career might have been, without Godzilla?

Screenwriter Takeshi Kimura was rather blunt about his unhappiness at being relegated to making monster movies.  He complained about it constantly—and when his displeasure reached high water marks, he’d adopt the pen name “Kaoro Mabuchi” to avoid having to sign his name to some of the silly stuff he was obliged to do.

This was the genius of MATANGO—a vehicle by which Honda and Kimura could vent some of their frustration about monster movies in the form of a monster movie.  It’s about the price of survival—about how the last man standing won’t be the man he was.

Matango still

I don’t want to spoil MATANGO for you if you haven’t seen it, but there’s one last point here I want to make that requires me to reveal certain secrets.  So, if you’d prefer to preserve your innocence, just call it a day and go find some internet pictures of cats.

{spoiler buffer zone}

The sell-out parable has an extra wrinkle, or maybe even two.  I first saw the American TV version ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE, and here’s how it ends:

[wpvideo EQagUXp7]

To sum it up for those of you who skipped the clip, its final twist reveals that the Akira Kubo character has returned to mainland Japan, but is mutating into a Matango.  His final line says that he couldn’t resist the temptation and ultimately ate the mushrooms–but only after he had already lost his girlfriend.  He stood on principle just long enough to suffer the consequences, and then caved in just enough to reap only the consequences.  It’s the worst of both worlds.

He might as well have stayed with her.  He stood on principle, and then compromised his principles.  It’s a devastating conclusion—and one with a keen insight into human nature.

The original Japanese version has identical footage but a different closing line–here it is:

[wpvideo NdZjYqK8]

The difference is just one line, but it changes the nature of the twist.  This time, Akira Kubo reveals that he’s mutating even though he never ate the mushroom.  They’d misread the nature of the problem–the mutation wasn’t a result of eating the matango, but because everyone on the island gave in to temptation nobody ever had access to the control group data to confirm that.

As in the English version, he lost his girlfriend for nothing—he might as well have stayed with her.

Both versions have the same basic thrust—you’re going to suffer the consequences anyway, no matter what you do.  I’m not even sure which version I think is more horrifying.

14 Responses Matango’s Island
Posted By Tom S : June 12, 2011 4:34 pm

I wonder if that ending, where everyone dies/gets turned and the menace expands exponentially rather than ending, is something inconsistently valued between cultures- I get the feeling that in American horror movies that would have been seen as a cheat up until at least the Texas Chainsaw Massacre era. Certainly, the idea that there is _no way_ to fight against the menace is something that pops up in J-horror all the time (did anyone oppose the will of the ghosts in any of the Ju-on movies with any success?) and really rare in American ones, at least among the ones I’m familiar with.

Posted By Tom S : June 12, 2011 4:34 pm

I wonder if that ending, where everyone dies/gets turned and the menace expands exponentially rather than ending, is something inconsistently valued between cultures- I get the feeling that in American horror movies that would have been seen as a cheat up until at least the Texas Chainsaw Massacre era. Certainly, the idea that there is _no way_ to fight against the menace is something that pops up in J-horror all the time (did anyone oppose the will of the ghosts in any of the Ju-on movies with any success?) and really rare in American ones, at least among the ones I’m familiar with.

Posted By Foxxy : June 14, 2011 3:03 am

Hi David!

Matango is really pretty creepy, even today, considering that it achieves its atmosphere in a pretty simple way compared to the very heavy atmosphere of something like, say Kaidan. Have you ever read the short story the film appears to be based on? It’s called “The Voice in the Night”, by William Hodgson, who is also the author whom was the main model for H.P. Lovecraft’s stories (although this is almost never commented on). In college when I was first exposed to Matango everyone talked it up to me as being “Lovecraftian”; that was overstating the point of course but it made us all feel very cool in film club! The degrees of separation between “The Voice in The Night”, “The Colour Out of Space” and “Matango” are very interesting to genre archeologists.

Posted By Foxxy : June 14, 2011 3:03 am

Hi David!

Matango is really pretty creepy, even today, considering that it achieves its atmosphere in a pretty simple way compared to the very heavy atmosphere of something like, say Kaidan. Have you ever read the short story the film appears to be based on? It’s called “The Voice in the Night”, by William Hodgson, who is also the author whom was the main model for H.P. Lovecraft’s stories (although this is almost never commented on). In college when I was first exposed to Matango everyone talked it up to me as being “Lovecraftian”; that was overstating the point of course but it made us all feel very cool in film club! The degrees of separation between “The Voice in The Night”, “The Colour Out of Space” and “Matango” are very interesting to genre archeologists.

Posted By Shake : June 14, 2011 11:27 am

This is one of my favorite Nuclear Monster movies. I saw this movie when I was a kid and never forgot it. I bought the DVD and I think this movie is still as good as when I saw it in the 60′s.

Posted By Shake : June 14, 2011 11:27 am

This is one of my favorite Nuclear Monster movies. I saw this movie when I was a kid and never forgot it. I bought the DVD and I think this movie is still as good as when I saw it in the 60′s.

Posted By David Del Valle : June 14, 2011 9:52 pm

I loved this article!! I can across this muvh like eveyone else except being in LA it wasn’t long before somebody gave me the Japanese version with sub-titles so I was hip to this one early on….now where it gets intersting is I just finished one of my Camp David columns over at filmsinreview.com which will be up soon on Curtis Harrington’s NIGHT TIDE….in my article Curtis discusses reading William Hope Hodgson in his youth especially the collection HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND…naturally it would folow that Lovecraft would dig his fiction sense H.P. was terrified of the sea and based much of his horror fiction in the range of the ocean and the horrors it contains. Every film buff I knew during my discovery of MATANGO would bring up the “Lovecratian vibe” the film was giving off etc….In anycase this is one of the most fascinating of all the output from those auteur’s from Japan…..great fun….!

Posted By David Del Valle : June 14, 2011 9:52 pm

I loved this article!! I can across this muvh like eveyone else except being in LA it wasn’t long before somebody gave me the Japanese version with sub-titles so I was hip to this one early on….now where it gets intersting is I just finished one of my Camp David columns over at filmsinreview.com which will be up soon on Curtis Harrington’s NIGHT TIDE….in my article Curtis discusses reading William Hope Hodgson in his youth especially the collection HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND…naturally it would folow that Lovecraft would dig his fiction sense H.P. was terrified of the sea and based much of his horror fiction in the range of the ocean and the horrors it contains. Every film buff I knew during my discovery of MATANGO would bring up the “Lovecratian vibe” the film was giving off etc….In anycase this is one of the most fascinating of all the output from those auteur’s from Japan…..great fun….!

Posted By Kevin : June 29, 2011 10:03 am

This is indeed one of my favorites from Japan. Eerie, creepy and somewhat ghoulish. Love it… and it also has the always beautiful Kumi Mizuno!!!

Posted By Kevin : June 29, 2011 10:03 am

This is indeed one of my favorites from Japan. Eerie, creepy and somewhat ghoulish. Love it… and it also has the always beautiful Kumi Mizuno!!!

Posted By Magic Mushrooms | fol.lowfoc.us : July 1, 2011 2:14 pm

[...] for the brilliantly bizarre Japanese movie MATANGO (via Movie Morlocks). Posted on July 1, 2011 by Donald Gray. Categories: Clippings      Tags: [...]

Posted By Magic Mushrooms | fol.lowfoc.us : July 1, 2011 2:14 pm

[...] for the brilliantly bizarre Japanese movie MATANGO (via Movie Morlocks). Posted on July 1, 2011 by Donald Gray. Categories: Clippings      Tags: [...]

Posted By ilduce : July 30, 2011 9:14 am

LOVE this movie! My brother and I saw it several times as children and have been fascinated with it ever since. I’ve introduces several people to it as well.

Thanks for the original last line!

Posted By ilduce : July 30, 2011 9:14 am

LOVE this movie! My brother and I saw it several times as children and have been fascinated with it ever since. I’ve introduces several people to it as well.

Thanks for the original last line!

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