June 14, 2009

DVD Review: Matango - Attack of the Mushroom People

How can you not watch a movie that title? Can you honestly say that you do not find the combination of "mushroom," "attack," and "people" to be downright alluring? For a long time, I found the title to be absolutely curious, but I never made the time to actually watch the movie. Going back a bit further, I remember the title teasing me as I perused the shelves at the a now defunct Media Play (RIP). I eventually picked it up during their going out of business sale, so that it could tease me in a more up close way on a daily basis. The day has finally arrived that I broke the seal and pressed play. I was greeted by a rather slowly paced journey into the surreal that proved to be a rewarding experience, even if I am not quite sure why.

Matango hit Japanese theaters way back in 1963, where it was a success, but it never made it to theaters across the ocean in America. Instead, the film was sold for television and renamed Attack of the Mushroom People. It would go on to haunt the dreams of many youngsters who chose to watch it, or so I've been led by reading some people's memories of it. Thinking back to the days of my youth, I am not sure how I would have reacted to seeing this. Although, I feel fairly certain it would not have done much as I would have likely been bored and left the room. Fortunately, time and experience has vastly changed my tastes in film, broadening them and making them more willing to try different things. I am not giving the film a free pass because my tastes have changed, this movie truly is an interesting movie, not perfect, but well worth spending some time with.

The film plays out a little like a cross between Gilligan's Island and Lord of the Flies, with a little bit of Trigger Effect (yes I know that is a recent film, but the content still relates, perhaps as a reverse influence?). Add to that a little commentary on drug use and a touch of commentary on the burgeoning upper class in the economic boom that developed in post-WWII period, for good measure.

As the movie begins, we are introduced to a Gilligan's Island-esque group of folks enjoying the sun and the waves aboard an expensive yacht. You have the rich company head (who owns the boat), a mystery writer, a professor and his girlfriend, a starlet, the ship's captain, and Gilligan, er, a sailor. They are certainly an eclectic group, and I cannot help but picture them as being on a three-hour cruise, a three-hour cruise, especially when the weather started getting rough and the tiny ship was tossed.

Yes, no sooner have we gotten a song from Akiko (Miki Yashiro), the starlet, the skies cloud over and open up, letting loose a torrential rain and high winds on the craft. The passengers take cover, realizing there is nothing they can do. They awaken to find themselves drifting through a dense fog. They eventually come upon a mysterious island, surrounded by that fog. They go ashore and begin exploring, knowing they are going to need food.

During their explorations, they see lots of mushrooms growing large and wild. They also find a grounded ship. They go aboard and find it is a research vessel, and it appears their work had to do with radiation. They also find a jar containing a large mushroom labeled "Matango" and a journal warning not to eat said mushrooms.

The group splits up into different jobs, mostly centering on food gathering. This is also when the social structure begins to break down. The film takes a turn from being about shipwrecked friends into Lord of the Flies territory. Everyone begins to argue, people begin looking out only for themselves. There is some discussion of the class divide between the wealthy and the working class, especially here in the wild where the working class holds the true power. This lasts through the middle portion of the film.

As we start moving towards the conclusion, the trippier, surreal moments come into play as we get to see the mushroom people. Apparently, if you eat the mushrooms, you become a mushroom, and mushrooms love the wet climate of this hidden island. The survivors are still very much divided, but slowly they are each lured to the call of the mushroom, leading to full bellies and visions of nightclubs. The mushroom people, presumably crewmen from the research vessel, are very creepy looking, lumbering like zombies, but looking like big mutant fungi.

This final turn would seem to be a statement against drug use, and possibly a reaction to the horrors of nuclear power and radiation. For a time the film was banned in Japan as the mutant mushrooms bore a resemblance to victims of the nuclear bombs.

The film was directed by Ishiro Honda, who had previously made one of the best films dealing with nuclear horror with Gojira a decade earlier. This film works on a smaller, more personal level, but is still effective. Honda effectively builds tension through the various stages as external elements take their cumulative toll on the victims.

Is it a great film? No, not really. Still, it is one that is worth the time as it is rather insidious in how it draws you in. Yes, it is slowly paced, but each stage brings with it new things discover and new dangers to weather. The performances are generally effective and help add to the atmosphere of dread that builds around them.

Audio/Video. The movie is presented in anamorphic Tohoscope, a ratio of 2.35:1. The video is clean and has a good level of detail, although colors seem a bit washed out. Still, it is very good considering the age of the movie. I have no problems with the look of this disk.

The audio is presented on three different tracks: English dub 5.1 and mono, and Japanese mono. All of them sound a little flat, but they do the job. They are most effective when atmospheric sounds and the score are playing. There is something about the way the voices sound that is a little bit off.

Extras. This release on the Tokyo Shock imprint of Media Blasters has a few extras of note.
  • Commentary. This subtitled track features Akira Kubo who played Kenji Murai in the film. It is a rather dull track and he does not talk an awful lot about the film.
  • Interview. This interview is with Teruyoshi Nakano. I have read this is a good interview, and they talk about, among other things, the use of a rice pastry formed to look like mushrooms. I saw read because the subtitles are messed up on my disk and I was unable to read the. The interview runs for 27-minutes.
  • Spoken Word. This is a reading from the original story, read by Masami Fukushima.
  • Original Trailer. Just what the label says, he original Japanese trailer.
  • Previews. Trailers are included for Dogora, The Mysterians, Varan the Unbelievable, and Gappa.

Bottomline. This is certainly one of the odder films in my collection, but it is one I am glad to have. It is quiet, it is subtle, and it definitely weird. If you have some patience, like the odd, and are willing to give it a chance, Matango is worth the time. Besides, consider the looks on the faces of your friends when you tell them you own a movie called Attack of the Mushroom People!



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