Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ishiro Honda's MATANGO (1963)

The kaiju eiga has taken many different shapes and forms. King Kong may have been the original giant monster movie, but Japanese filmmakers embraced this genre giving life to rubber suits and miniature cities. The stereotype of the Japanese monster movie may be pure camp, but it was Ishiro Honda that set a very serious tone in 1954 with Godzilla. Infused with a social commentary, Godzilla spoke to Japan's fear of the atomic bomb and uneasiness toward the future.

Honda was drafted three times into the Imperial Army and served between 1938 and 1946. He not only witnessed the firebombings in Tokyo, but he was also a prisoner of war in China and visited the destruction of Hiroshima in shortly after the bombings. After he returned to Tokyo he found work as assistant director to his neighbor and friend Akira Kurosawa at Toho studios. Once he was promoted to director, he made two documentaries and six feature films before making Godzilla. Honda had questioned the ethics of war in previous films, but it was with Godzilla that he found a voice for articulating post-War anxiety, and more specifically the anxiety towards a world living with the destructive power of the atomic bomb.

Although science fiction was a staple for Honda after Godzilla, he did just as many stock-in-trade drama, action, and comedic films. The 50s and 60s were creatively fertile times for film in Japan. Studios were giving directors more freedom than ever before in order to reclaim audiences stolen by television. Matango was born from this era that seemed to allow Honda to dig deep into his bag of surreal doomsday metaphors. Slapped with the English title Attack of the Mushroom People and dubbed for US consumption, Matango was hardly seen as the thoughtful film that it was.

Seven hapless Tokyoites, five men and two women, set out in a seaworthy sailboat for a weekend excursion. The seven compose a social cross-cut and a nice microcosm: a level-headed captain, a horny sailor, a wealthy executive, a carefree writer, an earnest college professor, a naive young college clerk, and a woman-of-the-world singer. An oncoming storm and the group's misguided decision not to return home quickly turns their outing into a huge (but inevitable) reversal of fortune. With their boat destroyed and barely staying afloat, they drift toward an island promising food, fresh water and perhaps a rescue.

To their surprise the island seems deserted, despite another ship that seems to have washed ashore. Although the flora is in abundance—including massive mushrooms—the fauna is nonexistent. Even birds avoid the island at the shoreline. As one might expect, there is a secret locked inside those mushrooms, and a fate for the people who decide to eat them that questions humanities position at the top of the food chain. The mushrooms not only have a predictable hallucinatory effect but also physically alters all who eat them. With little to eat on the island but the mushrooms, most are unable to resist the temptation. The radiation laced mushroom sends one famished survivor into a drug induced fantasy of dancing girls only to be jarred to reality by the fact that he would soon be a mushroom.

You don't have to look much further than "Lost" to know the social critiques that surface on a deserted island. Humans are savages at heart and will turn on each other in order to survive. Matango works with these motifs, but also takes a more ecological approach. The frenzied finale that has an entire forest of mushrooms coming to life, sends our last surviving hero fleeing to an ill-repaired boat to escape. Although he makes it back to Japan, his fate is to wile away his days locked in a psyche ward above the neon lights of Tokyo. As he ponders the life outside his window, he concludes that a life as a mushroom on an island would be more fulfilling than a life as a human in Tokyo. Little does he know that he is about to find out what it is like to live as a mushroom in Tokyo, and it doesn't look so good. With rapid industrialization sweeping the country, Matango freely critiques its dehumanizing effects. Matango may be slightly dated but it is one of Ishiro Honda's most layered and strange films.

Say what you will about Media Blaster's Tokyo Shock label, but this DVD offers up some impressive extras: a commentary from lead actor Akira Kubo (an engaging conversation that is more about his career than the film itself); an interview with special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano (I think he is Al Milgrom's long lost Japanese brother, seriously); a reading from the author of the story played along with re-edited images of the film; and a rad, but no doubt You Tube accessible, trailer.

Matango was released a few years ago on DVD by Media Blasters.
Watch a trailer for the film here.

1 comment:

Dan said...

great Ishiro. To my mind, a masterpiece, probably his best film.