Saturday, June 22, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Matango’

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Sometimes movies that don’t a hundred percent work are just as interesting as those that do. Matango is a perfect example of a movie that isn’t exactly good but is unexpectedly fascinating. Even though the film gets lost in its own allegory, it’s impossible to deny how it lingers in your memories after watching it.

Directed by famed Japanese director Ishiro Honda, Matango is a bit of a cult classic, though Americans might know it by its admittedly more schlocky title Attack of the Mushroom People. Either way, the film is a departure for Honda, who is known mainly for his kaiju films. 

Professor Kenji Murai (Akira Kubo) as he tells the story of what happens to him and his friends in Matango

Part of what makes Matango so absorbing is that it defies categorization. Though Matango has monsters, they are hardly the point and rarely seen. Dreamy and languid, it is a film that laps away at our patience and our senses like tidal waves.

The script is written by Karou Mabuchi’s, writing under the pen name of Takeshi Kimura, and is based on the Western short story by William H. Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night,” It does a good job setting the mood, but Mabuchi and Honda are so busy building atmosphere and setting up the allegory that they forget to give their actors anything to hold onto. The result is that despite how haunting the film can be, the film slowly starts to drag as the actors are left to drift throughout the film.

Matango is about addiction and the psychological and emotional strains it puts upon those who experience it and those close to them. At least that’s what Honda is focusing on. But there’s another theme running through Matango, classism. The two themes bump up against each other constantly and either because of Mabuchi’s script or because of Honda’s refusal to dissect it too much, a strange tug-of-war begins to develop within the narrative.

Mami (Kumi Mizuno) looks for food and company

Granted it could also be because there seem to be more characters than either Honda or Mabuchi know what to do with. Kenji (Akira Kubo), a professor, tells us the story from the inside of a Tokyo mental hospital.  He tells about how he and his friends, a group of wealthy Japanese socialites, went on a day cruise in their new yacht. 

The owner of the yacht, a celebrity of sorts named Masafumi (Yoshio Tsuchyia), is a carefree, spoiled, manchild. Luckily his friends include a singer whose star is on the rise named Mami (Kumi Mizuno), and a famed novelist named Etsuro (Hiroshi Tachikawa). But none of them seem to know anything about sailing. Thankfully they have a skipper in Naoyuki (Hiroshi Koizumi) and his mate Senzo (Kenji Sahara). Also on the boat is the pretty young student of Kenji’s, Akiko (Miki Yashiro).

Honda or Kimura hint at the relationships between the characters. They even have a flashback showing how they all met and agreed to go on this doomed holiday excursion, but they ever lay down any solid groundwork. As a result, as the movie goes on and the scenes become more and more atmospheric and the story becomes thinner and thinner, the actors find themselves stumbling blindly in the dark.

Our heroes find another shipwreck in Matango

Eventually, the motley crew sails into a storm and find themselves adrift in the ocean. After days of being marooned in the ocean they stumble upon an island. Soon discover they are not the first to visit the island and what they find does not bode well for them.

There is no food on the island, no animals or any kind of vegetation. What is in abundance on the island are mushrooms. I’m sure you can see where this is going.

But even as Matango begins to drag, Hajime Koizumi’s camera never does. Koizumi’s lens along with Shigekazu Ikuno’s set design brilliantly give us a sense of isolation. You can almost feel the damp air in these scenes. As the characters explore other shipwrecks, the ever present fungus gives off a sort of doomed portent. Ikuno’s sets give off an eerie otherworldly feeling, giving much of Koizumi’s shots and Honda’s framing a haunting nightmarish quality.

Shigekazu Ikuo’s production design and Hajime Koizumi’s camera work make Matango hauntingly dreamlike at times.

Honda never goes for kitsch and instead leans into the dream-like feeling of the story. But he also adds a layer of fraught anxiety and sensuality. Maimi and Akiko are the only women on the island and the men, along with finding the mushrooms on the island addictive, are growing restless. But like everything else, nothing ever really comes of it.

Still, the ending feels like something from an old Tales From the Crypt episode, and I mean that in the best way. Despite the flaws, Matango clings to my memories like a fog and is not easily forgotten. 

Images courtesy of Toho

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