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31 Days of Halloween

31 Days of Halloween: A Love Letter to ‘Matango’ (1963)

Don’t eat the shrooms.

Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.

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A shipwreck. A great cast of characters. Mushroom people. Ishiro Honda’s 1963 film, Matango is a secret gem in the director’s filmography that also includes classics like Rodan, Mothra, and of course, Godzilla.

Matango stands out from the rest of Honda’s genre films with its bleak take on mankind. While 1954’s Godzilla is horrifying in its depiction of the monster’s destruction, the human tale of that film sees isolated scientist Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) save mankind while sacrificing himself. The humans of that film are ultimately well-intentioned and work towards a common goal in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Matango especially stands out compared to the films Honda directed immediately prior. In 1962, Honda directed two films: Gorath and King Kong vs. Godzilla. Gorath is a sci-fi thriller that remains utterly optimistic about mankind’s ability to persevere, even as a rogue star threatens to collide with Earth and new threats (including a giant walrus) continue to impede the efforts of the film’s heroes. King Kong vs. Godzilla is an outright comedy, not just with the fight choreography between the titular monsters, but with the way the film pokes fun at the then-burgeoning TV industry.

Still here — Matango (1963)

While King Kong vs. Godzilla‘s critique is done through satire, Matango is a different beast altogether. Based on “The Voice in the Night” by William H. Hodgson, the film features a small cast of socialites in the fast-growing economy of 1960s Japan. Akira Kubo stars as the young Professor Kenji Murai, who has taken his student and lover Akiko Sōma (Miki Yahsiro) on what is supposed to be a one-day yacht trip. Joining them are Murai’s friends, Masafumi Kasai (Yoshio Tsuchiya) who owns the yacht, singer Mami Sekiguchi (Kumi Mizuno), writer Etsurō Yoshida (Hiroshi Tachikawa), and the ship’s skipper Naoyuki Sakuda (Hiroshi Koizumi) and the boatswain Senzō Koyama (Kenji Sahara). A reckless decision by Kasai gets the group shipwrecked on an island, where another ship seems to have befallen the same fate.

Though that might sound eerily similar to the premise of Gilligan’s Island, it is also where the similarities end. While Ishiro Honda’s other films focused on people coming together, Matango sees its cast tear apart at the seams. With hardly any food, the crew struggles to survive, and a trip to the other abandoned ship reveals a mass of mushrooms that could offer the crew salvation, if only it were safe to eat them.

Tautly paced and with increasing tension, Matango lets viewers sees its characters grow increasingly less human. At the beginning of the shipwreck, Koyama offers a joke that the reason women aren’t supposed to be on ships is because it gets the men acting crazy. Mami, who dreams of stardom, initially relishes in the attention she gains from her fellow castaways, until the men get increasingly violent.

31 Days of Halloween: A Love Letter to 'Matango' (1963)

Sakuda’s authority as the ship’s captain is initially respected, but as the crew grow increasingly hopeless, Sakuda is cast aside. It isn’t threats from within that the crew faces, as it becomes apparent that they aren’t the only ones on this island. The mushrooms, it seems, take over those who eat them, a parasitic corruption that echoes the changes happening with the cast.

Matango was released in the U.S. under the title Attack of the Mushroom People, and the new name fails to capture the tense atmosphere Honda, cinematographer Hajime Koizumi, and composer Sadao Bekku are able to bring forth here. Matango isn’t a monster movie in the same vein as Godzilla, Rodan, or Mothra. It’s a film about the monsters inside of us, and slowly creeping in the shadows of a neon cityscape.

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