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June 16, 2009

Japanese Cinema Blogathon: Matango

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Ishiro Honda - 1963
Tokyo Shock Region 1 DVD

While I can't really say that watching Toho Studios monster movies initiated my love for Japanese movies, it probably had a lot to do with introducing me to the idea of watching Japanese movies more seriously. If for no other reasons, I would consider the series a gateway that help generate an interest in Japanese film in general. Unlike some of my generation, I didn't see any of the films theatrically but waited for the television broadcast versions of Rodan and Mothra. At the time I first saw the film known to Americans as Godzilla, I was still unsophisticated enough to not realize that Raymond Burr was shoehorned into an all Japanese film by means of editing. Seeing the American edit years later, I've always wondered why no one has had the sense of humor to remake the film - Raymond Burr plays a character named Steve Martin, so why not have Steve Martin in a version as a character named Raymond Burr? I did finally see the original Japanese version on an Australian DVD, several years before the American DVD version of Gojira was available, stunned by how much grimmer Ishiro Honda's film was as was his intention.

That my viewing of Japanese films would segue from Honda to Akira Kurosawa might also be considered somewhat natural, as these two filmmakers worked at the same studio, made films that essentially defined Japanese cinema for American young men, and personally were the best of friends. The name though that meant more to me when I was a much younger film scholar was Eiji Tsuburaya, Toho's special effects wizard, profiled in a copy of "Famous Monsters of Filmland". I eventually felt myself too old to watch Toho monster films, at least theatrically, but would catch something on occasion on television. The special effects might not have measured up to Hollywood standards, and the synchronization of the dubbing would be off, but there was always a childlike fascination with giant creatures that would visit Earth to create panic and havoc, and remind people of the dangers of radiation. In their unique way, Toho monster movies would also create the notion of the world outside of America at a time when the U.S. was less culturally or racially diverse.

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I'm not sure how much I would have appreciated Matango if I had seen it when I was much younger, but I can understand now why some of the actors say it is the favorite of Toho monster films they acted in. Unlike many of the other Honda films, there is no giant monster. That the monsters here are people are walking, stalking, human sized mushrooms is a loopy concept that originated from writer William Hope Hodgson. While unstated, as best as I can tell, from anyone associated with the film film, I would say that Matango reminds me of that favorite line from the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby version of The Thing: "An intellectual carrot. The mind boggles!". There is a brief reference to the dangers of radiation, but the other film that Matango would remind me of, more than the giant monster series, would be Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Siegel's monsters were the "pod people", repeating the idea of people as vegetables, or vice versa, lacking human emotions. This, of course, could be a setup for a joke about the horror of carrots, peas and mushrooms. But what I think Honda was after, on a more symbolic level, was a critique of the conformist aspect of Japanese culture.

The film is told primarily from the point of view of the last survivor of a yacht that lands, after a destructive storm, on deserted island. Kenji, formerly a psychology professor, is himself declared crazy after being rescued. The first view we see prior to his hospital room is a view of Tokyo, almost an abstraction of neon signs. Kenji and the six other people, are on a pleasure cruise to escape from their lives in Tokyo, to relax without demands or expectations. The opening credit sequence could be from a musical or light comedy, with it's cheerful music and shots of the yacht in the open sea. Once the yacht's crew and passengers are stranded, the film shifts to being a discussion of survival with the conflicts concerning group needs versus individual desires, and shifts in who leads and who follows. An abandoned ship is discovered, one that looks almost like an alien planet, covered as it is with fungus and streaks of rust, or is that blood? Even though it is recognizably the remains of a ship, the surface colors make it resemble an alien landscape. The ship's log explains partially what happened to that boat's crew, yet the lure of the mushrooms proves too great. Obliquely, Honda is positing the question of retaining individual identity or surrendering to the demands of the group.

This particular dilemma might be lost on an American audience, particularly a younger audience who would have comprised Matango's primary viewers. Kenji talks wistfully of having stayed on the island, and states that both the unnamed island and Tokyo are equally cruel. One could liken the mushroom people as both standing in for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors who were horribly disfigured, or the more recent victims of Minamata. Kenji struggles both physically and emotionally to retain his human identity, only to find that while he has refused to surrender his sense of self to become a mushroom person, neither is there a place for him in human society. In the conclusion of Matango, the greatest horror is that of finding yourself alone.

For more Japanese Cinema, visit Wildgrounds.

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Posted by peter at June 16, 2009 12:10 AM


Sounds great! I'm going to have to track this down. It seems like, during the 60s and 70s, horror films all over the world were able to deliver the sort of thrills and visuals that horror fans wanted, but were still able to provide some degree of social comment or psychological/philosophical insight. Maybe I'm just romanticizing the films of the past, but that seems to be lacking in current horror cinema.

Posted by: Ash at June 16, 2009 09:35 AM

What an interesting choice for the blogathon. I was hooked on the monster films, though I got the privilege of watching them in my uncle's basement on his 8mm projector. Rodan was a particular favorite. This one is new to me, but I have always enjoyed zombie films, which this sounds a bit like. I look forward to tracking it down. Thanks, Peter, for another great recommendation.

Posted by: Marilyn at June 17, 2009 10:02 PM

I don't remember who it was but somebody once said of this movie "Nobody dies but everybody loses." A deeply disturbing and strangely beautiful film.

Posted by: ARBOGAST at June 19, 2009 10:26 PM