Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Fungus Among Us

Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People
a.k.a. Matango: the Fungus of Terror
Japan (1963)

The film opens with a shadowy narrator in a psych ward, but at least he's in one with a fantastic view of downtown Tokyo, full of colorful neon signs. He's talking about his friends, who are dead, but alive, and how he may be crazy, but his story is true. A jaunty credit sequence later, and we're introduced to a mismatched group aboard a luxury yacht.

Before you can say Gilligan's Island, there's the millionaire who funded the trip, a professor, a Skipper (who they call "Skipper" even in the Japanese language track, not just the subtitles), a crewman who will eventually wear a floppy white hat, and two women: one a singer who lounged around the deck in a gorgeous vintage bikini, the other a shy girl-next-door type. (Plus a writer friend). When they were hit by an unexpected storm at sea, I stopped to look up the relevant dates. Matango, which was made by original Gojira director Ishiro Honda, came out in August 1963. The American sitcom didn't air until September 1964. Oddly, the movie contains a brief conversation in which the writer talks about how there are no original stories anymore. Take that as you will.

Shipwrecked on an uninhabited island, they explore the interior, and find the wreck of another ship, apparently on an international scientific expedition studying the effects of pollution and radiation on sea life. The crew is gone, but there are no bodies, and the Captain's log describes the dangerous effects of the local mushrooms, a new species they've dubbed matango.

By this point, it's become clear that the film is not the camp-filled kitsch-fest its subtitles would suggest. For most of its running time, it's actually a sober exploration of the struggle for survival (including the effects of hunger, loss of hope, and male competition over the few women) and the toll it takes on ordinary people. The cult film fan is rewarded, however, with the later scenes that expose the vast mushroom fields. These verge on psychedelic, with electronically amplified voices laughing weirdly on the soundtrack as giant clumps of fungus suddenly start moving around.

The mushrooms take on a lot more symbolic significance than I would have guessed I was getting myself into. The people are tired, weak, starving to death. At the same time, however, they're surrounded by an over-abundance of mushrooms, and they can eat their fill any time they choose to. The mushrooms taste delicious, relieve the pain of hunger, and temporarily make the eaters glow with sudden health. But the catch is: they create an insatiable appetite for more mushrooms. No one can eat just one. There's no such thing as moderation. And the more a character eats, the more they lose their humanity. First they lose their consciences, and their connection to other humans (the first to succumb to the thrall of the fungus declares that he can now kill them all without remorse). And ultimately, they will mutate into giant mushroom creatures.

Raising the existential question: is it better to suffer and starve to death, or to survive, and even thrive (in a manner of speaking) at the cost of one's one humanity? Suddenly we're more in "Lotos-Eaters"/”Goblin Market”/Brave New World territory than we are on Gilligan's Island.

In the end, back in the psych ward, the last survivor subverted my expectation by musing that he should have eaten the mushrooms. That way, he could have stayed with the girl he loved, and to lose his humanity for her would have been the more human thing to do. Then he looks out the window and declares that life in Tokyo is the same as it was on the island. Everywhere, people are giving up their humanity. The social commentary may be a little too overt at this point, but still, it's an admirably harsh and downbeat judgment to end a B-movie about mushroom people with.

Until next time, please, don't eat the mushrooms!

No comments: