A Phantasmagorical NO EXIT: MATANGO (1963)
A former university professor named Kenji Murai (Akira Kubo) is committed to a mental institution. He tells his story to the hospital’s staff. He, along with six others, had set sail in a yacht for what was meant to be a short boating trip. Only he returned. Another of Godzilla director Ishiro Honda’s finest films, Matango is a hallucinogenic horror/sci-fi hybrid. It is perhaps Toho’s finest 1960s genre production. Akin to a childhood nightmare, it compares well with the contemporary works of Mario Bava or Terence Fisher in atmospheric dread. Matango’s bleak Lord of the Flies-like narrative is compelling while Eiji Tsuburaya’s FX work is inventive.
Director Honda and actors Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno and Kenji Sahara have all called Matango a favorite of the films they worked on. Honda had long wanted to make a darker picture; a film mocking the materialism now being seen in Japan. By this time, post-war Japan was recovered economically. The war seemed only a faint memory, especially to the young. Like Godzilla, part of Matango’s genesis came from news headlines. Honda had heard a story about a group of wealthy youths. They had taken a parents’ yacht and sailed it too far into the Pacific. Lost at sea, they wound up needing rescue. Reports of ships vanishing in the Bermuda Triangle also got Honda’s imagination going.
Tomoyuki Tanaka and Honda soon turned to a short story published in 1907. Written by British author William Hope Hodgson, it was entitled The Voice in the Night. Hodgson (1877–1918) had spent years at sea. He had a particular affinity for maritime horror stories before he was tragically killed on the battlefield in World War I. Voice in the Night had already been adapted into a 1958 episode of the American anthology series Suspicion. The episode was directed by Arthur Hiller and starred Barbara Rush, James Donald, Patrick Macnee and James Coburn. The concept of castaways stranded on an island and transformed into fungus came from Voice in the Night. Like Hodgson’s novel, the yacht in Matango is called the “Albatross”. Beloved science fiction writer Masami Fukushima created a loose adaptation for Tanaka with help from Shinichi Hoshi. Takeshi Kimura penned the final screenplay. He let his penchant for misanthropy and darker subtext run. Matango was also one of Kimura’s favorite genre films he worked on up until his death.
To write their genre films, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and director Ishiro Honda liked to employ two writers. The first was Shinichi Sekizawa. Sekizawa saw writing science fiction as “fun”. He liked to write films with a more optimistic, fantastical tone. The other was Kimura (1911–1987), a brooding and reclusive figure to the point that no images of him are known to exist, his scripts were darker. Kimura’s screenplays tended to have somber subtexts and tragic elements. Takeshi Kimura was born in 1911 in Osaka. As a youth, he joined the Japanese Communist Party and attended Kansai University. Dropping out of school, Kimura’s communist sympathies got him imprisoned as a dissident through World War II. After the war, Kimura was released and became the chairman of the JCP’s Saga Prefecture branch.
Eventually, Kimura grew bitter towards political activism. He got in a disagreement with JCP head Kyuichi Tokuda over the use of Molotov cocktails and quit. Kimura started writing screen and stage plays. Fellow writer Toshio Yasumi took him under his wing, helping Kimura break into the industry. His first major scripting job was Red Light Base (1953) directed by Senkichi Tanguchi. This film, produced in the wake of the American Occupation, wound up being controversial due to an unflattering portrayal of American G.I.s. Kimura’s next script was the pacifistic war drama Farewell Rabaul (1954) helmed by Ishiro Honda. After co-writing Rodan and writing The Mysterians and The H-Man for Honda, he began to specialize in science fiction scripts. In the 1960s, Kimura’s notable works included the character-driven The Human Vapor (1960), the apocalyptic tragedy The Last War (1961) and the space epic Gorath (1962). His signature screenplay was for Matango.
Matango is a misanthropic and unsettling film. Invoking Sartre’s No Exit and Golding’s Lord of the Flies, it’s more disturbing than its subject matter suggests. The film’s cast of characters represent a good cross section of Japanese society. They range from a wealthy tycoon and a famous singer to a shy college student and working class sailors. In Matango, we witness a microcosmic breakdown of society. As circumstances toughen, their society fragments. As this happens, the characters’ darker impulses held back by social norms take hold. Kimura’s script brings to mind the famous quote from No Exit: “Hell is other people”. Matango is like a childhood fever dream. To call it a Japanese Gilligan’s Island on psilocybin would be no understatement. The film’s bad trip kicks in with hallucinogenic intensity in its second half. Typical of Ishiro Honda, there’s inference that the Matango threat itself may have been spawned by nuclear testing. This is hinted at by the fact that the derelict ship was studying nuclear contamination. It can also be seen in the keloid scar-like makeup of the transitional creatures. The fully transformed Matango monsters, played by actors in suits ala kaiju, have mushroom cloud-like heads. Note that an early, rejected design of the first Godzilla had similar features. Sadao Bekku’s haunting score is almost experimental and enhances the film’s moody psychedelia. Films like The H-Man and Matango make one wish Honda had directed more horror pictures.
Much of Matango’s location shooting was done on Oshima and Hachijo-Jima islands. The more outlandish indoor sets were filmed on Toho’s Tokyo backlot. Honda was a bit insecure about the editing between its island locales and interior sets. Regardless, it’s fairly seamless. Before shooting began, Honda took the cast aside. He told them that it was a dark picture and to take their roles seriously. Indeed, unlike most of Honda and Tsuburaya’s kaiju films, the human actors do not play second fiddle to the monsters. Matango is actor and character focused. The shoot was grueling. At Oshima, the actors and crew had to contend with poisonous snakes and centipedes. Yet Toho’s sets tended to have an open and friendly atmosphere. Arguments amongst the cast and crew was almost nonexistent. Honda was less of a perfectionist and method director than Akira Kurosawa. He gave the actors freedom to perform their own interpretations of the characters. For early scenes inside the derelict ship, Honda instructed the performers to pretend the sets stank. Unlike Honda’s other films, Matango was largely shot in sequence to help the actors keep momentum. In the early storm scenes on the yacht, giant drums of water were dumped on the cast again and again. Kenji Sahara and Yoshio Tsuchiya both thought the on-set mushrooms looked ridiculous. They were sold, however, when they saw the finished picture. The final scene shot was the hospital wraparound with Akira Kubo.
Matango is indeed well acted. The characters’ intense hunger feels palpable. Akira Kubo leads the film. Kubo (1936-) became one of Honda’s favorite leading men. He later appeared in Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965), Destroy All Monsters (1968) and Space Amoeba (1970). Born Yasuyoshi Yamauchi, he started acting in elementary school. He was discovered by a theater troupe after the war. Eventually, director Seiji Maruyama caught one of his plays. At 15, he was cast in his first film, Adolescence (1952), directed by Maruyama. Tomoyuki Tanaka convinced him to use the stage name “Akira Kubo”, named after his character in Adolescence. Kubo went on to appear in numerous films. He played the Malcolm role in Kurosawa’s Macbeth-based Throne of Blood (1957). At his career’s peak, he appeared in a dozen films a year. Kubo was Tsuburaya’s first choice for the role of human alter-ego Hayata in his TV show Ultraman. Worried he wouldn’t be able to balance appearing in a television show with his film career, Kubo turned the role down. The part went to Susumu Kurobe and Kubo now regrets this decision. In 1995, he appeared as a ship’s captain in Gamera: Guardian of the Universe for Shusuke Kaneko. More recently, he played the Prime Minister in Hiroto Yokokawa’s independent The Great Buddha Arrival (2019). Kubo recalls that he was once approached by an American G.I. stationed in Japan who recognized him from Matango.
The other actors shine as well. Consummate Yoshio Tsuchiya gives a powerful turn as businessman Kasai. He starts off a rich and pompous blowhard and as the going gets tough becomes a pathetic wraith. Tsuchiya (1927–2017) was born in Koshu in Yamanashi Prefecture. Educated as a medical student, he was one of Toho’s finest thespians. Appearing as tragic peasant Rikichi in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, he relished darker roles. One of his greatest would be the titular The Human Vapor in Honda’s 1960 film of the same name. He had first worked with Honda on The Mysterians (1957) where he invented a fake alien language which he spoke on set. Later, Tsuchiya would go on to play a very similar role in Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965). He would take a dark turn as a gay man who commits incest in Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (1969). Tsuchiya then became more active in television in the 70s and 80s before returning to the Godzilla series in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991).
Kumi Mizuno is particularly memorable as Kasai’s mistress Mami. Betraying the man she used for his wealth, she ends up personifying the allure of the Matango itself and becoming a succubus-like creature. The special effects crew wanted to disfigure her with keloid-style bumps like the male characters but Honda disagreed. Honda opted to make her more beautiful instead which he believed was scarier. There is likely no more memorable actress in Japanese genre film than Kumi Mizuno (1937-). She had a certain je ne sais quoi; a mix of beauty, brains and acting chops. These set her apart, even from other beautiful stars like Yuriko Hoshi, Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi. Mizuno was born Maya Igarashi in Sanjo, Niigata Prefecture. Her parents owned a professional photo studio and laboratory. While attending high school, she was part of the drama club and appeared in numerous school plays. Her talent and beauty got her noticed and she was featured in Junior Soriiyu magazine.
In 1957 at the age of 20, she began her film acting career in Shochiku’s Crazy Society. She soon moved to Toho the following year, appearing in Seiji Maruyama’s A Bridge For Us Alone. She played supporting roles in popular films like Hiroshi Inagaki’s The Three Treasures (1959) and Kihachi Okamoto’s Westward Desperado. Numerous parts followed, both starring and supporting, including Inagaki’s blockbuster Chushingura (1962). With both beauty and acting skill, she was called the “Françoise Arnoul of Japan”. Director Ishiro Honda was particularly fond of her. At one point, she was almost cast opposite Jack Palance in a cancelled historical epic set in ancient China. On Honda’s later Frankenstein Conquers the World, she worked with Hollywood actor Nick Adams. Adams was smitten by this lovely Japanese actress. Actress Miki Yashiro (1943-) plays the virginal Akiko. She joined Toho after graduating high school but left after 1964, probably to start a domestic life.
Kenji Sahara, against type, plays low class sailor Koyama, a base yet oddly honest man. Sahara had played fairly wholesome roles up until this point. He was gleeful to play a “dirty” character. He worked out hard before the shoot and built his muscle tone. He also had his dentist mess up his teeth. Sahara (1932-) is one of the most prolific and notable Toho actors; a debonair man with strong screen presence and surprising range. He was born Masayoshi Kato in Kawasaki City, Kanagawa, the eldest of six. His father was the director of a medical school and wanted him to become a lawyer. His break came in 1953 when he entered the “Mr. Heibon” contest while in law school. He won second prize, giving him the opportunity to join Toho’s “New Face” program, in the same class as Akira Takarada. First taking the stage name of Tadashi Ishihara, he played a small role in Ishiro Honda’s Farewell Rabaul. He next had a cameo in the original Godzilla in the pleasure boat sequence. Taking the name Kenji Sahara and making his starring debut in Rodan, he became another favorite actor of Honda’s. Next he headlined The Mysterians (1957) and The H-Man (1958) Hiroshi Koizumi also appears against type. For Honda he mainly played intellectuals, but his Sakuta is a world weary working class man. Hiroshi Tachikawa is chilling as Yoshida, a pretentious novelist who turns sociopathic. Tachikawa (1931-) was a more minor but notable player at Toho. He had appeared in Gorath for Honda the year prior and for Kurosawa he also appeared in Throne of Blood.
For Matango’s shoot, the distinction between the live action and SFX units was less clear than on the kaiju pictures. Many scenes were more or less co-directed by Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya. Fresh off Siege of Fort Bismark, Tsuburaya creates phantasmagorical and atmospheric images rivaling European horror maestros like Mario Bava, Terence Fisher and Jacques Tourneur. Tsuburaya’s crew was allowed to be more experimental than usual on Matango. They worked hard to elevate the film beyond its B-picture status. Matango was one of the first Toho films to use front projection rather than rear projection. Front projection involved a projector placed closer to the camera. With closer projection and better screens made of road sign material, the result was bright and crisp. The first scenes on the yacht were filmed on a soundstage. Footage of the ocean was front projected behind them and the result is stellar for 1963. This was also one of Tsuburaya’s first films to use his Oxbury optical printer which he had just purchased. It was something of an impulse buy on his part, but it paid off. The Oxbury could composite up to six layers of film. This printer is used to make some fanciful composites. The yacht and derelict ship had elaborate miniatures built. The miniature yacht was quite large and actually sailable, its scenes shot in Toho’s “Big Pool”. The glowing Tokyo cityscape outside of the ward Kubo’s character is confined in was also a miniature set built by Tsuburaya’s team.
Shigeru Komatsuzaki (1915–2001) did much of the film’s conceptual designs. He had previously worked for Honda and Tsuburaya with creating the retro-futuristic mechanical designs in The Mysterians (1957) and Battle in Outer Space (1959). Komatsuzaki would later design the Goten-go in Atragon later in 1963. He came up with the visual motif for the monsters themselves. Besides bringing radiation burns and atomic clouds to mind, they resemble forest yokai. The film’s sets are fantastic. Art director Shigekazu Ikuno and SFX art director Akira Watanabe kept in good communication. The derelict ship’s walls were made to look fungus encrusted with rubber glue spiked with acetone. For later scenes, this mixture was diluted and used to make spores. Teizo Toshimitsu modeled and built the on-set mushrooms as well as the prosthetics and monster suits. The prosthetics were latex which Toshimitsu was beginning to favor. He was proud of his work on Hideyo Amamoto’s “Skulking Transitional Matango”. Amamoto had to have lunch at Toho’s cafeteria in full makeup, giving the staff quite a fright.
The shots where the mushrooms bloom and grow from the ground were a difficult technical feat. Tsuburaya’s team considered using spun sugar ala cotton candy. In the end, they found the best results with a liquid nylon solution. This mixture was poured into cans and produced mushroom-like shapes. Smaller mushrooms were made with orange soft drink Bireley’s cans. Medium sized mushrooms came from corned beef cans and giant ones from paint cans. The expansion only took several seconds and had to be shot quickly at a very high frame rate. The edible mushrooms consumed by the actors on set were mochi rice pastry. The mochi was made by a local confectionary shop. It was then crafted into mushrooms by the special effects crew. The staff added flavors to the mochi as a playful prank on the actors. They were delicious enough that the crew would often steal some for dessert after lunch.
Matango was released in Japan on August 11th, 1963. It did poor business and was critically skewered. Honda was disheartened but unsurprised. In his own words it was not a “typical Japanese mainstream movie”. This would be Honda’s final horror film. For international distribution, Toho commissioned an export version of Matango editorially identical to the Japanese version. The English dubbing was recorded in Hong Kong by a firm called Axis International, run by a man named Theodore “Ted” Thomas. Matango was bought by American International Pictures and given the hokey title Attack of the Mushroom People. It was released directly to stateside television in 1965. Unusually for AIP, the export dubbing was kept intact and not redone by Titra/Titan. Matango has developed strong cult status over the years on both sides of the Pacific. Shinji Higuchi is a particular fan of the film. He paid homage to it in an episode he storyboarded for Hideaki Anno’s anime Nadia: Secret of Blue Water in 1991. More recently, a 2011 episode of Naruto: Shippuden paid tribute to the film as well. Additionally, Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Ocean’s 11) wanted to direct a Hollywood remake. He was apparently unable to procure the rights from Toho and so plans were scuttled.
J.L. Carrozza (1986-) is the author of the book SF: The Japanese Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia (2021). This article is excerpted and edited from a chapter in that book. Carrozza has written for such publications as Asian Cult Cinema, Monster Attack Team and Otaku USA.