When Matango was released in Japanese cinemas in 1963, the Atomic Age seemed to offer so much promise for a booming post-war Japan. However, it was also a paradox because the nation was still coming to grips with the science and technologies that caused so much devastation and loss less than two decades earlier. For me, Matango captures the ambivalent views of the spoils of economic growth and the role of science in sustaining it.
Also known in other regions as Fungus of Terror and Attack of the Mushroom People, Matango is a Japanese tokusatsu film that centres around a group of stranded castaways dealing with mutant fungi.
The story begins with a group of friends sailing on a yacht. They are young, attractive, successful and affluent.
Their jaunt goes awry when their yacht gets caught up in a squall. Badly damaged and blown off course, the yacht is adrift for some time when someone spots land – an island. The seven passengers and crew swim to shore. They are unsure of their location. A search for food and potable water yields the discovery of a long-abandoned ship stranded on the beach. Its interior is covered with some sort of growth. A fungus or moss, depending on whether you trust the english dub or the subtitles.
They find “evidence” that the ship was once a research vessel conducting secretive scientific research on the effects of nuclear radiation. It’s a tenuous proposition based on flimsy evidence – the presence of a Geiger counter, some laboratory glassware, containers of carbolic acid and ethanol, and specimen jars. It doesn’t really scream out nuclear research in my opinion. Nevertheless, the ship is shrouded in mystery. Its origins and intent unknown. They later come upon the ship’s log, which indicates there is little by way of food on the island and that the bountiful mushrooms growing there are inedible and potentially toxic. There is no sign of the research vessel’s crew. Where are they and what has become of them?
With these plot devices laid out, the movie continues to plod along; the survivors seek refuge in the research vessel; their food begins to dwindle; hunger sets in. Then there’s contact. A deformed human-like creature appears one evening then disappears in what is a very bizarre and confusing sequence. We later ascertain that this creature is a fungus of terror. More plodding, and we find a couple of the survivors giving in to their hunger. We discover that eating the island’s mushrooms turns victims into into a horror not unlike what our protagonists encountered earlier. We now know what happened to the crew of the research vessel. Most of the remaining protagonists succumb to the same fate.
Would I recommend Matango for casual viewing? Probably not. It’s not enjoyable and takes forever to get anywhere. It’s a lot less fun than Godzilla (1954) or Mothra (1961). A chore. However, I still found the film intriguing in the way it portrayed science and how Japan’s postwar, Atomic Age economic (r)evolution may have influenced this depiction.
Post-war Japan was vibrant and its economy boomed throughout the 50s and 60s. Within 20 years of the Second World War ending, Japan was in complete economic recovery, a situation referred to as the Japanese post-war economic miracle. Our hipster castaways represent this new post-war Japan: attractive, successful, affluent, robust and optimistic.
But this period also coincided with the Atomic Age. Japan, wanting to become a scientific and industrial leader but lacking sufficient energy for sustainable growth, embraced nuclear power to meet its needs and aspirations. Yet, the events at Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945 left residual fear and scepticism of nuclear energy. The film embodies these Atomic Age anxieties. Matango uses the research ship to indict science of being clandestine – something to be wary of. But our protagonists do not take heed. They seek refuge in the research vessel only to succumb to the horrors that await.
About the author
Don Gomez maintains Science By Fiction and is undertaking a masters degree in science communication at the Australian National University’s Centre for Public Awareness of Science. Donnie loves a good yarn and is interested in the depiction of science in popular fiction.
Follow Don on Twitter @hairycanary