I like mushrooms. Do you? Well, certain kinds, anyway. Cremini. Lobster. Button. Shiitake. Oyster. I’m not picky. The usual rule of thumb, of course, is that it’s a bad idea to eat strange mushrooms because they can be potentially deadly or at least cause weird hallucinogenic effects. Eating mushrooms growing out of a decrepit shipwreck on a deserted island, for instance? Yeah, that’s not good, either. A group of tourists find it out the hard way in the 1963 Japanese film, Matengo (マタンゴ), known in English as Attack of the Mushroom People.
The story is told in flashback, because all of the characters have died, and the survivor, Murai (Akira Kubo) is in the hospital. Of course he is. He’s been though an ordeal. Then the movie takes us to a yacht, where Murai and a group of young people are out for a pleasure cruise, complete with ukelele strumming and good-natured shoving.
All the characters are types and unfailingly static. They also sponge off of Gilligan’s Island. Murai is a professor. Mami (Kumi Mizuno) is a famous singer and a bit of a diva. Yoshida (Hiroshi Tachikawa) is a writer. Kasai is the owner of the yacht. Akiko (Miki Yashiro) is a student and very nervous to be among these rich, careless people.
While they’re all at dinner toasting themselves for being so set apart from the rest of humanity, a storm blows up. The skipper, Sakuta (Hiroshi Koizumi) and sailor, Koyama (Kenji Sahara) want to turn back, but Kasai is confident the boat won’t sink. He paid forty million yen for it, after all.
Then the ham radio goes kaput. And the mainmast breaks. And the engine fails. It’s all bad. On the plus side, the portable radio is already running news items on our group being caught in the storm. After poking through dense fog, the bedraggled yacht finally straggles into the port of a deserted island which looks promisingly green.
Yeah, no. The group finds fresh water, but there’s very little food, at least not anything obvious. Just mushrooms growing everywhere. There’s a massive shipwreck too, which our people decide to fix up as a shelter. It gets even better after they find a case of Spam in the hold.
After a lot of searching, the group turns up root vegetables, but between that and the Spam, their food situation is still pretty dire. They talk about fixing up the yacht and getting away from the island even though their chances of success depend on being seen by a passing ship.
Speaking of being seen, Akiko and Mami are fast asleep one night when they see a creature looking at them through the window. A creature with a head like one of those spiky balls kids play with sometimes. Fortunately, it doesn’t hang around long, and no one seems really concerned about it. Besides trying to find enough food for everyone, they’re busy wondering why there’s a second shipwreck on such a remote island. All they’ve got to go on is a mysterious logbook with notes about mysterious fungi all over the island and people getting sick.
Then our group members start going off by themselves and coming back looking happy, not hungry at all.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: They ate the mushrooms. It goes about as well as can be expected, too. Put it this way: Hallucinations are the least of these character’s worries.
On a side note, the happy looks on the actors’ faces as they eat these mushrooms isn’t acting, because the mushrooms weren’t really mushrooms. They were actually made out of a sweetened rice paste that could be molded into a basic mushroom shape before being baked. The cast loved it, so much so that the bakers would add different flavors to their creations.
It wasn’t enough to win over the Japanese people, however. The movie made its debut in Japan on August 11, 1963, and the critics hated it, as did the public. The biggest complaint had to do with the makeup the actors wore when they ate the mushrooms, because it brought back painful memories of the Hiroshima bombing. A survivors’ group managed to get the film banned, and the movie basically disappeared for a long time.
Even without unpleasant associations, Attack of the Mushroom People galumphs along. It’s supposed to be sort of a horror movie but it’s not at all scary. The first creature is about as menacing as Mac from that dreadful Mac and Me movie, even if it is a Peeping Tom. It doesn’t even show up until about halfway through, and closing a few doors is all it takes to get rid of it. Temporarily, at least.
Until then…nothing. It’s just everyone getting hungrier, tempers flaring, people coming to blows, two characters falling in love. More like Lord of the Flies than anything. I kept expecting to see a giant mushroom on a pike next to a bonfire or something, but that would have been too on-the-nose for this movie.
Even when the Mushroom People finally appear, they’re more weird than scary. I thought it was hilarious that even though these people ate the mushrooms, they turn out looking like a cross between broccoli and Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. Their body parts occasionally fall off too, so maybe they’re also part zombie.
In case it isn’t already crystal clear, I’m pretty “meh” about Attack of the Mushroom People. I guess it’s because the film weakly vascillates between camp and horror without settling in either place. It’s definitely a bad movie, but not inept enough to be a fun bad movie. Oh well, it happens.
I will say this, guys: Tomorrow’s movie is going to be anything but ‘meh,” because it’s bad. Really, really bad. In the meantime, Day Two’s posts can be found here. Thanks for reading, all…