Honda's Horror: The Mycologically Strange

A properly executed horror film establishes a strong connection between a fantastic element and plot devices which resonate with the audience’s social context. Usually these fantasy elements — whether they be ghostly, monstrous, or all-too-human — overshadow the social context of the narrative. Without this social resonance audiences have little reason to perceive the fantastic elements as objects of anxiety and fear.

The contemporary situation is defined by decades of a hyper-competitive culture combined with crushing economic austerity, a toxic brew which has produced an ever-growing crisis of anomie, or social atomization and breakdown. Mass shootings, once exceptional events, have “somehow become normal,” to paraphrase President Obama. In the midst of this, social forms which once served as vehicles to fight these conditions have either been coopted or crushed underfoot, leading people without any recourse but to seek individual solutions to social problems. This compounds the crisis, driving individuals further apart from one another as a war of all against all unfolds.

A similar social context existed in postwar Japan. Following the rapid (some might even say monstrous) transformation of the Meiji “revolution from above” which imposed capitalist social relations on Japanese society and years of imperial expansion, Japanese society was suddenly dealt an incredible shock in the form of mass destruction. Starvation, social dislocation, and mass bombardment left the society in ruins. The ideological architecture of everyday life was destroyed by the collapse of the imperial system.

In this context of social breakdown a new generation of artists communicated the hope and despair which accompanies societal collapse. Many horror films of the 1960s played upon themes of societal collapse and anomie. These narratives resonated with audiences who had experienced a social collapse of extraordinary proportions, as Japan had rapidly transitioned from an imperial giant into a devastated wasteland in the space of a few short years. Exemplary of this trend is Matango (1963), which was released in the United States under the title Attack of the Mushroom People. The American title gives one the sense that the film is yet another campy B movie in the atomic horror sub-genre, rather than a biting commentary on contemporary Japan and the crushing rhythms of Japanese capitalism.

Honda's Horror

This uncharacteristically dark in tone Honda film captured the spirit of his 1954 Gojira by utilizing what David McNally has called a “disruptively critical charge,” offering “a kind of grotesque realism that ‘mimics the ‘absurdity’ of capitalist modernity’ the better to expose it” (Monsters of the Market, 7). In the film, seven individuals representing a cross-section of the new prosperous Japan become shipwrecked on an unknown island where they shed social bonds in favor of a Hobbesian war of all against all, mirroring the competitive anomie of the broader society.  

Accompanying their descent into mortal conflict are an array of monstrous mushrooms which seem to be the dominate life form on the island. In the end, the combination of extreme competition and the hypnotic appeal of mycophilia overcomes the hapless individuals, who all succumb in one way or another to the “spirit of the age.” The mushrooms drive them into a state of madness, mutual exploitation, and murder.

Unlike horror films which rely on jump scares or gore, Matango embodies a sense of dread and the eerie, not unlike William Hope Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night” (1907) from which screenwriters Masami Fukushima and Shinichi Hoshi drew inspiration. In Hodgson’s story, a seemingly shapeless individual recounts the tale of how he and his partner became shipwrecked and were driven mad by their transformation into fungi-people.

Hodgson’s work is representative of Weird Fiction, which in the words of China Miéville involves a “focus on awe, and its undermining of the quotidian” and an “obsession with numinosity under the everyday” (Routledge Companion to Science Fiction). The true horror of Matango is that the living dead quality of the mushrooms is already immanent in the individuals themselves, and by extension all of Japan.

In a 1968 interview Honda asserted that he “never thought about making movies in order to scare an audience” (Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men, 158). On the contrary, Honda set out to create an unsettling portrait of Japanese society, to hold a mirror up to his audience and proclaim that they were in a profound crisis. An idealistic pacifist who abhorred war and the ethics of a hyper-competitive capitalism (the original project of “capitalism with Asian values” was that of Meiji Japan prior to the Neo-Confucian proclamations of Singapore’s ruling class or the Chinese Communist Party’s post-Tiananmen vision of itself), Honda saw postwar Japan as a society paradoxically on the verge of a social collapse even in the midst of its ascendance as a rising capitalist power.

Japan’s social rhythms, at least in this idealistic social vision, were interrupted by the Meiji Restoration which saw Japan rapidly transform into a centralized imperialist power, a process which culminated in the near absolute destruction of the hands of the massive bombardments, culminating in the apocalyptic vision of giant mushrooms rising over two Japanese cities. The process of rebuilding both the physical landscape and the social bonds of Japanese society culminated in another meteoric rise following the Korean War, and in this Honda saw the seeds of an inevitable collapse.

Matango is a work of art which embodies an image of “occult capitalism,” an instance of a fantastic text which arguably ought to be “read…the way psychoanalysis interprets dreams — as a necessarily coded form of subversive knowledge whose decoding promises radical insights and transformative energies” (Monsters of the Market, 7). As the forces of anomie continue to ascend in the US, with mass shootings and social dislocation accelerating into an unknown, almost dystopian state of affairs, it is incumbent upon those of us who seek critical insights in cultural texts to revisit this masterpiece of the Weird.

Mycophilia and Mycophobia: the dialectic of the mushroom

Though fungi generally and mushrooms specifically have never been a dominant trope in horror narratives they have been around for a very long time. Tales of fungi and meteors, for instance, have been rather common across societies separated by great distances of time and space (see the study by Nieves-Rivera and White “Meteorites and Fungus Lore”). A forest of gigantic mushrooms populated the shores of Jules Verne's subterranean ocean in Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), and the contemporary B horror film Shrooms (2007) plays with the psychedelic and necrophilic aspects of fungi lore, to name just a couple of examples.

What is so fascinating about fungi is their disturbing status as living, moving beings who appear to be a kind of plant, but are actually closer to human beings in their biology and behavior. Fungi eat, move, spread, and interpenetrate the soil beneath our feet, the air we breathe, and the foods we consume. In his article “Fungus Sacer or Radical Outlaws?” in the journal Philosophy, Activism, Nature (no. 10, 2013) Bronwyn Lay argues that fungi challenge our notions of discrete and separate bodies in nature. Their symbiotic relationship with the life and death of organic matter upsets our ontological boundaries. As such, they are natural metaphors of the dialectic of life and death.

David Rose explores the relationship between science fiction and fungi in his essay The Mycologically Strange:

As fungi enter the picture, we will find that SF attempts to answer the question “What are mushrooms?” by exploring the ontological status of the fungi amongst other life forms, to interpolate mushrooms into alien worlds and improbable circumstances, and to defamiliarize them by exaggerating and problematizing their essential characteristics: their subvisible existence, rapid growth and metamorphosis, spore dispersal, absorptive capacities, mycelial expansion, and plasmodial movement (slime molds), as well as their edible, toxic, and hallucinogenic properties (20).

In Matango, the mushrooms constitute a type of what Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. calls “interstitial beings” in his discussion of the science-fictional grotesque (The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction). Csicsery-Ronay argues that, “[a]s with the sublime, the grotesque involves a recuperative recoil, allowing us to see the disorderly and repulsive as part of the natural order, letting us believe that we have established a better, more encompassing mental order that is more resistant to shock” (188). The interstitial are those beings “in whom two distinct, sometimes even contradictory, conditions of existence overlap,” beings who are constituted by two bodies uneasily coexisting in one entity.

Most classic monsters in US cinema spanning roughly the 1930s through the 1960s involve processes of transformation from “some archaic form to human form” (196). The mushroom people of Matango have inverted this process; their metamorphosis portrays a process of accelerated cultural decay in which social bonds are torn asunder by competitive individualism, resulting in the mutual ruin of all. This is portrayed through a kind of body horror in which individuals who break down and eat the mushrooms are driven mad and are gradually transformed into mushrooms themselves. The subsequent condition is one of intermingling and interpenetration as the forces of death and life, now magnified by human activity, come to possess and merge with human beings.

In his essay Rose argues that Attack of the Mushroom People was marketed as so much silliness in the US, whereas in Japan Matango captured a sense of dread in the face of the ever-present threat of radiation and nuclear annihilation. Rose asserts that “the mushroom cloud is a mushroom at the level of the image” (30). These dual strategies are the consequence of two vastly different social contexts: one made of movie-goers who experienced the Second World War as something “over there,” and another who experienced the complete ruin of their world.

In the film, it is suggested that the beached ship in which much of the action takes place was used to carry out experiments with radioactivity on behalf of an unknown world power — which was a politically-safe way to implicate the United States. Radiation here produces a radicalization of the necrophilic qualities of ordinary fungi, thereby tying the events of the film to the numerous nuclear accidents which accompanied the postwar relationship between the United States and Japan.

Japanese society has long been decidedly mycophilic in nature, but Matango’s, “cinematic fantasy of the interchangeability of fungi and humans” reaches “a moment of irony where mycophilia has been perversely transposed into mycophobia” (Rose 30). What was part of the order of things, a regular cycle of birth and death, has been accelerated and expanded into monstrous proportions just as Japanese society had been transformed by the Meiji capitalist revolution from above and the post-Korean War economic “miracle.”

The Film

The film itself is an unqualified masterpiece. Honda utilized the best talent at his disposal, weaving together a work of art with a unique and incredible visual style. The narrative itself leaves the viewer with a feeling of being marooned and hopeless, as all avenues of salvation are slowly cut off by isolation and mutual exploitation.

The story begins with a note of upbeat optimism expressed by the stage performance-like set of the pleasure cruise set to an upbeat tune at the hands of composer Sadao Bekku before it descends into a condition of abject horror. Bekku’s score transitions from celebratory and bombastic to a disquieting ambience of estrangement and dread.

Starring such notable lights as Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno, Hiroshi Koizumi, Yoshio Tsuchiya, and Kenji Sahara (among others), the all-star cast is a veritable who’s who of Golden Age Japanese cinema. Mizuno and Kubo remarked that these were their favorite roles. Mizuno’s sexually-charged encounter with Hiroshi Tachikawa’s character Etsuro is the most erotic moment in the entire career of Honda, who was known for extreme constraint (viewers can count on one hand the number of kisses in all of Honda’s kaiju films).

Once Mizuno’s character Mami emobdies an admixture of Eve and Satan, particularly after she decides to consume the mushrooms rather than fight her temptations. Before consuming them she had become cadaverous. After, she becomes radiant, her vibrant tones contrasting sharply with the dull black, gray, and brown color scheme that dominates the characters’ descent into madness.

Peter Brothers in his book Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men argues convincingly that the most memorable performance is that of Kenji Sahara as Senzo. Sahara typically performed roles that conformed to a conservative image of the hard-working and relatively well-off business/family man. Senzo, however, is a sunglasses-wearing (which is a tip off in Honda films of “nefarious” characteristics according to Brothers) minor villain. Sahara’s performance alone makes the case for watching this film in the original Japanese rather than the English dub.

Cinematographer Hajime Koizumi did some of his best work on the film. Brief close ups, dark filters, and bizarre hallucinogenic imagery all work together to paint a picture of dread. In particular the camera work on the derelict ship and in the heart of the mushroom jungle exemplify the kind of horror that relies on pulling its audience into a state of dread and paranoia. Punctuated by Sadao Bekku’s haunting score, we are served with a microcosm of the horror of the Japan that Honda saw unfolding before his eyes.

Effects work pioneer (and major inspiration for Hollywood science fiction from Lucas to Spielberg) Eiji Tsubaraya created a chilling atmosphere with practical effects work that give a sense of solidity and weight to the imagery. Tsubaraya was known to invent numerous techniques (many of which are still employed in contemporary film) on set and Matango was no exception. Brothers notes that, “To achieve the swelling and growing effect of the mushrooms, Tsubaraya’s crew discovered a material now known as polystyrene foam which, when put into a cylinder and combined with water, rapidly expands” (153).

The completed mycomorphosis yielded “mushroom people” with an appearance that is immediately humorous and unsettling. Tsubaraya himself burst into laughter when he saw the final form of the creatures whose soft, rounded features are a departure from the grotesque body horror of the in-transition characters. Their seeming cuteness in the face of their sinister nature and obnoxious, unsettling, and omnipresent laughter makes them all the more disturbing examples of Japanese yokai, or weirdness which is characteristically embodied in nature itself.

These kaijin (“strange persons” in contrast to the kaiju or “strange beasts”) embody an image of a human future in which we have slipped into a state of permanent (and self-imposed) necrophilia. They are the embodiment of the necrophilic tendencies of capitalist culture itself, particularly in its ethics of predatory individualism.

The derelict ship itself is a rather straightforward metaphor of the entirety of Japanese society, though it is also meant to recall the irradiated Lucky Dragon No. 5, a Japanese fishing vessel that was exposed to lethal doses of radiation during an American nuclear test. The set work is incredible, giving one a sense of disgust and revulsion in the face of writhing, unbeatable fungal growth. Each morning, after the mushrooms and mold are scrubbed away, they reappear as if to proclaim their status as the dominant life form. The nausea that some of the characters experience on screen is easily transferred to thoughtful and attentive audiences.

The narrative presented is a version of the story told by the character Kenji Murai (Akira Kubo), who recounts the events that led him safely away from the island to the doctors observing him in a psychiatric ward in Tokyo. In the final scene, Murai steps out of the shadows and turns to address the audience directly. His face is revealed to be a patchwork of fungal growth in a direct homage to Hodgson’s story. It turns out that he was also driven to consume the mushrooms, violating the Edenic-esque prohibition set out by the survivalists who, one by one, succumb to temptation.

The claustrophic narrative concludes with Murai’s proclamation that, for all of its darkness and horror, the island pales in comparison with heart of darkness that is Tokyo itself. Though heavy handed in its moralism, the conclusion recalls its stage performance predecessors with its breaking of the fourth wall.

A Horror Film Which Resonates Today

Matango is more than a portrait of Honda’s vision of Japan during the height of the postwar boom and Golden Age of cinema. It is a work of art with a unique visual style that accomplishes a psychological transformation of its audience (at least for those who can appreciate the film in its proper context) that is meaningful for us today. Across the world, the culture of hyper-competitive capitalism has colonized every aspect of our lives, submitting each and every one of us to the psychological stresses of overwork and self-loathing. The mushrooms are a vehicle for this sensibility, but ultimately remain secondary to the anomic breakdown of social bonds that leads the characters to quickly move from cooperation to deceit, black markets, and murder. Its horror may not terrify the audiences of today with its lack of gore and violence, but it is the medicine we need.

Jase Short is a writer and activist living in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He write the blog "The Ansible," focusing on speculative fiction and fantasy, for Red Wedge.