Mantango opens in a somber note, looking over an unspecified brightly lit, neon-layered Japanese city, where ‘60s Toho actor Akira Kubo sits in a cell. He discusses his insanity, locked up for his belief that his friends were taken over by a race of mushroom people on an uncharted island. No one believes him, hence his current imprisonment, and he’s left to waste away while doctors try to understand his story.
Compared to the usual output of sci-fi and horror from the studio during this period, Mantango is a distinct, wild departure. Moving from the colorful epics such as Rodan and Godzilla, Mantango is downtrodden, depressing, and psychological. It is not, as the eventual US title states, an “attack” of mushroom people. Instead, Mantango is a weird spin on human survival, love, hunger, and helplessness.
A small cast, including fan favorite beauty Kumi Mizuno, decide to escape the city life to cruise on a yacht together. A storm destroys the boat, landing them on a deserted island where they come across another stranded ship, full of an odd fungus.
Only a fleeting moment of happiness exists in the film, that in which Mizuno sings a small tune on the boat a day prior to the storm. Everything turns around for this previously happy cast as their starvation leads to desperation.
It is possible to dissect the film on a different level than what is presented. The trippy effect of the island’s mushrooms in conjunction with the way they’re calling to the crew to eat them, could present itself as a mind game. The “mushroom people” and their somewhat cartoonish design could be nothing more than hallucinations brought on by a sickness. Certainly the various molds on board the ship grounded on the island lends some credibility to this theory.
Tossing aside any implied narrative choices, director Ishiro Honda takes a vastly different direction than in his previous work, both in style and pacing. Mantango is brooding, slowly building a sense of terror through use of fog and giving the audience fleeting glimpses of the threat living on the unspecified island.
When the film’s focus works, it’s a wonderful piece of Japanese horror. A slow descent into insanity, the stealing of food, a surprisingly creepy act of sexual aggression, and final acts of desperation are effective. Unfortunately, some of these longer shots do drag the film considerably, opening Mantango to a number of pacing criticisms, especially after the mood has been established.
Despite some impressive (as always) miniature work under the direction of Eiji Tsubaraya, the final form of the mushroom people are less than terrifying as well. The darker, unclear lighting used earlier is actually better suited to the film. It’s painfully obvious in the frantic finale that the suits are bulky for the actors stuck inside, and their struggle to move is apparent on-screen.
Mantamgo ends where it began, back inside the holding cell with Akira Kubo questioning his decisions made on the island. How he made it back to the mainland, fighting the water current in a shoddily repaired boat isn’t important; his mental state is the focus.
Honda effectively delivers a final scare as Kubo turns around to face the camera, his cheek infected with whatever the island gave him. It’s incredibly downbeat, a small twist that almost seems as if the audience is going away happy before pulling them back in. It’s a masterful touch, even if the movie itself is incredibly uneven, but it’s an image that remains ingrained in your mind as the final shot of the city fades into the end card.
Given the nature and tone of the film, this rather flat, muted transfer is probably appropriate. Black levels are non-existent, and the contrast is dull. Colors are muted, although flesh tones are accurate. The print is in remarkable condition, without any damage to speak of, even during special effect shots. The transfer is relatively soft, although acceptably so.
Sadly, only the grating English dub has a remixed 5.1 track to go along with it. The Japanese mix is Dolby 2.0 mono. Regardless of your choice, this is entirely front loaded, with strained highs and clear dialogue. Sadao Bekku’s sparse soundtrack is occasionally lost in the mix, or too distorted to make out. Fidelity is better with the original language, although it’s a close call either way.
The Tokyo Shock label has always come through for these Toho efforts, and this is no different. Akira Kubo provides a commentary, which while not that technical, does tell some stories from the set. An interview with Teruyoshi Nakano is almost 30 minutes, delivering behind-the-scenes photos and details on the effects (and making up for the lack of technical aspects in the commentary).
Mantango was released in the US direct to TV, dropping the “Mantango” name and sticking with the simple title Attack of the Mushroom People. It’s not hard to see why the film would be a tough fit in a country still being flooded with giant monsters and cheapies coming out of the ‘50s.Powered by Sidelines