For most people, the Pacific War ended in 1945. For Hiroo Onoda it may in a sense never have ended though he laid down his arms in 1974, 30 years after his initial dispatch, having spent the intervening three decades pursuing guerrilla warfare in the Philippine jungle the last two of them entirely alone. Arthur Harari’s three-hour existential epic, Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle (Onoda, 10 000 nuits dans la jungle), explores the psychological dimensions of his quasi-religious conviction in the righteousness of a mission which is in one sense no more than to survive along with his refusal to accept that the war is over and his personal struggle has been pointless.
Immediately in opening the film in 1974 with a young man identified only as a “tourist” (Taiga Nakano) arriving on the island in search of Onoda (Kanji Tsuda), Harari draws a direct contrast between these two arrivals and subsequent departures. As he says, the Tourist is just that in town for a specific purpose after which he will leave and though you might be able to say the same of Onoda who came to the island of Lubang in late 1944 his reality was very different. On luring him out of the jungle by playing the patriotic war song he had sung with the other soldiers who unlike him accepted the surrender, the Tourist poignantly tells Onoda that he has travelled to over 50 countries whereas Onoda in a certain sense has never left Japan. “This island belongs to us” he’s fond of insisting seeing it as a piece of the Japanese empire which others are trying to take from him but he alone must defend.
As we discover, the young Onoda (Yuya Endo) had wanted to become a pilot but washed out of the training program because of a fear of heights and was subsequently put forward for a kamikaze squadron. The irony of his life is that he is a man who refused to die for the emperor, his will to survive bringing him to the attention of Major Taniguchi (Issey Ogata) of the notorious Nakano spy school who sells his students a line that they are the good guys helping to liberate East Asia from Western imperialism. Trained in guerrilla warfare part of Onoda’s mission is to foster an uprising in the local population whom he assumes will also oppose American influence never realising that he is in fact a part of a destructive colonising force they will also seek to repel not least because of the way they have been treated by Japanese forces.
Onoda’s first meeting with his captain on arriving on Lubang is interrupted by the arrival of the mayor of a nearby town who has come to complain that Japanese soldiers have been stealing food supplies from local farmers. This comes as a surprise to Onoda who is obviously not fully aware of the reality on the ground. His initial orders are largely ignored by the remaining NCOs who get up and leave during his briefing knowing that what he’s proposing is impossible. These men are already battle weary, many of them are sick, and they are running low on supplies. Onoda is 22 and fresh faced, arriving full of energy and patriotic zeal assuming these men are simply lazy or lack ideological commitment. He has no grounds to wield authority and no combat experience that would permit him to understand the circumstances in which he finds himself. In an especial irony, his first kill occurs after the war has (for everyone else) ended and he will himself go on to commit acts of atrocity against the local population which he justifies as acts of war.
The military song which he is fond of singing celebrates there being no more bandits, yet banditry is essentially what he has been reduced to calling into question any idea of heroism which might be attributed to his refusal to accept the wartime defeat. In his Nakano spy school training, Onoda had been encouraged to ignore the accepted rules of war, that all is permissible in the pursuit of victory. He is also told that the prize for the “secret war” he is conducting will be a “secret glory” that goes unrecognised by others while he alone will possess true integrity in knowing that he never wavered in his mission. Yet there is something in him which weakens when he encounters the Tourist and is told that most of Japan believes him to be dead, rendering his struggle an irrelevance.
He begins to admit the concept of surrender but only if given new orders from Taniguchi whose contradictory teachings have informed the course of his life, yet Taniguchi like many of his generation in the Japan of 1974 does not want to face his wartime past. The bookshop he now runs sells no military books and he claims not to remember Onoda or Lubang refusing his responsibility for his role in the conflict now filled with shame and regret. Yet it’s also possible that Onoda misunderstood the nature of the mission he’d been assigned, that in saving him from the kamikaze squadron because he did not want to die, Taniguchi gave him only one order – to survive. “You do not have the right to die” he reminds the recruits while giving them the ultra-individualist mantra that they must be their own officers which is in essence the paradoxical instruction to obey no orders but their own meaning that Onoda was always free to accept defeat.
The psychological consequences of doing so, however, may have been too great. Coming of age in a militarised society, he already feels himself emasculated and embarrassed by his failure to become a pilot essentially because he is afraid to die. An awkward meeting with his father (played by film director Nobuhiro Suwa) resembles that of a Spartan woman sending her son to war with the instruction to return with his shield or on it. To return in defeat is psychologically impossible and suicide forbidden and so the only choice is inertia. In this Onoda may be hiding in the jungle unable to face a post-war future, descending into delusional conspiracy when presented with evidence that the war is over choosing to see the attempts of others to discourage him from his mission as proof of its importance, as if he and the remaining soldier sticking with him are key players in geopolitical manoeuvring worthy of such an elaborate plot. To believe the world is wrong is easier than to accept that he’s wasted his life in service of a mistaken ideal while failing to prove himself a man by the standards of a heavily militarised society.
He’s tempted out of his delusion only by the Tourist who confronts him with the face of a new Japan entirely unknown to him, a Japan of economic prosperity, of the Shinkansen, of democracy. Being taken off the island means he must finally leave his dreams and delusions behind to enter a new post-war reality. Harari frames the island of Lubang as a psychological realm, the topography of Onoda’s delusion, but is also mindful of the islanders living outside it whom Onoda terrorises under the justification of war no better than a bandit in his quest for survival. In Harari’s oneiric landscapes, Onoda’s vistas are forever haunted by the spectres of his latent regret in the reflections of the boy he once was who came to Lubang to prove himself a man only to leave it a ghost.
Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle opens in UK cinemas April 15 courtesy of Third Window Films. It will also be released on blu-ray May 16 in a set which also features an interview with actor Kanji Tsuda plus an interview with director Arthur Harari, DOP Tom Harari and assistant director Benjamin Papin.
Original trailer (English subtitles)