Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle (Onoda, 10 000 nuits dans la jungle, Arthur Harari, 2021)

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)

Between Us (藍に響け, Yasuo Okuaki, 2021)

Hyper-individualism goes to war with collective harmony in Yasuo Okuaki’s taiko-themed coming-of-age manga adaptation, Between Us (藍に響け, Ai ni Hibike, AKA Wadaiko Girls). Reminded that “your sound is everyone’s sound” the closed-off heroine begins to realise you can’t always just do your own thing and expect everyone else to deal with it, but in the end shows remarkably little growth as even her otherwise positive contribution of helping a similarly troubled young woman quite literally find her voice is in itself achieved mainly through abrasive bullying not to mention a persistent ableism which otherwise entirely ignores her feelings. 

Okuaki opens with an intense scene as the heroine, Tamaki (Ayaka Konno), burns her ballet shoes alone on the beach at night before staring pensively out at the ocean. As we discover, Tamaki has a lot going on that she is reluctant to share with others. Something has evidently gone wrong at home, she seems worried about money and the modest house she shares with her mother who appears to work late often is filled with packing boxes suggesting they may only recently have moved. She hasn’t told her mum she’s given up ballet, partly it seems because she’s working part-time at the local supermarket which she has to keep a secret because the elite Catholic school she attends has a rule against part-time jobs. Wandering around alone however while her friends, who each seem to come from extremely wealthy families, assume she’s heading to ballet Tamaki becomes captivated by the sound of taiko drumming, eventually spotted by a young woman practicing, Maria (Sayu Kubota), who happens to be mute. 

Despite the impossibility of direct communication, Maria manages to covey her enthusiasm for the drums presumably picking up on something in Tamaki which, for unexplained reasons, she is extremely reluctant to explore. Fellow drummer Kahoko, however, is dead set against her joining the club even setting her a cruel and impossible challenge as a kind of entrance exam. The irony is that even as the sullen Tamaki stands up against low-level bullying from Kahoko who makes a basic training exercise seem like humiliating punishment, Tamaki becomes far too into perfecting the art of taiko, obsessively honing her craft and displaying natural ability but quickly losing patience with her fellow drummers who are mostly playing for fun and friendship. 

Tamaki is and remains distinctly unpleasant to be around while Kahoko seems to soften, becoming a source of support to the other girls, and poor Maria is rounded on by just about everyone including maternal figure Sister Nitche (Mariko Tsutsui) who was once herself a top taiko coach but for reasons unknown gave up the art, got religion, and became a nun. Sister Nitche was known as a demon coach, and the decision to reassume her role does indeed resurface an element of cruelty in her unseen in her role as high school teacher and carer at the attached children’s centre. Maria first bonds with Tamaki in revealing to her that she was rendered mute in a car accident and has been undergoing rehabilitative therapy in an attempt to regain her speech but that it hasn’t been going as well as she’d hoped. Yet both Sister Nitche and Tamaki eventually set on her, insisting that the reason she’s not making progress is because she’s not trying hard enough instead of, perhaps, reassuring her that even if she not able to improve her speaking it would still be fine and there’s no need to rush. 

The conflict seems to be between the ultra-competitive, deeply wounded Tamaki and the ethos of taiko which demands group harmony. There’s no point being a show off because the group must move as one, yet Tamaki struggles to accommodate herself to the idea of adapting to the collective rhythm insisting everyone attempt to match her speed while suggesting that those who can’t aren’t up to the task and should voluntarily resign rather than bring the group down, echoing the rather harsh survival of the fittest philosophy espoused by a transformed Sister Nitche. Just as she had, Tamaki later turns on Maria in the face of her own failure repeatedly insisting that she is a “loser” who wouldn’t fight for taiko or for her voice in a confrontation that leads first to a physical fight and then to an intense taiko battle that bears out the repeated notion of baring one’s soul through the beating of the drum. 

There is an unmistakable though unresolved homoerotisicm in the conflict between the two young women filled as it is with repressed emotion, frustration, and unspoken desires all of which appear to dissipate through the climax of the physically and emotionally intense taiko session. Nevertheless, there is also something in uncomfortable in the fact of Maria’s path towards finding her literal voice arising because of what is essentially abusive bullying rather than encouragement or positive support especially as it also denies her the right to speak her feelings honestly while no one is making much of an effort to listen to her. Tamaki meanwhile remains somewhat unsympathetic even in her silent concern for Maria betrayed by the unexpected warmth of her smile in seeing her deciding to return to taiko, her own buried troubles otherwise unresolved while her unforgiving hyper-individualism is tacitly condoned even as she learns to submit herself to the collective rhythm and finds through it the sense of connection she was perhaps missing. 


Between Us screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The First Supper (最初の晩餐, Shiro Tokiwa, 2019)

“Family” – what does it mean? The concept itself has been under examination for some time, at least as far as the “family drama” goes, but Shiro Tokiwa’s The First Supper (最初の晩餐, Saisho no Bansan) has it more positive than most as its somewhat emotionally distant hero begins to piece his back together and rediscover his place within it. He does so largely through the Proustian power of food as his lonely step-mother does her best to unite the family by reviving warm memories of the various meals they shared together. 

Yet, as Rintaro (Junya Maki / Shota Sometani), a Tokyo-based freelance photographer grappling with the art/commerce divide, is insensitively told at his father’s funeral, his is not an “ordinary” family. That would be (partly) because it was a blended one. Rintaro and his sister Miyako (Nana Mori / Erika Toda) were being brought up by their single father, Hitoshi (Masatoshi Nagase), their mother having apparently left the family, before he brought Akiko (Yuki Saito) and her teenage son Shun (Raiku / Yosuke Kubozuka) to live with them. As a grown man, Rintaro still claims not to be able to understand what his father was thinking, why he wanted to start a “new” family by bringing Akiko and Shun into their home, especially as it led to him giving up his lifelong love of mountaineering to get a steady job in a factory. It never seems to occur to him that perhaps his father simply fell in love again and wanted to share his life with a woman who loved him, becoming a father figure to her teenage son in welcoming an expansion to their family. 

There is, perhaps, still a resistance to the entire idea of blended families or even remarriages especially in the more conservative countryside. Dealing with an offensive uncle, Rintaro fires back that this kind of thing is perfectly normal and no kind of issue at all in Tokyo, so he’s not sure what the problem is but it’s clear that there is still a degree of disapproval of Hitoshi and Akiko’s union even 20 years later. Part of that might be to do with the circumstances of their meeting which we later discover had their share of moral ambiguity. That central secret, and the ones which spur off it, is the reason that Rintaro has never quite been able to put his family together, while Miyako, married at a young age and now the mother of two daughters, is experiencing a degree of marital strife with her mild-mannered husband (Shinsuke Kato) who accuses her of cheating with an old classmate at a reunion. 

Akiko stuns them all by abruptly announcing that she’s cancelled the caterers for the wake and is planning to cook herself, serving up a selection of dishes one wouldn’t usually expect at a funeral but which she claims are taken directly from Hitoshi’s will and each reflect a particular memory of their life together as a family. There is a gaping hole, however, in that we don’t see Shun. “Why should he come?” Miyako replies to Rintaro’s questions, “He’s an outsider here”. A rather cold cut-off for a step-brother, even one you haven’t seen in a long time, and a partial negation of the idea of families not bound by blood even if it’s snapped partly out of hurt. 

While Miyako struggles to reconcile herself to her place within her new family and her decision to form it, Rintaro chats on the phone to his sympathetic girlfriend, Rie (Hyunri), who has, perhaps surprisingly, not accompanied him on this emotionally difficult occasion. The problem seems to be, however, that he’s told her not to come even though she’d have liked to be there and it doesn’t seem as if anyone would have objected. An agent ringing him at a spectacularly bad time to tell him he hasn’t won a competition is forced to reveal, in the nicest possible way, that he narrowly lost out because his pictures are “cold”, he has no affection for his subjects and it shows. He remains diffident in his relationship with Rie because he hasn’t worked out this whole family thing for himself and is worried he simply doesn’t know how to fit into one. 

Through re-experiencing his childhood through the meals shared with his father, Rintaro begins to regain a sense of belonging, discovering what it was that lay at the heart of his family drama and why it eventually led to a painful breakup. Before all that, however, they’d been happy. Trying to quell a spat between Miyako and Shun over different kinds of miso soup not long after they moved in, Akiko declares that from now on she’s only making one, “blended”, kind for everyone though the choice is theirs whether or not they choose to eat it. Truths are shared, new understandings are reached, and the family is in some sense restored. Their childhoods explained, Miyako and Rintaro begin see a path forwards towards a happy family life of their own while taking their bittersweet memories with them, no longer burdened by anxious insecurity but strengthened by a new sense of belonging that has nothing to do with blood.


The First Supper screens in New York on Feb. 16 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Samurai Marathon (サムライマラソン, Bernard Rose, 2019)

Samurai Marathon posterAfter two and a half centuries of peaceful slumber, Japan was jolted out of its isolation by the arrival of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships. The sudden intrusion proved alarming to most and eventually provoked a new polarisation in feudal society between those who remained loyal to the Shogun and the old ways, and those who thought Japan’s best hope was to modernise as quickly as possible to fend off a foreign invasion if it did eventually arise as many feared it would. Lord Itakura (Hiroki Hasegawa) has a foot in both camps. He has no desire to move against the Shogun, but fears that centuries of peace have made his men soft and complacent. His solution is to institute a “Samurai Marathon”, forcing his retainers to run 36 miles to prepare for a coming battle.

If you’ve spent your life sitting around and occasionally waving a sword at something just to keep your hand in, suddenly trying to run 36 miles might not be the best idea, as many samurai keen to win favour through racing glory discover. There is, however, an additional problem in that, unbeknownst to anyone, samurai accountant Jinnai (Takeru Satoh) is a secret ninja spy for the shogun. Confused by the preparations for the race, he reported that a possible rebellion was in the offing only to bitterly regret his decision on realising Itakura’s anxieties are only related to external, not internal, strife. All of which means, the Shogun’s men are on their way and Itakura’s retainers are sitting ducks.

Helmed by British director Bernard Rose, Samurai Marathon (サムライマラソン) plays out much more like a conventional European historical drama than your average jidaigeki. Where samurai movies with an unusual focus tend to be comedic, Rose opts for a strangely arch tone which is somewhere between po-faced Shakespeareanism and post-modern irony. Rather than the stoical elegance which defines samurai warfare, the violence is real and bloody, if somewhat over the top in the manner of a gory Renaissance painting complete with gasping severed heads and gruesome sprays of dark red blood.

A chronicle of bakumatsu anxiety, the film also takes a much more pro-American perspective than might perhaps be expected, taking the view that the arrival of the Americans heralded in a new era of freedom and the origins of democracy rather than the more ambivalent attitude found in most jidaigeki which tend to focus much more strongly on the divisions within samurai society between those who wanted to modernise and those who just wanted to kick all the foreigners back out again so everything would go back to “normal”. Itakura, like many, is suspicious of foreign influence and the gun-toting, yankee doodle humming Shogunate bodyguard is indeed a villain though it’s Itakura himself who will end up firing a gun as if conceding that the future has arrived and the era of the sword has passed. 

Ramming the point home, Itakura is also forced to concede to the desires of his wilful daughter, Princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu), who wanted to travel and see the world while her society (and conventionally minded though doting father) insisted all there was for her was marriage and a life stuck inside castle walls. Managing to escape and disguising herself by cutting her hair and putting on peasant clothes, Yuki is able to evade detection longer than expected precisely because few people have ever seen her face. She also gets to make use of some of the samurai training she’s received by holding her own out on the road, though it seems improbable that her father would let her ride out alone even if he finally allows her free rein to go where she chooses.

Meanwhile, other ambitious retainers try to use the race to their own advantage though there’s poignant melancholy in one lowly foot soldier’s (Shota Sometani) dreams of being made a samurai considering that in just a few short years the samurai will be no more. The final sepia shift into the present day and a modern marathon may be a stretch, as might the unnecessary final piece of onscreen text informing us that we’ve just watched the origin story for the Japanese marathon, but the main thrust of the narrative seems to be that the samurai were running full pelt into an uncertain future, preparing to surrender their swords at the finish line. An unusual take on the jidaigeki, Samurai Marathon perhaps takes an anachronising view of Bakumatsu chaos in which the samurai themselves recognise the end of their era but finds its feet on the road as its self-interested heroes find common purpose in running home.


Samurai Marathon screens as the opening night gala of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 28 where actress Nana Komatsu will be in attendance to collect her Screen International Rising Star Asia Award.

Original trailer (no subtitles)