'Onoda – 10,000 Nights in the Jungle' Review: A Moving Epic About A Quixotic Attempt At A Meaningful Life [NDNF]

If you think you’re wasting your life, consider the case of Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, who spent the years 1945 to 1974 in the jungle of Lubang, in the Philippines, waging the Second World War on behalf of Emperor Hirohito. Talk about fighting for a lost cause; and making a movie about the most famous and among the last of the Japanese “holdout soldiers” of the Pacific War may seem like a similarly foolhardy undertaking for the French filmmaker Arthur Harari. But “Onoda – 10,000 Nights in the Jungle,” which runs two hours and 45 minutes, is an achievement: a moving and multifaceted film about one man’s quixotic attempt at leading a meaningful life.

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Trained in “secret warfare,” and proscribed not to surrender or commit suicide, Onoda—played in his youth by Yuya Endo and in his middle age by Kanji Tsuda—is sent to Lubang, southwest of Manila, with orders to sabotage military installations in preparation for an American invasion. But the island is too quickly overrun, and then abandoned; withdrawn to the jungle in the center of the island, Onoda and the remnants of his unit dig in for a guerilla campaign on behalf of, they presume, a retrenching Japanese army. Onoda had been trained to “be your own officer” by his Major Taniguchi (the great Issey Ogata, who played Hirohito in Sokurov’s “The Sun,” which covers the emperor’s decision to renounce his divinity.) And so he carries out a secret war, mostly within his own heart, adhering to bushido for an absent god.

Though a film about an inner flame of devotion, this is an ensemble piece, not a “Cast Away“—many of the longest-lasting holdout soldiers were the sole surviving members of units that held out collectively for at least a few years, if not longer, and Harari gives himself time to develop the group dynamics between Onoda and his men, as they forage melons and construct huts for the monsoon season. Mapping the island, photographed by the director’s brother Tom Harari in lush greens and rich browns, they’re pioneers in paradise, like the soldiers at leisure in “The Thin Red Line.” They carry out strategic raids, burning rice paddies and killing cows, both to feed themselves and to disrupt the activities of Filipinos who, they insist among themselves, are enemy combatants. (The film somewhat undercounts the number of civilians killed over the years in clashes with Onoda, a devoted soldier of a brutal imperial army.) As the years drag on and the four-man unit begins to fray under the pressure of their Sisyphean efforts, Harari balances a Japanese perspective on the clarifying labor of duty and dedication with a Western existential melancholy.

Onoda and his men were known on the island, and the Japanese government made efforts to contact them. Leaflets were dismissed as propaganda, as here are radio broadcasts and up-to-date color newsmagazines whose splashy photos radically update the island’s Edenic palette; even entreaties from family members are taken for Fake News. Given the epistemic contortions required by his nationalist fantasies, Onoda becomes a very contemporary figure, a real-life Reject Modernity/Embrace Tradition meme. (One major omission, though it’s hard to fault Harari for not knowing how to handle it, is whether Onoda knew about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and how he felt about it.) As Onoda and his second-in-command Kozuka (Yuya Matsuura, then Tetsuya Chiba) steal radio batteries so they can listen to the moon landing, while still maintaining a posture of martial vigilance, their companionship takes on the outlines of a folie à deux.

By the time Onoda encounters a student backpacker looking for “a giant panda, Lieutenant Onoda, and the Yeti, in that order” (a close paraphrase of what Norio Suzuki, the Stanley to Onoda’s Livingstone, actually said in 1974), he is essentially a tourist attraction. (Though characters in the film refer to Onoda as the last soldier of WWII, he was not, though barely—Teruo Nakamura, whose war ended a few months after Onoda’s, was an altogether more complicated case, as an enlisted private and aboriginal member of a people native to the Japanese island colony that was, by the time he came out of the jungle, Taiwan.) “Onoda” is long, but then, how could it not be? Harari handles the passage of time fluidly, enfolding the passage of years into cuts on natural rhythms and repetitive tasks, with only one major forward jump in chronology. Minutes and years accumulate, the grass grows over graves, the land forgets and Onoda remembers. The film documents his years within a historical ellipsis and pays off with a feeling of real momentousness as Onoda at last flies away from the only life he’s ever really known.

But in fact, Harari leaves off at a fascinating moment. The lieutenant returned a celebrated hero, with parades in his honor, a nostalgic moral icon to a Japan whose postwar materialist values sometimes alienated him, and which also disavowed the militaristic and imperial ideals he had served. He would live in the modern world for longer than he was on Lubang: Hiroo Onoda died in Tokyo at the age of 91, in January of 2014. [B+]