Maven's Nest

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- courtesy of Dark Star Pictures

The conflicting human interactions that shaped the commitment of the last Japanese soldier straggler of WW2.

By Nora Lee Mandel

Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle
Directed by Arthur Harari
Written by Arthur Harari and Vincent Poymiro, with the collaboration of Bernard Cendron
Produced by Nicolas Anthomé
In Japanese with English subtitles
France/Japan/Germany/Belgium/Italy/Cambodia. 173 min. Not Rated
With: Endō Yūya, Tsuda Kanji, Matsuura Yūya, Chiba Tetsuya, Katō Shinsuke, Inowaki Kai, and Issey Ogata
Release by Dark Star Pictures- opens October 7, 2022 in NYC at Film Forum, other theaters October 14.

(at 2022 New Directors/New Films of Film at Lincoln Center/ MoMA)

French director Arthur Harari was fascinated to learn of the true story of the “straggler” Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda who arrived on the Philippine island of Lubang in 1944 and stayed committed to following his orders until finally convinced in 1974 that World War II was over. He became so famous that visiting director Werner Herzog in 1997 only wanted to meet Onoda in Japan, over the Emperor. Herzog was inspired to write his own fictionalization of Onoda’s life, in a recently published novel; the English title The Twilight World appropriately channels The Twilight Zone.

Harari focuses on the human interactions that shaped Onoda’s commitment, more than the usual tropes of ideology or fanaticism. The young Onoda (the magnetic Endō Yūya) is desperate to prove himself to his father and father-figure Major Taniguchi (Issey Ogata). (This was also a theme in Harari’s 2016 debut Dark Inclusion (Diamant noir).)

The Major recruits him, almost satirically, by interpreting his fear of heights that doomed him for a kamikaze pilot as proof of his strong survival instinct: “You don’t want to die.” He takes Onoda into a special intelligence operation for guerrilla resistance and sabotage. Flashbacks to the training regimen bolster Onoda and provide psychological rationales for the audience.

Arriving on Lubang, Onoda presents his orders to the ill-fed commanders of the Japanese forces, ill-prepared for an American attack, and ill. Onoda is shocked, but quickly assigns soldiers to carry out his mission. Like Letters from Iwo Jima, each of the Japanese have more personality differentiation than in other World War II movies,.

Taking supplies through the hot, rainy forest and up muddy mountains, Onoda and his team begin deteriorating in paranoid Lord of the Flies-type interactions that will intensify continuously. Emotions are the most unpredictable factors. Onoda insists on fulfilling military standards of rewarding those “who still act like men”. But, surprisingly, he does trust those men who bring personal expertise to bear on their challenging environment, particularly the farmer experience of homesick Shimada (Katō Shinsuke).

Onoda was instructed to view locals as potential enemies, so confrontations with civilians through the years are unnerving and destructive. The estimated twenty-plus Filipino deaths that resulted are indicated by just a few; Lubang native Mia Stewart has made a documentary of the islanders’ viewpoint. But his troop’s fatalities do haunt Onoda.

All this plays out in lush environs and nature takes them over, as filmed by the director’s cinematographer brother Tom Harari. By the 1960s, Onoda and Kinshichi Kozuka (Matsuura Yūya) form a special bond that peaks when they make it to a beach. It’s as if they finally realize they are on an island to swim in the ocean for the first time.

Every piece of information outsiders try to impart from the 1950s on is interpreted through an amusingly ever more conspiratorial world view of complicated “fake news”. Director Harari uses music, particularly the leitmotif of a period-sounding patriotic song, as a link to the past and Onoda’s eventual “surrender” to reality. Tsuda Kanji tenderly plays Onoda in the 1970s, even as he transforms into a tool of right-wing, nationalistic politics. Left open is if he was a fool.


Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

My reviews have appeared on: FF2 Media; Film-Forward; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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