War is about death. For the survival of their people, the soldiers ultimately give their own lives. The young man seen drunk rampaging in an empty dive at the beginning of “Onoda – 10,000 Nights in the Jungle” is a failed soldier. Because he’s still alive.
December 1944: Japanese Lieutenant Onoda Hiro (Yuya Endo) is afraid of heights. That’s why he’s no good as a pilot, even though that was his dream; he doesn’t even bring himself to use it as a kamikaze pilot. Major Taniguchi (Issey Ogata) picks up Onoda at the bar. “There are other ways to pride and honor,” he says almost affectionately. The instructor prepared a group of misfits for a difficult mission: to entrench themselves as a guerrilla army in the Pacific Islands and continue the war after the Americans took them. “If you have to live on coconuts, then eat coconuts,” the major hammers into his recruits. The main thing is to survive. “You are strictly forbidden from committing suicide!”
Until 1974, Japanese national hero Onoda continued his war on the Philippine island of Lubang – believing the war was still ongoing. To the end he was convinced of the victory of fascist Japan. Onoda’s fantasy is similar to other alternative history drafts: from “He’s Back” to Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” to the computer game Wolfenstein. What if evil had really endured?
The difference: Onoda’s war actually went on, he kept fighting. That’s what makes a film about him so appealing – and so risky. Onoda burned fields, terrified the island and killed more than thirty residents. Ironically, after his capitulation in 1974, the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos pardoned him. Thousands of people are said to have welcomed him when he returned to Japan.
But the film also stylizes Onoda into a hero. French director Arthur Harari said in an interview that he swallowed Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis Stevenson; he returns “to the western” with each of his films. The 167-minute length is already a statement: at times the film feels like the thirty years that Onoda spent on the island.
Harari meticulously accompanies the soldier as he becomes a man: from his development into a bearer of responsibility, caught in fascist virtue, to his devoted concern for his comrades. He becomes to them that father who was his own major to him. And for this maturation, the men have to kill “enemies” – who of course are always the first to shoot. Fishermen even pierce one of his comrades with a harpoon. In reality, a police officer shot him with a pistol, but Harari’s soft spot for westerns prevails. “The Japanese are the cowboys in the harpoon scene and the Filipinos are the Indians,” says the director.
His film romanticizes the racism of the occupiers and makes do with bashful allusions when it comes to actual romance. “Have you ever had an affair with a woman?” Taniguchi asks young Onoda once. Embarrassed silence. Between him and the major, on the other hand, things crackle: when he lights a cigarette for him, when they stand face to face with sweat. But even this tenderness is only a strategic narrative moment in the development of becoming the right man. Onoda’s impotence transforms the charismatic mentor into potency. The boy cannot fly and cannot die gloriously, but he triumphs on the ground. He survives.
The film doesn’t make this logic sexually explicit, which could undermine the image of the noble fighters in the jungle. Although the Western director follows his Far Eastern cowboys at every turn. Only once does a hand wander under the blanket, just before the cut.
At the same time, the psychological traits of Onoda and his men are not based on the real characters, as the director explains. But based on my own experiences. Harari, on the other hand, only read Onoda’s autobiography after the screenplay was finished. To keep the freedom to invent a character. A warrior is this Onoda. A warrior who turns an island into a writing pad for his colonial desires. And which this film itself turns into a writing surface: for a dream that little boys dream.