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Onoda: 10, 000 Nights In The Jungle (Onoda, 10 000 Nuits Dans La Jungle)

Director – Arthur Harari – 2021 – France, Japan – Cert. 15 – 166m

*****

A Japanese soldier who believes his country has not yet surrendered stays on a Filipino island to fight on alone until 1973 – out on Blu-ray in the UK on Monday 16th May.

16th September 1973. A backpacking Japanese student (Ryu Morioka) on Lubang Island in the Philippines sets up his tent on the beach beside the jungle and switches on the cassette player playing a song from the 1940s. The sound drifts through the trees and can be faintly heard where an old soldier, his uniform patched by years of repair, is leaving a flower as an act of remembrance. He hears the music and moves towards it…

This frame story opens this tale and sets the stage for what is to follow. Back in Wakayama, Japan in December 1944, it’s all over for drunken youth Hiroo Onoda (Yuya Endo) whose hopes of becoming a pilot have been dashed by his fear of heights. To his aid comes Major Yoshimi Taniguchi (Issei Ogata), who explains the youth can serve his country in other ways and enrols him in the Nakano School Annex in Futumata, where the major teaches guerilla warfare. The training goes against everything the young man has been previously taught by Japanese society with its emphasis on subjugation to the group for the good of all not to mention the military and its insistence on following orders without question. The Major teaches him to sing a popular song but change the lyrics, pointing out that, remarkably, it remains the same song. In the same way, these soldiers are to “be their own officer”, surround themselves with reliable men, and improvise. The option of dying is not allowed: they are to survive at all costs.

Made a lieutenant, Onoda is sent to Lupang island with orders to form a unit and hold the island until reinforcements arrive. After a run in with Captain Hayakawa (Mutsuo Yoshioka), who is attempting to carry on his own command despite a severely debilitating gallstone, Onoda sees the officer and his aide burn to death in an air raid bombing incident. He takes the captain’s men into the jungle, where another argument splits the unit in two, with Onoda hand-picking the three men he considers reliable to stay with him: Shoichi Shimada (Shinsuke Kato) and Shimada’s loyal friend Yuichi Akatsu (Kai Inowaki), and Kinshichi Kozuka (Yuya Matsuura). The remaining men form a separate group, go their own way. They are unable to survive, however, and Onoda’s unit later finds their corpses.

Onoda and his three men have a skirmish with some peasants in a deserted village, refusing to listen to their protests that no Yankee – war over”. The perils of their existence are many. They must be careful what fruit they eat, as some of it is poisonous. To stave off hunger, they periodically replenish their supplies via intermittent raids on nearby farms. A gun battle with peasants leads to the problem of taking a prisoner, and what to do with him. The rainy season forces them to build a temporary hut, painstakingly building a drainage ditch around it, which they dismantle when the rains stop. The building and dismantling of a shelter becomes an annual event.

In 1949, Shimada is fatally shot when the four attempt to kill farm livestock to supplement their diet with meat. Akatsu goes to visit his friend’s grave – and is not seen again until some time later he’s going around with a megaphone telling Onoda and Kozuka that the war is over. Onoda doesn’t believe it, but takes the transistor radio and pile of Time Life mags Akatsu leaves out for them so as to examine the enemy’s clever propaganda first hand. Over the years, the radio will keep them in touch with what’s going on. The older Onoda and Kozuka are played by Kanji Tsuda and Tetsuya Chiba respectively.

To make sense of what they hear, Onoda constructs his own bizarre version of international politics, including a Japan-China alliance. In 1969, they listen to the moon landing, with Japanese commentators translating the astronauts’ words live. Later still, a local woman Iniez (Angeli Bayani) takes shelter in their hut during a typhoon. She doesn’t last long, being shot by Onoda after putting a bullet in Kozuka’s leg. Kozuka misses female company and is deeply upset by this, while the virginal Onoda is not affected in quite the same way. A run in with locals at a stream later puts paid to Kozuka so that when the student turns up half an hour before the end, Onoda is the only one of the unit left there.

All this is based on a real incident about a Japanese soldier sent to a Filipino island to wage guerilla war against the enemy. When the Japanese surrendered, he was entrenched in the jungle awaiting further orders and the news never reached him. He ended up living the best part of 30 years there.

Although director Harari, a Frenchman working with a Japanese-speaking cast and a mostly French crew, had access to the archive of Bernard Cendron who co-wrote the book Onoda, Seule en Guerre dans la Jungle, he only discovered Onoda’s autobiography My Thirty Year War when the script was written and he was about to shoot. He claims the film is not attempting realism, being instead a fictionalised account of events.

Getting Onoda to return to Japan proves to be a gargantuan task in itself. He won’t go unless he gets orders directly from the major, and when the student tracks Taniguchi down, he’s a bookstore owner who has severed all connections from his military past. Nevertheless, he’s persuaded to go to the Philippines and read the order to surrender to a respectful Onoda while the student plays a recording of the Emperor’s surrender acceptance speech. This is all profoundly moving, but even that doesn’t prepare you for the ending where Onoda has to board a helicopter, something he’s presumably never seen before. In a point of view shot, he has to lift his feet off the ground of the island on which he’s spent nearly 30 years and plant them on the floor of the departing ’copter taking him to a Japan very different from the one he knew as a youth.

At almost three hours in length, it’s surprisingly compelling throughout. The rigours of day to say survival talk up quite a bit of the running length – you’ll come out feeling, for instance, that a couple of you with knives and trowels could build your own makeshift hut out of trees and plants to provide effective shelter against the incessant downpour of the rainy season. Yet despite the minor conflicts, the skirmishes and the four looking out for one another, you feel like you’re inside Onoda’s head. What does he think? What is he going through. There are answers here, although they may not be easy to rationalise or verbalise. Altogether, this is a remarkable cinematic experience.

Although French-made, the film is in Japanese and is released in the UK with English subtitles.

Onoda 10, 000 Nights In The Jungle is out on Blu-ray in the UK on Monday 16th May.

Trailer:

UK Blu-ray release: Monday 16th May 2022

UK Cinemas: Friday, April 15th 2022

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