Onoda: 10,000 Nights In The Jungle

*****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Onoda
"Harari and his co-writers Bernard Cendron and Vincent Poymiro, show how the war propaganda becomes internalised in these men, so that even when they are given signs that the conflict may be over, they rationalise that it must be some sort of 'fake news' designed to trick them." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Artur Harari's immersive film is a reminder not only of the ways in which fact can be stranger than fiction but of the strengths of old-fashioned, detailed storytelling and character building. This is a no-nonsense, well-crafted biopic that gives its actors room to showcase their abilities without trying to lay its themes on too thick.

Hiroo Onoda may not be a household name in the West but he was famous in Japan when he finally left the Philippine jungle in 1974 after hiding out there for almost 30 years in the belief that the Second World War hadn't ended. Harari's film zeroes in on the meat of Onoda's life in the jungle, giving the film a concentrated tension that would likely have been blunted if he had carried on to the soldier's twilight years.

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Harari allows some mystery to develop in the film's opening scenes, as we see the middle-aged Onoda (Tsuda Kanji), scampering about in camouflage and poignantly laying flowers, before being drawn to music being played by a young man who has set up camp on the edge of the jungle. Scene set ready to be returned to much later, the action steps backwards to show Onoda (now played by Endô Yûya) in his "wild youth", his rebelliousness and determination not to go on a kamikaze mission part of the reason he finds himself recruited to the Japanese Army's intelligence service. Under the austere eye of Major Tanaguchi (Issey Ogata), he and his fellow recruits are told they are to never surrender and that they "don't have the right to die" - the latter a particularly firm command given that, at that time in Japan, taking your own life was often considered to be a heroic move.

Sent to Lubang Island in 1945, the war is, ironically given what will happen in the subsequent years to Onoda, virtually over. Many of the Japanese troops stationed there are desperately sick and all are under siege from American and Filipino troops. Onoda quickly finds himself the de facto leader of a scrappy group of survivors, most notably Shimada (Kato Shinsuke ) and Akatsu (Kai Inowaki) - who share a close bond - and Onoda's strongest ally Corporal Kozuka (played in youth by Matsuura Yûya and later by Chiba Testsuya ) - who take to heart their instruction to wage guerrilla warfare until their superiors fulfill their promise that, "We will be back for you". These are men in full survival mode - although we already know there will be only one survivor, with Harari keeping his focus on Onoda and his experience.

What emerges is a concentrated character study, as Onoda and his band try to stick to their orders. Harari and his co-writers Bernard Cendron and Vincent Poymiro, show how the war propaganda becomes internalised in these men, so that even when they are given signs that the conflict may be over, they rationalise that it must be some sort of 'fake news' designed to trick them - something that has echoes in the modern world. The circumstances they are in are shot with a matter-of-factness by Tom Harari, who captures the lushness of the jungle - kept green by the brutal monsoon weather the soldiers must withstand - but also its wild indifference to the men. We see how they have become so defined by the war that the idea of the conflict ending is almost an existential threat. Harari allows the intense everyday tension around the group's continued survival, which includes occasional skirmishes with the local populace, to blend with a more melancholic theme of lives given over to the pursuit of war. The writer/director doesn't need to have his characters hold conversations about the pointlessness of it all, the loneliness of Onoda and his needless personal war are all testimony we need.

Reviewed on: 22 Mar 2022
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It's the end of 1944. Japan is losing the war. Hiroo Onoda is sent to an island in the Philippines just before the American landing. The handful of soldiers that he takes with him into the jungle keep fighting, not realising the war is over.
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Director: Arthur Harari

Writer: Bernard Cendron, Arthur Harari, Vincent Poymiro

Starring: Endô Yûya, Tsuda Kanji, Matsuura Yûya, Chiba Tetsuya, Kato Shinsuke, Inowaki Kai, Issey Ogata, Taiga Nakano, Nobuhiro Suwa, Mutsuo Yoshioka, Tomomitsu Adachi, Kyûsaku Shimada, Angeli Bayani, Jemuel Satumba, Kuu Izima

Year: 2021

Runtime: 173 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Japan


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