Tales of Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender at the end of World War II long ago entered the realm of legend, and even became a punchline as the decades passed and the myth of the “fanatics” still holding out in the Philippines approached the realm of the ridiculous.
But every so often a new “survivor” turned up, on into the 1970s, giving this bizarre, almost laughable “devotion to duty” a moment in the spotlight of cold, hard reality.
“Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle” is an epic-length story of one of the last holdouts. This French production is slightly sentimentalized, perhaps for the Japanese marketplace, but grimly realistic in its depiction of the moral dilemma such men faced as evidence grew that they were fighting a war that was over. And that they were “fighting” against civilians they were robbing, terrorizing and even murdering.
“Onoda” is framed in the 1974 “present,” as the aged Hiroo Onoda (Kanji Tsuda) is pondering a young Japanese man who makes overtures to him via a barracks ballad he used to know in his youth, a song the young man plays on a bulky newfangled cassette player on the edge of the jungle. “Onoda” allows us to contemplate, along with authorities at the time, what combination of “evidence” will convince Onoda to approach these strangers reaching out to him, directly. In the three decades since World War II ended his actions on the Philippine island of Lubang have become notorious, and the Japanese government has identified who the man out there sabotaging crops and killing farmers is.
The bulk of French director Arthur Harrari’s saga is set in the life Onoda lived up to that point, his recruitment in the last year of the war, when some were accepting the fact that Japan was losing, but were sure that by sacrificing themselves and making the cost of attacking the Japanese home islands too daunting and too great, they might win a negotiated peace.
Young Onoda (Yûya Endô) had longed to become a pilot, but wasn’t keen on the pitch to become a kamikaze. Add that to the fact that he was afraid of heights and he wouldn’t need to sacrifice himself to serve the Homeland and the Emperor.
A mysterious Major Tanaguchi (Issei Ogata) assures Hiroo that “there are other ways to be proud,” in Japanese with English subtitles. He has picked up on Hiroo’s hesitation at every suggestion that he “die for your emperor.” Tanaguchi is starting a “secret program” that will train Lt. Onoda how to “think for yourself,” for a type of war that will entail “lies, treason, humiliation,” where nothing Onoda does will be considered “off limits.”
Best of all for Onoda, “You are forbidden from killing yourself.” He was to fight, hide and keep his unit actively engaged, because eventually, “three years, five years, however long it takes, we will come back for you.”
It’s shocking to learn that these hold outs weren’t just random, dogged Japanese fighting men fanatically dedicated to fight to the death. They were trained to do it, specialists being sent to the still unconquered smaller islands of the Philippines archipelago well into 1945. Much of the fascist Japanese leadership believed the battle on their home islands would go on for years, and that their fanatical refusal to surrender would break the Allies’ will, even at that late stage of the war.
That’s a fascinating insight that “Onoda” brings to light, adding belated evidence to the moral dilemma of dropping atomic bombs on Japan to make them quit.
But on Lubang in the Philippines, Lt. Onoda and his men do not quit, and they are very slow to figure out Japan did. He arrives just before the American assault on Lubang begins, a pedantic untested unconventional combat expert who irritates his future comrades and even usurps command from the ailing captain ostensibly in charge. When the the shelling starts and Americans come ashore, the suicide boats some have been training to pilot are destroyed and Onoda leads his tiny cadre of survivors into the jungle to begin their guerilla war.
Harari and his cast play out the shifting stresses caused by spending years hiding in caves where they had stashed caches of arms and food, wearing their uniforms threadbare as they steal food and destroy that which they can’t carry with fire, “smoke signals” that will tell the Japanese military that they’re still carrying the fight to the enemy.
There are quarrels and fights among their ever-shrinking ranks. They’re told “the war is over” more than once. Some start to question who it is they’re shooting.
“What if we killed people we’re not longer at war with?”
The acting is good across the board, but the emphasis here is on story, logistics — how they were able to stay in the field for so long — and the moral dilemma of men who have to know, by the time they’re hearing rock’n roll on captured radios, that they’re murdering civilians.
The “secret glory” they were promised is a lie. The permission to wage war on their own terms and not according to Western civilization’s morality, common throughout the Japanese Army, eats at some of them.
That makes “Onoda” unlike any other World War II treatment of Japanese fighting men to ever play in the West, a grim condemnation of “orders” and those whose existence has narrowed down to “just following” them.
Rating: unrated, graphic violence
Cast: Yûya Endô, Kanji Tsuda and Issei Ogata
Credits: Directed by Arthur Harari, Arthur Harari, Vincent Poymiro and Bernard Cendron. A Dark Star release.
Running time: 2:46