“They had said, ‘We will come back for you. No matter how long it takes, we will come back.”
Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle, from director Arthur Karari, is the story of the last soldier fighting World War II. The film is loosely based on the true story of a Japanese soldier who spend decades on an island without knowing that the war he was fighting had ended. It is a story of survival and of comradeship. It is also a story that raises questions about the meaning of honor and of heroism.
In 1944, Hiroo Onoda (Endō Yūya and Tsuda Kanji) has washed out as a kamikaze pilot because of fear of heights. Actually it’s because he fears death. He is recruited from special training in guerilla warfare and sabotage. His instructions are to never give up. Suicide is forbidden. He must fight until the end.
He is then sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines. The Americans are due to attack the island. His job is to lead a group of soldiers there to attack the Americans from the jungle. Before long it is just Onoda and a group of four who hide in the jungle and make forays in to villages for supplies and to destroy grainfields. However, unknown to them, the war has ended. One of those under him notes (in 1946), “We don’t have enemies. Who are we fighting against?” Yet, honor demanded that they continued their battle until the end.
By 1950, one of those under him has deserted, another is killed by locals as they try to get some meat by killing a cow. That leaves Onoda and Kozuka (Matsuura Yūya and Chiba Tetsuya) who remain and fight for the next twenty years, until Kozuka is also killed. For the next few years, Onoda survives alone until a young Japanese man coaxes him out of hiding. Even then, Lt. Onoda will not surrender until his commander comes to relieve him of his duty. His thirty year war comes to an end.
The film encourages us to sympathize with Onoda and his companions. He is following the orders he received for what as called a vital mission. Even in 1950 when a “rescue party” comes to the island to try to convince them the war is over, Onoda and Kozuka look for coded messages (and think they have found one in a haiku by his father). They continue to stay hidden and living off the land. However, there are times when they face hard decisions that only make sense if you understand them as being at war.
When Onoda finally does surrender, the local military offer salutes and honor because they see him as an exemplary soldier. Yet we are left to wonder if his time in the jungle really was honorable, heroic, or just misled. Is blindly following orders (in spite of evidence that the war is over) honorable? Is it heroic to kill civilians or even their cattle? Were there signs that he should have come out of hiding to see if what he had heard was true? Does the lack of an enemy on the island not suggest that his battle is over?
We may sympathize with Onoda, but we also know that he was deluded in his single-minded attention to his mission. The film does not show us any of his reintegration to the world, which I think merits as much attention as the story we see.
Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle is available on VOD.
Photos courtesy of Dark Star Pictures.