Arthur Harari’s majestic and multilayered Un Certain Regard opener Onoda – 10,000 Nights in the Jungle begins in 1974, at the tail end of the thirty-year span covered in its fascinating story. This is a crucial decision; when a lengthy flashback takes us back to the titular lieutenant’s youth, we already know that he will survive all the trials and tribulations the next three decades will bring his way. Onoda is an epic journey, for sure, but it is not a simple survival story whose main appeal lies in the improbable heroics of its protagonist. Harari does not attempt to create any tension about whether Onoda will survive in the dense and unforgiving forest; the more significant question posed by this extraordinary film is what keeps the soldier going for such a long period of time. This is a film about resilience and obsession, about change and the lack of it, and suitably for these hefty themes it has a beautiful sense of classicism and radical splashes of poetry.
Young Onoda joins a school for army officers in order to become a pilot, but is unable to achieve this goal due to his fear of heights. His time in the army, however, reveals his unusual capacity to survive on his own. In a militaristic culture that values self-sacrifice over endurance and adaptability this is an often-overlooked asset, but it lands him an appointment in the Philippines, a difficult war zone that sees friction between armed Japanese and American forces during World War II. Harari devotes significant screen time to this early part of Onoda’s stint on the island, as his experiences as a young soldier, his relationship with a major from the military school, and the bonds formed between Onoda and three other soldiers all deeply influence the course of his life for the next thirty years. After the end of the war Onoda is stranded in the jungle, unaware of the political situation and isolated from the rest of the world. He does not attempt to connect with the local Filipinos, leave his post, or get in touch with other members of the Japanese army. Alongside three other soldiers of varying rank and levels of experience, he devotes himself fully to his patriotic duty and continues to fight a war whose purpose becomes more vague with each passing year.
Onoda resembles a wide range of films about obsessive expeditions, including Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) or James Gray’s The Lost City of Z (2016), to cite a more recent example. But beyond obvious similarities about hostile natural surroundings and a shared emphasis on the psychological toll of never-ending missions, Onoda is distinguished from these similarly accomplished peers by the surprising stability of its protagonist. The lieutenant does not descend into madness, start to question the significance of his mission, or make a big discovery. On the contrary, despite all the changes and crises he encounters he remains fully committed to his task, manages to survive despite (or because of) his isolation, and refuses to evolve. One of Harari’s greatest achievements in Onoda, then, is to explore the reasons behind the soldier’s remarkable steadiness.
Onoda is blindly devoted to the duties assigned to him. He never wavers, and there is something both admirable and foolish about his convictions. He is a fascinating character; Harari refuses to turn him into a saint or a simple hero we can easily root for, but it is equally impossible not to find something commendable in his way of living. Onoda and his soldiers mistreat the local villagers, burn nearby fields to deliver messages, and try to justify their invasion of a foreign land. Therefore it would be wrong to attribute Onoda’s astonishing capacity for endurance to heroism or some extraordinary virtue he might possess. But despite the soldier’s flaws, Harari finds something deeply humane and praiseworthy in Onoda’s devotion. The film suggests that Onoda is trained to never give up, never drop his guard, and always find the will to survive. He acts with an unshakable sense of responsibility and loyalty, no matter how absurd or challenging the circumstances may become. This is an inherent part of Onoda’s education, his sense of belonging to Japan, or even his personality; his resilience defines him as a human being.
Another reason for Onoda’s lasting commitment is revealed when the film starts to move from one historical landmark to the next. Instead of covering the thirty-year period in its entirety, Harari manages to create an overwhelming sense of duration by using cleverly placed ellipses. When Onoda and his second-in-command finally hear a Japanese radio station after spending many years cut off from the rest of the world, they listen to an American song followed by news about an American baseball team’s visit to their country. Years later in 1969, they hear the radio broadcast of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon and are faced with a new world order, completely unlike the one they have preserved for themselves in isolation. For Onoda, America represents the enemy, a formidable foe that Japan must defeat, and he is perhaps unwilling to face the new realities of his time. Stepping out of the jungle means accepting the loss, not just of the war but also of a grand image of national strength and tradition. Almost unconsciously Onoda refuses to let go of a vanishing idea of Japan, with the forest shielding him from the changing world.
Taking full advantage of the lush locations and aided greatly by cinematographer Tom Harari’s fluid camerawork, Onoda works as a gorgeous epic, an unexpectedly ambitious work that creates a vivid and immersive portrait of the Philippine forests. More than a merely aesthetic choice, this powerful depiction of the landscape also presents another reason for Onoda’s decades-long insistence on fighting his own war. Gradually an unusual bond is formed between the forest and Onoda. The passing of time gives him many memories tied to this once-foreign land, and he starts to see his fellow soldiers as family. Every artifact eventually functions as a marker of the years gone by. A map in pristine condition is slowly filled with annotations and sepia-tinted stains; the river, the beach, the hill all become witnesses to Onoda’s most cherished or dreaded memories. In its increasingly poetic final third, Onoda succeeds in making the burden of passing time tangible and finds many subtle reminders of all the long years the lieutenant has spent in the jungle.
This is a classical film in the best sense of the word. Harari creates an epic with unmistakable grandeur, inviting comparisons to masters such as David Lean or William Wyler. But more significantly, this grand scale is in the service of a compelling character study with a complex emotional and philosophical core. While this captivating piece of Japanese history, set in the Philippines with a mostly Japanese cast, may seem to be an unexpected fit for a young French director at first glance, Onoda emerges as an authentic and richly satisfying work thanks to the nuanced portrayal of its protagonist. A lesser version of this story would likely be told from the perspective of a French outsider, a guide with whom western audiences could easily identify, resulting in a familiar ‘exotic’ adventure. Harari, on the other hand, keeps his sharp focus on Onoda throughout and creates a riveting masterpiece of profound humanity.