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Onoda

June 7, 2023
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Flicks with The Film Snob
Onoda
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The true story of a Japanese officer who stayed on a small Pacific island for thirty years, believing that the second World War was still going on.

Hiroo Onoda was a Japanese officer stationed on Lubang, a small island in the Philippines, in 1944. In 1974, he was discovered to still be there, having stayed on that island for the past thirty years, continuing to believe that the war was still going on, surviving in the jungle, and obeying his original orders not to give himself up. There were other similar cases in the Pacific War—his was the first one to become famous, after which the idea of a lone Japanese soldier stranded on an island, in his mind still at war, became a perennial source of amazement. Onoda is an epic drama about the life of this man, an international co-production helmed by French director Arthur Harari. At first glance, it might seem an unpromising subject for a film, but as so often happens, the truth is stranger than we might imagine. In the States, it’s been released as Onoda: Ten Thousand Nights in the Jungle.

The picture opens in 1974, with a young man traveling to Lubang, setting up a camp near a river in the island, and then loudly playing an old military song from the 1940s, a song that was significant to Onoda and other veterans of the war. Then we see an older man in a meadow, in a Japanese uniform, wearing a large section of turf and long grass on his back as camouflage. He hears the music. His eyes widen ever so slightly before he starts moving towards the river from which the sound is coming.

From this point, the movie flashes back to the young Onoda, played by Yuya Endo, acting drunk in what looks like an army barracks, a man with obvious disciplinary problems. It is 1944. A major enters with his staff and interviews Onoda. He could throw the book at him, but instead he offers him a position as an intelligence officer in a commando unit. This special class had a different strategy than the regular military. Instead of fighting to the death or committing suicide as many did, Onoda’s unit is taught to stay alive at all costs while avoiding capture or surrender. He was to organize a guerilla-type resistance on the island, and to destroy the air strip and the pier before the Americans came.

As it turns out, other officers on the island outranked him and blocked his plans. The Americans did invade, and after heavy casualties Onoda was left with only a few men, to whom he revealed his mission. Eventually the Americans left, but the Filipinos were hostile, and without any notice of what had happened, the soldiers proceeded with their mission, surviving off the land and by raiding local farmers, all the time waiting for the promised return of the imperial army to the island. And this waiting went on, and on, for years, and eventually decades, and Onoda’s soldiers died or deserted, finally leaving him alone.

It’s fairly easy to describe this story to you, but to make a film that effectively recreates the long, grueling experience of these desperate men is a remarkable achievement. Onoda is almost three hours long, and it’s fascinating from beginning to end. It’s a story of endurance, disappointment, delusion, and even some humor. Ultimately, though, it’s a portrait of loneliness. As the film ends, we seem to have gone through every possible emotion there is, and finally we are left with a profound sadness, a tragic vision of life. Onoda is an unforgettable, compelling experience.


TAGS
isolation,   Japan,   loneliness,   soldier,   survival,   War,  

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