Review for Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle

7 / 10


I have this thought, that some stories cannot be told effectively by the people closest to the story, or most affected by those events. It took Hollywood to tell the story of Gandhi, a figure revered almost religiously in India for example. Japan’s relationship with its pre-1945 modern history is complex. Following the surrender, the country was rebuilt, almost in America’s image, especially at first, with a strong pacifism (magnified by Nagasaki and Hiroshima) and an apologetic perspective that has coloured that history. It’s made more complicated by a reactionary nationalism in some quarters, and the complex geopolitics of Japan, China and Korea. Onoda is a survival tale from the end of the war which has a certain sense of triumph to it, which makes it a difficult film to be made in Japan. In the event, it was made by a French director and production company...

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It’s also a story that is very much still alive in my memory, although really it shouldn’t be. The true story of Japanese soldiers, surviving in the jungle 30 or more years after the surrender, still fighting World War II, came to a conclusion in 1974, when the last holdout surrendered. But I recall as I was growing up, news stories about such holdouts still being sought in the jungles of South East Asia. As a society, we have a fascination with the lost, and the missing, and at the time, there were also regular reminders in the news of The Titanic, US POWs in Vietnam, the Duchess Anastasia, and Lord Lucan. The subject of this film Hiroo Onoda was the penultimate Japanese soldier to surrender after the end of the Second World War, in March 1974.

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In 1944, with the war going badly for Japan, Hiroo Onoda wanted to serve his country as a pilot. But he was disgraced when he insisted that the plane have enough fuel to return home and land. But his ‘cowardice’ catches the eye of a major in Army Intelligence, who also believes that survival and independence of thought exceed blind, suicidal loyalty. Onoda is ideal for his plan for soldiers to remain behind enemy lines when the Allies advance, and to wage guerrilla warfare. Onoda is sent to the Philippine island of Lubang to organise the local force to prepare for the US onslaught. But the men that he finds aren’t up to the task, and in the end, only three others have the fortitude and creativity to work with him... and the years continue to pass.

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CORRECTION: Since first posting this review, I’ve been updated regarding this film’s transfer by Third Window Films. It’s an odd presentation on this disc; very European. Onoda gets a 1.78:1 widescreen 1080i transfer presented at 50Hz, with the audio in DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround Japanese with English subtitles. Most Region A importers will have problems playing this disc. Apparently this is the way the film was shot, and there is no change in the runtime or audio pitch. The runtime listed on IMDB is incorrect. This is how the film should look, although there is that rare moment of jerkiness still, that I attribute to the interlaced format.

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The image is clear and sharp though, and the film is watchable enough, with the audio clear and offering suitable ambience for the jungle setting. There is the occasional typo in the subtitles, and on screen captions (usually month and year) are left in French. The film gets a mellow, but sparsely used music soundtrack. The jungle colours are bright, but not vivid, while dark detail isn’t too great. Special effects are subtly and only occasionally used.

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The disc boots to an animated menu and you’ll find the following extras on disc.

Interview with Director Arthur Harari, Director of Photography Tom Harari & Assistant Director Benjamin Papin (French with English subtitles)

Interview with Actor Kenji Tsuda (22:56)

Trailer (2:06)

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Onoda is an interesting film to watch, but it doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny after the fact, although that is solely down to the logistics of narrative. The film wouldn’t have worked any other way, especially given its near three hour runtime, but it does feel like there is a gaping plot hole. There is also a degree of discomfort in taking in the story when you recall that Onoda stayed behind enemy lines to wage a guerrilla war, and that for him, the war doesn’t end until 1974. For him, the US forces at first, and the Philippine natives afterwards are the enemy, and he treats them as such.

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Having said all that, it’s also fair to say that the drama in Onoda is balanced with a sense of humour as well and occasional whimsy. The initial tension, when Onoda arrives on the island, and tries to announce his mission and orders only to be met with scepticism and outright refusal, dissipates when he finds three men of a similar mind, and they disappear into the jungle to begin their insurgency against the Americans, and subsequently the Lubang islanders. They form something of a family unit, with all the affection and aggravation that entails. Also, once they start getting news of the outside world (especially after the first attempt by the Japanese government to persuade them to surrender), it’s funny trying to see them reconcile the information they receive with their worldview. Coloured by his intelligence training, Onoda assumes that everything they read and hear is disinformation, and instead he reads between the lines to create a world where Imperial Japan is still a power, and still fighting the war.

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The problem with the film is that this is a tale told over three decades, and there are only so many noteworthy events in the story pertinent to the film’s narrative. A lot has to be left out and ignored. That makes a 19 year time-skip, from 1950 to 1969 jarringly obvious, although it is pretty seamless in how the older actors fit into the same roles (Not ever film needs to apply the digital youthification filter that modern Hollywood flushes an FX budget on).

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Onoda is an interesting film, a compelling if ambivalent watch. It has that survivalist edge to it, man surviving against the odds, that audiences love in films like Castaway, and The Martian, but when you recall just what Onoda and his compatriots were fighting for in the island jungle, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for the characters. It’s a triumph of storytelling and character that the film actually finds those moments. It’s very hard to see how this film could be made in this way by Japan. But when the end credits roll, I’m left wondering about that 19 year time-skip, and just what story we didn’t get in the film. That’s probably not the note that the filmmakers were going for. Be aware of the awkward disc format, especially if you’re importing this to Region A territories.

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