It’s Sunday evening in a small town in southwestern France where the geese are far more numerous than the human population. The cinema here has more than 100 seats, but thanks to the pandemic, only four are occupied. This tiny detachment of hardcore moviegoers seems quite appropriate for the movie on display.
Directed and co-written by Arthur Harari, “Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle” is a French film with dialogues in Japanese and some Tagalog, an official language of the Philippines.
It tells the true story of Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese soldier who continued to fight World War II until the mid-1970s. He did not lay down his arms until his retired commander gave him the order. direct to surrender. First with three comrades, then finally alone, Onoda had continued to patrol the Philippine island of Lubang for nearly 30 years after the end of the war.
Onoda was no ordinary soldier. He had been trained in Futamata, an extension of the famous Nakano spy school. There, he learns espionage, guerrilla warfare, sabotage, psychology and ethnology. Instead of automatically going through military routine, Futamata graduates had to think freely for themselves. The “glorious death” of ritual suicide was excluded; if captured, they should take the opportunity to spread disinformation.
According to Bernard Cendron and Gérard Chenu, whose 1974 book “Onoda” was the source of the film, Onoda’s instructor told him: “The fight can last for many years, never give up, even if you have lost. all your comrades, even if you have to eat roots. “
This is exactly what he did. Conserving his ammunition, moving from place to place in the rugged and densely wooded center of the island, he prepared for the day when Japanese forces recaptured the territory. In 1974, when asked what he would have done if he hadn’t been ordered to surrender, he replied that he was well stocked and fit enough to last another 30 years. The fact that he lived until 2014 suggests he was probably right.
There was a dark side to his obsession. He and his small band of resistance terrorized the islanders – there was an indigenous population of 14,000 – by burning their crops and “requisitioning” their property. An unknown number was killed, along with two of Onoda’s comrades. For him, these were the necessary costs of guerrilla tactics behind enemy lines. When he finally surrendered, he was shocked by the generous attitude of the Filipino people and the amnesty conferred by President Ferdinand Marcos.
Onoda’s return to Japan was sensational. It has gone from being seen as a relic of a bygone era to a media phenomenon. Crowds greeted him at Haneda Airport. Placards thanked him for his “long and loyal service to the emperor.” For the nationalist right, he was a reminder of the abandoned traditional Japanese virtues. For the left, it symbolized the imperialist aggression of Japan, which took the form of trade incursions into the markets of Southeast Asia.
The film, which is shown at film festivals with English subtitles, is not concerned with such controversies, nor with Onoda’s later life. The last shot is of the helicopter taking him from a world where we are still in 1944 to a world he can hardly imagine. Harari explains why the story attracted him: “Not because it was about war, ideology, Japan, extremism, but because it spoke to me intimately in its relation to reality.”
Highly skilled in survival techniques, Onoda knew how to make shoes from grass, brush his teeth with coconut shells and build a waterproof hut with banana branches and leaves. His greatest talent, however, was to fabricate his own reality and force events to conform to it. In essence, he was a mid-20th century Don Quixote.
When his brother and sister come to the island to look for him, he watches from afar and wonders what cruelties the Americans have inflicted on them to make them cooperate. The Japanese newspapers dropped by helicopter are, he assumes, artfully crafted counterfeits. A photograph of his parents left by a search team could not be authentic: they are standing in front of a large, unknown house. He has no idea that the old family home was bombed during the war.
Even when he requisitions a transistor radio from a village and learns of the bullet train and other modern developments, his faith is not shaken. How could Japan lose the war if it is now the third largest economy in the world? Hadn’t the entire Japanese nation sworn to die gloriously rather than face defeat? The European colonialists had certainly been driven out of Asia, and now the Americans were being beaten by the Vietnamese. Undoubtedly, Japan’s wartime “sphere of co-prosperity” must be strengthened!
Onoda has devised a sort of alternative story reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s novel “The Man from the High Castle”. Mao Zedong’s China and Japan have reached a mutual support agreement. The White Russians in Siberia rebelled against the Soviets and declared their independence with the support of Japan. In a way, everything fits together.
Journalists Cendron and Chenou had the opportunity to interview Onoda in 1974. When asked if he had ever thought his mission was stupid or unnecessary, he replied with a smile: “What is wrong? is useful and what is unnecessary? Do you think someone who spends all of their days in an office still doing the same job they don’t like – do you think they feel useful? “
Psychologists speak of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias. History shows that human beings are highly influence and malleable. Onoda’s world was meaningful to him when he arrived in Lubang at the age of 22, and nothing changed much over the next three decades. We too, patrol our small islands, choosing what to believe and what not to believe and calling the outcome reality, with online interactions reinforcing the process.
The story of Onoda, as told by Harari, is not about an eccentric individual from the past, but a feature of human nature that is very much present today. It allows us to establish our identities but could also condemn us to perpetual conflict.
The film is almost three hours long, but time flies, as with Onoda, who was always busy. We leave the world of cinema and enter another kind of unreality where we have to wear masks and show our sanitary (passe-santé) for a drink. Onoda’s words echoed in my mind: “There are dreams that are better not to wake up.”
Peter Tasker is a Tokyo-based financial analyst and author, most recently of “On Kurosawa – A Tribute to the Master Director”.