A couple of weeks before I saw this film, I read filmmaker Werner Herzog’s first novel “The Twilight World,” which draws on his meeting 25 years ago with Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier who, not realizing that WWII was over, kept fighting his guerrilla war on a small Philippine Island for another 29 years. His story has been endlessly caricatured over the years, but the man himself and what he endured, and why and how he kept fighting have not been explored. It is a fascinating book. And now there is a film about him and his life in the jungle.
The film begins as young Onoda’s dream of becoming a kamikaze pilot are dashed. Instead he is assigned a secret mission on the small island of Lubang, to thwart the American’s use as a strategic base. There are other Japanese soldiers there when he arrives, but soon it is just Onoda and three others, then two and then just him, fighting a guerrilla war and living constantly on alert in the jungle. Time and again he is informed that the war is over, but he refuses to believe it, thinking it is a trick to get him to surrender, something he vowed never to do. It is only after 29 years that his former commander, now an old man, is brought to the island and convinces him of the reality of his situation.
The film is a testament to his ingenuity and perseverance. It never makes him out to be the fool. You’re with him throughout his guerrilla life. And the two actors who play him (Yûya Endô, later Kanji Tsuda) bring his character a dignity that he no doubt deserved. It is a bit long (2h 53m). I think you could read Werner’s book in less time that watching the movie, but it is definitely an old school epic worth a watch.
Available through VOD.