No man is an island, but for 29 years, until his final surrender in 1974, Hiroo Onoda came as close as any man could. Leading an ever-dwindling band of Japanese holdouts who refused to believe their nation had lost the war, Onoda continued to carry out minor guerrilla attacks on the residents of the small Philippine island of Lubang for almost three decades, until it was just him left, hiding in the underbrush, subsisting on a diet of zealotry and whatever he could scavenge or steal.
It’s a famous, fabulously knotty, semi-surreal story, fraught with allegorical potential, but despite some length and pacing issues, it is somewhat surprisingly made, by French director Arthur Harari, into a potent, satisfying saga of old-school, muscular filmmaking. Part John Ford, part Sam Fuller, the film’s old-fashioned approach is oddly impressive: To tell this kind of story in such blunt-edged, straightforward style is a distinctive choice when the temptation to veer into revisionist war-is-hell commentary, Malickian nature-study or Herzogian descent-into-madness bombast must have been strong.
“Onoda” is a film that describes rather than interprets, right down to Tom Harari’s calm cinematography in which the caves, coasts and jungles of Lubang, however lush, are never lyricized, nor ever really favored over the human dramas they backdrop. So while there is an uncanny prescience about our Fake News times in its observation of the man’s creeping paranoia, conspiracy theorizing and towering self-delusion, for the most part “Onoda” is as much a throwback as its human-time-capsule hero was when finally, as a World War II soldier emerging blinking into a Watergate world, he came out from the jungle and laid down his arms.
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Not that Harari, Vincent Poymiro and Bernard Cendron’s screenplay covers Onoda’s subsequent return to Japan. He was fated to become a kind of national reflecting pool — to be vilified, ridiculed and heroized as a symbol of lost values and vanished national pride — but Harari’s film avoids similarly judging him by following his wilderness period with narrow, appropriately blinkered focus. The film starts with Onoda being posted to Lubang. (He is played as a younger, more insecure man by Yūya Endo, and then by the wired and wiry Kanji Tsuda; the contrast between the two actors is its own commentary.) It ends with his surrender when a tourist (Taiga Nakano) — who has vowed to see, in the wild, a panda, Lt. Onoda and a yeti — returns to the island with Onoda’s now-retired commanding officer Major Tanaguchi (Issey Ogata) in tow. Like all of the most credibility-defying, seemingly fictionalized or over-dramatized turns that “Onoda” takes, this is all actually true.
Along the way there are flashbacks to his recruitment by Tanaguchi for a special division of the military trained in intelligence, survival and spycraft, to which Onoda is apparently attached because of his refusal to be part of a kamikaze squadron. While in the wider military culture of Japan at the time, killing yourself if the situation became dire was regarded as a noble, honorable end, this division, as Tanaguchi barks at his callow enlistees, is absolutely not permitted to commit suicide — nor to surrender — ever. Although by the time of his arrival on Lubang in December 1944 the war is already close to lost, and most of the Japanese troops there (whose officers outrank Onoda and therefore obstruct his efforts) will quickly surrender or die of illness or by their own hands, Onoda gathers a small gang of similarly minded men and heads for the hills to continue the campaign. “The four of us can kill hundreds,” he says fervently, once their numbers have decreased further through desertion.
Shimada (Shinsuke Kato), Akatsu (Kai Inowaki) and loyal, longtime second-in-command Cpl. Kozuka (first Yuya Matsuura, then Testsuya Chiba) quickly become the entirety of Onoda’s corps, mounting raids on the locals, mapping the terrain, naming geological features after friends and old lovers, and discounting every attempt to convince them of the Japanese surrender as enemy propaganda. There are moments of levity (a sweet buddy dynamic evolves between Onoda and Kozuka) and loopy mordant humor, as in Onoda cracking a non-existent “code” that convinces him the cavalry are finally coming to the rescue, but Harari never goes for easy pathos without counterbalancing it with the human cost of Onoda’s monomaniacal zeal, his semi-mystical devotion to a duty that died decades before.
And so while the final stretch of the film does build to a touching portrait of the extraordinary, unprecedented loneliness of Onoda’s situation, mostly Harari’s stocky, rugged, matter-of-fact approach describes in simple lines a sad little truth a more self-consciously artistic or romantic interpretation might gild: At the heart of this legendary story, that lends itself to such mythic ideas about hubris and honor, human conflict and the cruelty of nature, there just was a single, colossally misguided man scrabbling through the jungle, whispering strange little prayers over the places where, one by one, his comrades fell in sacrifice to a war only he was still fighting.