Onoda: The man who hid in the jungle for 30 years

A documentary film, Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle, tells the strange story of Japan’s controversial WW2 hero. Its themes of nationalism and fake news are more relevant now than ever, writes James Balmont

(Image credit: bathysphere) / BBC

December 1944: in the final months of World War Two, a Japanese lieutenant named Hiroo Onoda was stationed on Lubang, a tiny island in the Philippines.

Within weeks of his arrival, a US attack forced Japanese combatants into the jungle – but unlike most of his comrades, Onoda remained hidden on the island for nearly 30 years.

The Japanese government declared him dead in 1959, but in reality, he was alive – committed to a secret mission that had instructed him to hold the island until the imperial army’s return. He was convinced the whole time that the war had never ended.

The Ainu – Japan’s Forgotten People – Video!

When he returned to Japan in 1974, Onoda received a hero’s welcome – he was the last native Japanese soldier to return home from the war, and his memoir, published soon after, became a bestseller.

His experience is told in Arthur Harari’s epic, three-hour film Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle, which has won critical acclaim and created controversy since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021, and opens in the UK this week.

With the German film director Werner Herzog due to publish a novel based on his story in June, and Filipina-Australian filmmaker Mia Stewart to complete her own documentary later in 2022, it is evident that Onoda is an alluring subject.

But with its themes of war, nationalism, and “fake news” more relevant than ever, his story remains as fascinating and contested a subject as it did upon his re-emergence nearly 50 years ago.

In the final months of World War Two, Japanese lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, pictured in 1944, was stationed on the island of Lubang (Credit: Getty Images) / BBC

Onoda was conscripted into the Japanese army in 1942, where he was selected for guerilla combat training. At the Futamata branch of the Nakano Military School, his training defied the widely distributed Senjinkun battlefield code instructions, which forbade Japanese combatants from being taken prisoner and instructed them to die fighting or via self-sacrifice instead.

“You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand,” he was told upon being sent to Lubang in late 1944 – as recalled in his 1974 memoir, No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War. “Under no circumstances are you to give up your life voluntarily.”

Onoda’s mission was to destroy the Lubang airfield and a pier by the harbor, plus any enemy planes or crews who attempted to land. He failed, and as enemy forces took control of the island, he and his fellow troops retreated into the jungle.

The History Of Japan’s ‘Rabbit Island’ Is Way Darker Than Tourists Suspect (Gallery)

The war was soon over – but the leaflets that were dropped on Lubang to inform stragglers of Japan’s surrender on 15 August 1945, were dismissed as fakes, by Onoda and the three remaining servicemen who stood by him.

They remained hidden in the wilderness among stinging ants and snakes, living on a diet of banana skins, coconuts, and stolen rice convinced that the enemy was trying to starve them out.

Arthur Harari’s film, Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle, has won acclaim and created controversy since it premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival (Credit: bathysphere) / BBC

Search parties tried to find them, but Onoda assumed them to be Japanese prisoners, forced against their will. Photos from family members were believed to be doctored – Onoda was not aware that his hometown had been bombed and rebuilt.

Jets heard flying overhead during the Korean War (1950-53) were thought to be a Japanese counter-offensive, while newspapers dropped on the island informing them otherwise were dubbed “Yankee propaganda”. Onoda wrote in his memoir that, as early as 1959, he and comrade Kinshichi Kozuka “had developed so many fixed ideas that we were unable to understand anything that did not conform to them.”

Kozuka was ultimately killed by shots fired by local police in October 1972, but Onoda remained on the island, alone, for another 18 months, before an encounter with an eccentric Japanese explorer named Norio Suzuki resulted in an agreement. If Suzuki could bring Onoda’s commanding officer to Lubang with direct orders to lay down arms, he would comply. Suzuki’s mission was a success – and Onoda’s war came to an end on 9 March 1974.

The blue men of the Sahara (Photo-Gallery)

Endurance and delusion

Arthur Harari, the French director of Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle, initially wanted to make an “adventure” film, having been inspired by writers like Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis Stevenson.

But after learning of Onoda’s story, and reading Bernard Cendron and Gérard Chenu’s 2020 book, Onoda: Seul en Guerre Dans la jungle, 1944-1974 – a “documentary” text informed by interviews with Onoda, his family, his commanding officer Major Taniguchi, Norio Suzuki, and the authors’ visits to Lubang – he realized he’d found the perfect source material. “The whole story was fascinating,” Harari tells BBC Culture. “You can’t be struck by it.”

Events recalled in Cendron and Chenu’s book (which are also detailed in Onoda’s memoir) are brought to life in Harari’s film, with intimate experiences – like the camp’s tense rice politics and New Year’s rituals – expertly interwoven with scenes of violent conflict, and flashbacks to the lieutenant’s indoctrination at military school.

The island of Lubang is as much the star of the film as Onoda (played by Yuya Endo and Kanji Tsuda). Breathtaking wide shots take inflowing creeks, verdant jungles, and blooming purple flowers, while images of tall palms over sandy shores are as evocative as the sounds of wind, rain, and wild insects.

It’s a captivating tale of endurance and delusion – and the film was awarded a César for the best original screenplay in February 2022, as well as the best film award from the French Association of Film Critics.

After his comrade Kinshichi Kozuka was killed, Onoda remained in hiding, alone, for a further 18 months (Credit: bathysphere) / BBC

But while acclaim for the film has been widespread, it has not been entirely universal – with Sight & Sound magazine notably critical of Harari’s portrayal of Onoda, and the omission of any meaningful Filipino perspective.

“With nationalist sentiment on the rise again in Japan,” James Lattimer wrote, in a review published shortly after the film’s premiere in Cannes, “making a film that essentially celebrates someone who appeared to fully assimilate its imperialistic ambitions is naive at best and insulting at worst; it’s telling here that the Filipinos who appear are little more than cannon fodder.”

It’s easy to romanticize the time-traveling soldier who refuses to surrender, the samurai spirit, the survivor – Mia Stewart

Indeed, it has been alleged that atrocious violence was committed by Onoda’s small group in the years after World War Two; these acts are conspicuously absent in his memoir and are relatively diminished in Harari’s film, too.

There are accounts of up to 30 killings of Lubang islanders, “not just by gunshot wounds,” filmmaker Mia Stewart tells BBC Culture, but from horrific injuries inflicted “with a sword or bolo knife.”

In Jonathan Hacker’s 2001 documentary The Last Surrender, for BBC Two’s Timewatch, meanwhile, a farmer named Fernando Poblete describes his gruesome discovery of a fellow islander’s corpse: “the body was found in one place, and the head in another.”

Harari admits that he had expected his film to be contentious – and while he doesn’t defend Onoda’s actions, he does justify his creative decision-making. The principle of his film, he says, is to “stand by [Onoda] like a member of his group,” so as to understand the experience of a soldier who was “completely imprisoned” within his own point of view. (He draws parallels to the present-day conspiracy, denial, and fanaticism seen around the world, and the dangerous actions that often go with them).

Taking this perspective doesn’t mean agreeing with Onoda, he says, pointing to the inclusion of semi-fictional scenes in which islanders are killed in cold blood as a result of Onoda’s actions. “I tried to show that the violence in which the [Filipinos] live is an outraging violence, and that nothing can justify that… [but] it’s a very difficult and tricky position for the mise-en-scène in a way because I tried to manage both feelings.”

Naoko Sergiu, associate professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and author of the essay Le Retour du Soldat Onoda et Ses résonances, praises the inclusion of these scenes, which contributes to what she feels is a less-than-heroic interpretation of the character. “The film shows that Onoda was feared and hated by the inhabitants,” she tells BBC Culture, “[and while] these scenes do not measure up to the cruelty of the facts, they can raise doubts and can disturb the public, and invite them hopefully to reflect.”

Allegations of atrocious acts of violence committed by his group are absent from Onoda’s memoir and diminished in Harari’s film (Credit: bathysphere) / BBC

As is emphasized in Harari’s film, Onoda was still a very young man – only 23 years old – at the time of his homeland’s surrender, and likely heavily indoctrinated by the ideologies perpetuated by Japan during the war.

“Soldiers were supposed to die for the cause,” Onoda writes in his memoir (a truth underpinned by the country producing up to 5,000 kamikaze fighters in World War Two), and the repercussions for a soldier abandoning certain duties, or failing to adhere to traditional standards, was severe: “

Even if the death penalty was not carried out, [a disgraced soldier] was so thoroughly ostracised by others that he might as well have been dead.” To complicate matters further, Onoda’s secret orders to survive using any means necessary and hold the territory until the imperial army’s return effectively isolated him from his comrades. And it would have weighed heavily on him that he had already failed in his mission to destroy Lubang’s pier and airfield.

“The ideology of no surrender during the war was powerful,” Beatrice Trefalt, senior lecturer in Japanese Studies at Australia’s Monash University, tells BBC Culture, but this hardly explains the extent of Onoda’s commitment. “There are, of course, lots of people who killed themselves, or ran into hopeless battles as a last-ditch effort, knowing they would die.

But if wartime ideology was so powerful, and everyone was fanatical, how did they stop being fanatical in 1945? The answer is that it wasn’t, and they weren’t, and so the surrender was very welcome for most people.” She concludes that Onoda was likely “a very uncompromising person” who refused to abandon his principles.

“This refusal cost the lives of not only two of his comrades/friends, but of many civilians on Lubang. Therefore, when faced with the end, Onoda might have found it easier to convince himself that he didn’t know [the war was over], rather than to face up to the destruction engendered by his own, stupid pride.”

Onoda wasn’t the only soldier who found it difficult to believe that the war had ended. In fact, many Japanese groups continued fighting long after the country’s surrender. Twenty-one soldiers were rounded up on the island of Anatahan in 1951. Teruo Nakamura, a Taiwanese-Japanese soldier, endured 29 years in the jungle after the end of World War Two, on Morotai, in present-day Indonesia. And Shoichi Yokoi remained hidden in the Guam jungle until 1972.

The latter revealed that he knew the war had been over for 20 years – but had been too frightened to give himself up. The key difference, says Seriu, is that many other Japanese holdouts “found ways to live in the formerly occupied country,” and even started families in some cases. Onoda, on the other hand, “refused to live in collaboration with the inhabitants [of Lubang].”

A hero’s welcome?

When Onoda landed back in Japan in 1974, he was cheered by a crowd of up to 8,000 people – a moment that was played out live on NHK, the country’s national broadcaster. At that time, Japan was facing its worst economic performance in two decades, while more progressive views of the war, which included atonement for crimes, were becoming more widely held.

Onoda offered a timely reminder of the traditional and positive Japanese virtues of bravery, loyalty, pride, and commitment that had been widespread during wartime. His re-emergence offered a useful propaganda tool for the country’s powerful conservatives – or at the very least, a good distraction.

“He aligned himself with the powerful faction, and played the role that would allow him the most benefit,” Trefalt says. “The money he made from the media frenzy was always going to be better than the measly veterans’ pension.”

Onoda was greeted as a hero, but he was at the same time seen as a victim and then criticized as the embodiment of militarism – Naoko Seriu

In her book, Japanese Army Stragglers and Memories of the War in Japan, 1950-75, Trefalt describes the controversy that met Onoda’s bestselling memoir. In one incident, war veterans confronted Onoda at a public launch event, “loudly questioning his account… and accusing him of concocting a pack of lies,” she writes.

Two years later, the memoir’s ghostwriter Ikeda Shin published his own account, titled Fantasy Hero, believing that it was his responsibility to inform the public that he believed Onoda was not a hero, nor a soldier, nor even a brave man.

“Onoda was greeted as a hero,” Naoko Seriu says, of the breadth of interpretations of his character, “but he was at the same time seen as a victim, and then criticized as the embodiment of militarism.” Onoda’s reception, she concludes, “was never univocal.”

Hiroo Onoda, pictured in 1974 leaving the Lubang jungle, where he had hidden for nearly 30 years (Credit: Getty Images) / BBC

If Harari’s re-telling of Onoda’s story (a “fiction” film that is, nonetheless, largely faithful to subjective factual accounts) is in any way naively romantic, he’s not alone.

It’s a point that Penguin Random House emphasizes in their description of Werner Herzog’s forthcoming novel, The Twilight World – which is partly based on conversations Herzog held with Onoda prior to his death in 2014. “Part documentary, part poem, and part dream… a sort of modern-day Robinson Crusoe tale”, read the publisher’s description. Evidently, the fantastical elements of Onoda’s legend are as alluring as its disputed truths.

Mia Stewart, who is completing a documentary that offers a Filipino perspective of events, agrees. On Search For Onoda’s fundraising page, Stewart describes how her own mother grew up in Lubang being told stories about a “mythical soldier” who hid on the outskirts of their village and would cause harm to those who approached.

“It’s easy to romanticize the time-traveling soldier who refuses to surrender, the samurai spirit, the survivor,” Stewart tells BBC Culture. “I was [also] in awe of Onoda when I first learned about him.”

But the trailer for Stewart’s film highlights the significant truth that is perhaps understated in other accounts of this story. The war didn’t end in 1945 for Onoda; but it didn’t end there for the Filipinos on Lubang, either. And the voice of the Filipino people needs to be heard, “so as to counter the image of Onoda as a hero, and to bring attention and justice for the victims and their families,” she says.

Stewart encourages every person who comes across Harari’s film or Herzog’s book to seek out her documentary. And perhaps, with a story as complex, compelling, and controversial as Onoda’s, this simple conclusion is also the most logical. There are several sides to every story – the truth, however bizarre or fantastic, or terrible we decide it to be, requires a consideration of all of them.

Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle is released in the UK and Ireland on 15 April.

Napomena o autorskim pravima: Dozvoljeno preuzimanje sadržaja isključivo uz navođenje linka prema stranici našeg portala sa koje je sadržaj preuzet. Stavovi izraženi u ovom tekstu autorovi su i ne odražavaju nužno uredničku politiku The Balkantimes Press.

Copyright Notice: It is allowed to download the content only by providing a link to the page of our portal from which the content was downloaded. The views expressed in this text are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of The Balkantimes Press.

Contact Us