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‘Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle’ Review: Following Orders, for Decades

Arthur Harari's film dramatizes the true story of a Japanese officer who continued the fight for 29 years after the Imperial Army’s surrender in World War II.

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By Teo Bugbee

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On Aug. 15, 1945, Japan’s wartime emperor, Hirohito, announced the Imperial Japanese Army’s surrender to the Allied Forces in World War II. But for 29 years after this announcement, an officer, Hiroo Onoda, continued to wage war on Lubang Island in the Philippines. The striking film “Onoda” dramatizes the true story of this holdout who persisted for decades after there ceased to be an enemy.

Appropriately, “Onoda” moves slowly through its central character’s life story. Onoda (played as a young man by Yuya Endo, with Kanji Tsuda as his older iteration) begins the film as a failed kamikaze pilot, whose life is given purpose by the highhanded Major Taniguchi (Issey Ogata). Taniguchi recruits Onoda to undertake a secret mission, one that Onoda must never surrender. In return, Taniguchi promises that wherever his men go, they will not be abandoned.

It’s this promise that fuels Onoda’s faith in the jungles. After the American army decimates the forces on Lubang Island, Onoda becomes the leader of a group of four remaining soldiers. Based on his belief, the group waits for the major’s return, facing rain, starvation and the increasingly bewildered defenses of local Filipino farmers.

Despite the film’s wartime setting, there is little talk of politics — in fact, there is little talking at all. Instead, the director, Arthur Harari, chooses to create a psychological portrait of his central character, using images rather than explanations of ideology to tap into Onoda’s mind-set. In training, Taniguchi’s shirt glows titanium white. Sunlight seems to strike faces like a spotlight. The unnatural, painterly quality of the film’s training sequences makes their impression indelible. The light provides wordless, and conveniently apolitical, explanation for why a person might endure nearly three decades (or in cinematic terms, nearly three hours) without action.

Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle
Not rated. In Japanese and Filipino, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 53 minutes. In theaters.

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