French director Arthur Harari delves into the paranoid mind in ‘Onoda’

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The story of Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese soldier who surrendered in 1974 after three decades on an island in the Philippines, was not the most obvious material for French director Arthur Harari to base a film on. His previous work, including his 2016 revenge thriller “Dark Inclusion,” had no connection to Japan, still Harari made this holdout’s tale into his second feature, “Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle.”

“I didn’t know (much about) Japan before getting interested in the story,” Harari says via video call. “But my passion for the subject was so strong (that I didn’t) consider this a major problem. So, I used the strength of the story and my interest in the character as a way into the adventure of the film.”

After premiering in the Un Certain Regard section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it got mostly positive reviews, “Onoda” opened in France on July 21. It will be released here Oct. 8.

The story is one that many Japanese of a certain age will be familiar with. Trained as an intelligence officer and sent to the island of Lubang in December 1944 with orders to disrupt a coming enemy attack, a young and fervid Onoda (Yuya Endo) is thwarted by his superiors, who consider his plans unrealistic. He then leads a small band of soldiers in a ragtag guerilla campaign that continues for decades after Japan’s official surrender, engaging in skirmishes with Filipino peasants. In 1974, a wizened Onoda (Kanji Tsuda), by then alone after the death of his last comrade, is discovered by a young Japanese traveler (Taiga Nakano) who draws him out of his shell. But Onoda says he will only give up his one-man fight when his former superior officer (Issey Ogata) orders him to do so.

In cowriting the script, Harari referred to Onoda’s memoir, “No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War,” which details his stay on Lubang. He also drew from such Japanese films as Kon Ichikawa’s 1959 classic “Fires on the Plain,” which also depicts Japan’s war in the Philippines. “But I was, in a way, reassured by two very interesting examples of great films made by non-Japanese directors, which had a real link to my film,” he says.

One of these was Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006), which centers on the bloody World War II battle for the titular island, and the other was Joseph von Sternberg’s “Anatahan” (1953), a drama based on a true story, about a woman, a male plantation overseer and 12 Japanese seamen who were stranded on an island in the Northern Marianas for seven years.

“Those directors didn’t speak Japanese and didn’t really know Japan before making these films but succeeded in making very impressive works of art,” Harari explains. “They made me feel that, with a lot of work, I could maybe go beyond the fact that I was an outsider.”

Despite one scene in which Onoda receives a Japanese-style short sword from his stern father, who says he can use it to commit suicide if he is captured, the film is not an examination of the Bushido warrior code or other aspects of Japan’s wartime military mindset.

“My intention was not to make a film about Japan,” Harari says. “Of course, the story deals with Japanese topics and Japanese history but, to me, the goal was to make a universal film about the human condition.”

In the film, Onoda is indoctrinated by Maj. Yoshimi Taniguchi to never surrender and fight on alone if need be, but Harari does not consider this a satisfactory explanation for his three-decade stay on Lubang.

“No explanation is enough to really solve the mystery of why Onoda spent so many years sticking to his beliefs,” Harari says. “But my intention was to try to get as close as possible to the inner truth of the character.”

For the director, that truth lay in Onoda’s desire to build an independent life away from his father, family and country. “He wanted to be far away, he had to be far away,” Harari says. “I think he wanted to be on his own for as long as possible, to be honest.”

At the same time, the director recognizes that his understanding of Onoda may not perfectly align with the soldier’s own thoughts and beliefs.

“It’s my point of view,” Harari says. “It’s my sensibility that tries to construct this human being’s reasons or feelings.”

He adds that because the film is primarily a work of fiction about Onoda’s inner life, audiences should not view it as an objective account of real-life events. Scenes of Taniguchi lecturing Onoda and his fellow trainees about their duties as soldiers “are not flashbacks,” Harari says. “It’s how another person remembers it and tells it. The film takes place inside another’s subjectivity and another’s memory.”

This stance, Harari continues, extends to Onoda’s memoir, which he published soon after his return to Japan. “In Onoda’s book, also, you are inside this subjectivity because he’s the only one who told the story,” Harari says.

He tells me that when Taniguchi spoke to the media after arriving in Lubang in 1974 to accept Onoda’s official surrender, he said he had no memory of giving Onoda an order to fight on indefinitely. “Taniguchi said it made no sense for him or anybody in the Japanese military to give this kind of order to stay for years and years,” Harari says. “So it’s his word against Onoda’s. That doesn’t mean that Taniguchi didn’t give the order, though.”

The film takes on a present-day dimension, with parallels to the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories related to COVID-19, when Onoda and his one surviving comrade, Pvt. Kinshichi Kozuka (Tetsuya Chiba), concoct bizarre explanations for their situation out of scraps of information and their own wild imaginings after decades on Lubang. The film was shot at the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019, however, before the pandemic began. Harari believes that this was natural given their situation.

“It’s what happens when you’re isolated,” he says. “It’s basically paranoid behavior. Your mind has to reshape the world because you don’t want to accept reality. Otherwise, you’re confronted with your own weakness. And the only way you can feel strong is to reject the facts.

“I think that’s also what’s happening today with people on social networks trying to invent a new narrative about what’s happening in the world. This is as old as humanity. It’s also how you can create a religion because, basically, the facts are too violent. The facts are too difficult for you to accept.”

“Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle” opens in cinemas nationwide from Oct. 8. For more information, visit (Japanese only).

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