Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese lieutenant who fought in WWII, has a fascinating story. He was sent to an island in the Philippines with orders to hold off the enemy until the Imperial Army returned. It was December 1944, close to the end of the war. But no one in Onoda’s army knew this.
Their orders were to destroy enemy assets and do their best not to die.
But then Japan surrendered, and the war ended. And Onoda was so indoctrinated at that point, he refused to acknowledge what had happened around him. So, he stayed and hid on the island of Lubang—for thirty years.
In a new film, Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle, Onoda’s tale is portrayed in a 3-hour-long epic saga. The film’s director, Arthur Harari, designed the film to partly be about Onoda’s heroic survival, partly the psychological repercussions of war. In an interview with Cineuropa, Harari explains why he feels compelled to tell Onoda’s story.
“I’ve always felt that great tales of adventure could lend themselves to existentialist dimensions, something which doesn’t only involve action, entertainment, or exoticism, but which touches upon deeper, almost metaphysical issues… I saw several highly relatable elements in this subject-matter and in the person of Onoda, which also spoke to me on a very personal level: I felt an almost childlike determination to not let go of this thing that we’d promised to do, or that had been promised to us, or a belief, a kind of courage bordering on absurd.”
Indeed, Onoda’s story borders on the absurd.
In fact, his actual return to Japan was marked with a strong mix of praise and condemnation. For in order for the soldier to remain put for so long, his mind had to tell him story after story about why his eyes were deceiving him. He was, in a sense, delusional.
After retreating into the jungle with his troops, Onoda sees pamphlets, dropped from planes, announcing Japan’s surrender. He dismisses them as fake news and propaganda. Newspapers are similarly dropped, and Onoda thinks it’s all fake. He thinks that photos are altered. He sees planes from the Korean War flying overhead and believes they’re Japanese. His family is sent to ask him to return home via a megaphone and he thinks it’s a trick.
The entire time Onoda is hiding in the jungle, starving, he thinks that the war is still going on. The combination of disbelief and his original orders to survive no matter what lead him to create an alternative reality. And his alternative reality keeps him away from home for thirty years.
Onoda eventually returned home in 1974.
You can watch the trailer for Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle here.