Onoda:10,000 Nights in the Jungle (France/Japan, 2021)

Written and directed by Arthur Harari, Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle is a drama set in the Philippines during and after World War II. Hiroo Onoda (Yuya Endo/Kanji Tsuda) is recruited by Major Taniguchi (Issei Ogata), along with other young Japanese men, for a special mission in 1944. Upset that he couldn’t be a regular pilot, and not wanting to die as a kamikaze, Onoda jumps at the offer, ultimately becoming one of the best recruits of the war. As a lieutenant in the Japanese army, Onoda is sent to the small island of Lubang in the Philippines to prepare the troops there for repelling the Americans and waiting for reinforcements.

After devastating attacks by the American military, and other circumstances leading to Onoda to distrust most of the survivors, his group is down to three other men. Onoda tells Kozuka (Yuya Matsuura/Tetsuya Chiba), Shimada (Shinsuke Kato), and Akatsu (Kai Inowaki) of his secret mission and they agree to follow him. Shimada lived in the Philippines and teaches the others important survival skills, including building a hut, and what foods are safe to eat. Eventually the group shrinks again, leaving just Onoda and Kozuka. Following a number of years in the jungle, the pair are confronted by a group from Japan, including Onoda’s father, that tell them the war ended, and leaving newspapers, magazines, and a small radio after the two fail to leave with the group. Going through the items, Onoda and Kozuka are convinced that the war is still raging and their mission is still important. Onoda will obey his orders for as long as necessary, until Taniguchi changes those orders.

Based on a true story, Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle is beautiful, at times comical, but ultimately heartbreaking. The wonderful cinematography by Tom Harari showcases the beauty of the island in both it’s beaches and the jungle, with sweeping shots of the tree canopy and sky and closer shots of the terrain. The close shots of the men’s faces display a range of emotions they feel without saying a word, as well as the physical changes as they spend years on Lubang. The actors are exceptional in conveying feelings without speech, including the pain they endure throughout their years of dedicated service to the cause. Watching Onoda and Kozuka read through the papers and magazines left by the people attempting to rescue them, then convince themselves though baffling logic that the war is still being fought, is both humorous and absurd. The two soldiers maintain a ridiculous loyalty to Japan and the Emperor, never wavering in the belief that reinforcements will arrive “any day now.”

Onoda is also fiercely dedicated to those soldiers who have passed, returning to their graves regularly, saying prayers and laying flowers. There is a sad thread running through the film that takes a stab at the senselessness of war and the destruction it brings, especially to the soul. At 165 minutes, some scenes could have been shortened, but the film mostly flows sublimely from beginning to end.

Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle receives its UK theatrical release on April 15 from Third Window Films.