The war in the Pacific may have ended on Sept. 2, 1945, for just about everyone, but for Imperial Japanese Army intelligence officer Hiroo Onoda, the conflict persisted for nearly three decades.
Based on Onoda’s story, director Arthur Harari’s “Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle” is something of a study on the psychological conditions that might persuade a person to continue a long lost war with an unfailing loyalty that borders on madness.
Onoda (Yûya Endô), a young Japanese intelligence officer, signs onto a secret mission handed down by Maj. Yoshimi Taniguchi (Issey Ogata) to hold a position on Lubang Island in the Philippines. In real life, Onoda was ordered not to surrender or take his own life for any reason.
Taniguchi tells Onoda, in essence, that he would never abandon his men. Therefore, after the American military takes over the island, leaving Onoda with just a handful of troops, he devolves into a state of paranoid obsession about staying loyal to Taniguchi’s word, a mindset that prevents him from accepting that the war is over.
Though he and his compatriots continue their campaign in the jungle for a few years, even going so far as conducting small raids against Filipino villagers, local police and U.S. troops, Onoda’s story eventually dwindles to one of total solitude.
Despite attempts to coax him out of the jungle, including a recorded message from his brother telling him the war ended and periodicals explaining the new world, Onoda remains steadfast in his cause.
The movie’s beginning is reminiscent in tone to Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” While impactful, the ambiguity of its message prevents it from quite reaching the same level of poignance.
Ultimately, it’s unclear if the movie is meant to serve as a historically fictionalized version of Onoda as a mythical figure — so duty-bound to his country that he believed all attempts to get him to abandon his mission were conspiracy — or a dramatization of the effects of radicalized and weaponized patriotism that war can generate among young, impressionable troops.
Either way, the film is a harrowing portrayal of what it would take to survive 29 years in the harsh jungle while refusing to accept that the cause was lost.
Stream “Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle” on Amazon Prime Video or Apple TV+.
Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digitial Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.