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  • Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival

If this year’s Cannes Film Festival is supposed to be about welcoming back the cinema experience after an enforced absence, Arthur Harari’s Onoda, 10,000 Nights in the Jungle, which opened the Un Certain Regard sidebar, was seemingly programmed with that in mind, a nearly three-hour wannabe existentialist war drama intended as an exercise in the sort of big-screen immersion that has been impossible of late.

Yet while the true story of a Japanese soldier marooned in an endless, ultimately self-created conflict has obvious dramatic potential, the film’s humdrum dramatization lacks the necessary visual or narrative finesse to keep viewers absorbed, its longueurs equally exposing how the French director simply ignores the thornier implications of this historical curiosity.

The real-life Onoda Hiroo was a Japanese soldier who entered the Second World War in its closing stages at age 22, receiving special guerrilla training in Japan in late 1944 before being sent to the island of Lubang in the Philippines in February 1945. He would only officially surrender and return to Japan nearly 30 years later. Onoda, 10,000 Nights in the Jungle enters this story towards its end point, first showing how a young Japanese man went to Lubang in 1974 to look for Onoda, before jumping back to the soldier’s arrival on the island and following his plight more or less chronologically from then on, with the exception of a flashback to his training and some later, perception-related blending of different times in the film’s closing stages.

Onoda, 10,000 Nights in the Jungle (2021)

We thus see Onoda arriving on the island when the war is nearly lost and the Japanese forces are already in disarray. As skirmishes with the American forces intensify and morale and food supplies dwindle, he is quick to fill the resultant void in leadership, even as the number of troops at his command doesn’t even make double figures. Soon they’re down to four and it appears the Americans have withdrawn, whereupon Onoda gives a suitably inspirational speech suggesting that the quartet hunker down for the long haul, raiding local villages and getting the lie of the land as they wait for reinforcements that will never arrive.

With the central setup and its protagonists established as such, the action begins to jump forward in ever lengthier intervals, with each leap mainly serving to narrate some key episode: the exploration of the island and guerrilla campaigns against its inhabitants, fights between members of the group and their respective exits from it and eventually the arrival of outsiders, who are still not able to sway Onoda’s obsessive need to stay on task.

While this episodic structure is clearly supposed to inject narrative momentum into what is necessarily a long ride, it turns the passing of time, perhaps the key element of the entire story, into something shown but barely felt; onscreen titles, make-up and older actors only go so far in actually evoking 30 years in the jungle. 

The focus on incident over atmosphere doesn’t just extend to time. For all the scenes showing Onoda poring over his talismanic map of Lubang, Harari is also unable to make the topography of the island truly tangible. There’s no mistaking the island’s visual appeal, though each of the locations remains little more than that, with neither the camerawork nor the editing able to stitch them together so as to conjure the sense of a lived-in landscape. Despite the fancy crane shots that swoop through, alongside and over foliage, the film never fully penetrates its setting, treating it as more of a space for the actors to perform in rather than a potential living, breathing protagonist of its own.

Onoda, 10,000 Nights in the Jungle (2021)

The dramatic scenes also never get to the heart of the matter, not least as their number of possible outcomes is restricted by the ‘truth’ of the story, meaning repetition is inescapable. The glaring question of why Onoda chose to stay so long in the jungle remains frustratingly unanswered, although the shouty flashback scenes to his training with the paternal Major Taniguchi are presumably supposed to function as motivation to this end.

With little to do as a viewer but wait for the inevitable, there’s more than enough time to ponder another, equally central question that Onoda throws up and neglects to address: what ideology is so pervasive and so well-anchored that it can make a man go to such extraordinary lengths? Yet Harari is completely disinterested in probing this ideology, a particularly troubling decision in view of the wider historical context in which the film unfolds. With nationalist sentiment on the rise again in Japan, making a film that essentially celebrates someone who appeared to fully assimilate its imperialistic ambitions is naïve at best and insulting at worst; it’s telling here that the Filipinos who appear are little more than cannon fodder. Surely if you head to foreign territory, you should have a better idea of the terrain? 

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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