The story of the isolated Japanese soldier who refused to surrender for decades after the end of the second World War has gone beyond history and become a mythic allegory for anyone unable to face long-confirmed defeat. You see it being slung at more stubborn opponents of Brexit in the UK.
Yet one Hiroo Onoda really did maintain a guerrilla campaign in the Philippines for 29 years – first with comrades, later alone – before his then-elderly commanding officer persuaded him to withdraw. Onoda lived on for another four decades before dying in his home country.
Working with a modest budget, Arthur Harari has turned his story into a well-made drama of the old school. The film is somewhat overstretched, but the occasional longueurs press home the extraordinary time frame. We begin in late 1944 as Onoda (Yûya Endô, later Kanji Tsuda) and his party are sent to a remote island with instructions to harry the enemy by any means necessary. They are forbidden from killing themselves – then a necessary qualification for the Japanese army – and pressed to fight to the bitter end. “Only you will know you acted with glory,” they are told. By the time a young man arrives in search of Onoda we have reached the 1970s and Japan is a prosperous powerhouse. The wanderer promised himself he would find “a wild panda, Onoda and the Yeti”.
Harari has said that he regards the film as historical fiction rather than straight biography, but a glance at the records confirms that the most unlikely turns depicted here really did happen. There is as much of Robinson Crusoe as there is of John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific. They map the island and give the natural features names. As the years progress, the increasingly middle-aged soldiers, after happening upon newspapers and transistor radios, fashion political scenarios for the outer world. Onoda imagines an “East-Asian Cross-Prosperity League” that will unite that part of the world against the west. The last thing they imagine is the beginnings of globalisation.
The actors make a fascinating enigma of the protagonist. He is a brave eccentric. He is a resourceful pioneer. But he was also responsible for the deaths of some 30 Filipino civilians. What the film never does is make a fool of the man. This is an exciting, surprising treatment of a story many of us have heard only in half-understood whispers. Well worth settling in for.
Opens on May 7th