Sometimes non-Japanese directors tell stories on the big screen that Japanese filmmakers and studios shy away from. Sometimes, these reasons are political.

“Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” was Paul Schrader’s 1985 biopic about the celebrated and nationalist author Yukio Mishima, who ended his life in 1970 by seppuku after urging members of the Self-Defense Force to overturn Japan’s pacifist Constitution. Though critically well-received in the West, “Mishima” was never released in Japan due in part to objections by Mishima’s widow to the film’s depiction of his homosexuality.

The latest non-Japanese director to make a biographical film about a similarly touchy subject is Arthur Harari with “Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle,” which premiered in the Cannes Un Certain Regard section earlier this year. Famous as the last native Japanese soldier to surrender after World War II (Teruo Nakamura, a Taiwanese-Japanese soldier, held out a few months longer), Hiroo Onoda received a hero’s welcome in Japan on his 1974 return from the island of Lubang in the Philippines, where he had spent three decades. Later revelations that Onoda had killed Filipino civilians tarnished his reputation, however, and his decision to leave Japan for Brazil in 1975, after becoming disappointed in the weakening of traditional values among his countrymen, took even more of the shine off his celebrity.

Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle (Onoda: Ichiman Ya o Koete)
Run Time 174 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Oct. 8

Harari, a French director who cowrote the film, wisely opted to focus on Onoda’s time in Lubang, following a mostly straightforward chronology with flashbacks to his pre-Lubang life. But by focusing on key incidents and moments, from the disturbingly violent to the unexpectedly idyllic, the film avoids becoming a plod through Onoda’s mostly eventless daily existence. Despite running just shy of three hours, it is engrossing to the end.

“Onoda” also provides reasons for its protagonist’s refusal to give up his hopeless fight, despite being aware, through Japanese magazines and short-wave radio broadcasts, that Japan was no longer at war. If he had simply been a deranged fanatic — the impression I and much of the world had when he first emerged from the jungle — his story would not have been so compelling. But in the film, the intense, idealistic young Onoda (Yuya Endo) falls under the sway of the charismatic Maj. Yoshimi Taniguchi (Issey Ogata), who sternly tells him and other trainee intelligence officers that they must somehow stay alive and, if necessary, battle on alone.

Once in Lubang, Onoda finds that weary Japanese soldiers have little use for his zeal to resist. Onoda ends up with a three-man command and a self-imposed mission to conduct guerilla warfare. As the months turn into years, his tiny force dwindles to the loyal Pvt. Kinshichi Kozuka (Yuya Matsuura), but Onoda’s resolve never wavers, even as his motives remain something of a mystery.

Decades pass and an older Kozuka (Tetsuya Chiba) and Onoda — played with quiet authority by Kanji Tsuda — construct their own twisted version of reality, a development that recalls today’s legions of conspiracy theorists. The film achieves pathos, however, when Onoda, bereft after losing his last companion, encounters a young adventurer (Taiga Nakano) who has come from Japan expressly to find him.

Gaunt, wary and silent, Onoda looks like a ghost returning to the land of the living, a moment that eloquently sums up what he — and his country — lost in the collective madness of war.

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