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‘Onoda’ Film Review: French Director Makes Japanese Biopic With American Influences

Cannes 2021: Arthur Harari’s near three-hour drama borrows from John Ford to tell the story of a WWII Japanese soldier who didn’t give up for 29 years

For as long as it has resonated within the public consciousness, the concept of Hiroo Onoda has been something of a lightning rod. 

Onoda the man, you may recall, was the Japanese soldier who never gave up, remaining one of the last active combatants of the Second World War for another 29 years following his country’s surrender. But when the soldier finally put down his gun, left his Philippines jungle keep and returned to his native land in 1974, he became a cultural figure who represented something different depending on whom you asked.

To the nationalist right, he was a hero – the last man of honor in a world gone to rot. To the poets, he was a kind of holy fool, a modern-day Quixote who looked at the changes foisted on him and said “no thanks.” 

And to French filmmaker Arthur Harari, whose biopic “Onoda, 10,000 Days in the Jungle” screened as the opening film at the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar on Wednesday, Onoda was the perfect cinematic subject. 

A nearly three-hour war epic shot in Japanese and funded entirely out of Europe, the film is already a rather uncommon proposition – and that’s before you take into account its throwback style. Like the man at its center, “Onoda” feels a step out of time, recreating the look and feel of gauzy 1970s film stock and the sturdy elegance of midcentury John Ford. 

Without hiding its many influences, “Onoda” never comes off as a pastiche; nor, for that matter, does it ever settle on one specific view of the man. Played by actors Yuya Endo and Kanji Tsuda at different points in time, the film’s central figure encompasses his many contradictions. He is, at once, a victim of imperial propaganda, a man of honor and glory and a total loon – a murderous one at that.

What else can a filmmaker do but pull at these various threads, offering a character study of man that doesn’t fully make sense? Faced with a story too unbelievable to be anything other than true – we’re not getting into every beat and turn, but Wikipedia is always close at hand –Harari need only follow the map as it leads him from genre to genre. 

As the screening let out, a Japanese journalist mentioned that she was grateful for Harari’s distance from the material, explaining that such an unburdened take could not come from the Japanese system where Onoda – who died only seven years ago – was still too fraught a figure. 

Her point was well taken, but I wouldn’t call the film unburdened. Soberly shifting from war thriller to apocalyptic drama to oddly sentimental buddy film, “Onoda” bears the weight of its many filmic forefathers. But as it pulls off such moves with such quiet force, it also represents a different kind of emergence. Hiroo Onoda left his jungle hideaway to enter the international spotlight; with “Onoda,” Arthur Harari could pull off a similar feat. 

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