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Domitable Myth: Three Depictions of Japanese Holdout Soldier Hiroo Onoda

By A.E. Hunt

Still from 'Searching for Onoda.' Ricardo Nunez, from the farming town of Burol, who survived an Onoda attack but came away from it with a permanent limp. Photo credit: Mia Stewart.

Mia Stewart’s upcoming 15-plus-years-in-the-making documentary, Searching for Onoda, deflates the heroic myth of Japanese holdout soldier Hiroo Onoda and tells the other side of the story. Both Arthur Harari’s 2021 Cannes-premiering narrative feature, Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle, and Werner Herzog's debut 2022 novel, The Twilight World, perpetuate the old myth.

Japanese holdout soldier Hiroo Onoda stalked the Philippine island of Lubang for 29 years after the end of World War II. When he finally returned to Tokyo in 1974, he was greeted with an elaborate hero’s welcome. The ensuing PR campaign posed a man who sacrificed decades of his life for his country, embodying selfless traditions some thought dissolved in his absence by the Japanese economic miracle. This public narrative, that he chose to stay in Lubang because he was convinced the war never ended, is highly disputable and impossible to confirm. But it is indisputable that he killed Filipino civilians outside of wartime. This much he openly admitted in the bestselling memoir, No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War (1974), his expurgated account of his time on the island. The self-pitying hero myth continues to persist in two recent retellings that gloss over his murders: Arthur Harari’s Cannes-premiering narrative feature Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle (2021) and Werner Herzog’s debut novel, The Twilight World (2022).

Onoda’s myth was never monolithic, and dissenting voices have challenged it from the beginning. His reception in Japan was itself mixed. As Naoko Seriu, associate professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, recently told BBC Culture, “[Onoda] was at the same time seen as a victim, and then criticized as the embodiment of militarism.” Two years after the release of Onoda’s memoir, the book’s ghostwriter, Tsuda Shin, published Imaginary Hero: Three Months with Officer Onoda [final English title TBA], a retraction of the lies that he once played a hand in sublimating. In his book, Tsuda is convinced that Onoda knew the war was over and not only killed but enjoyed doing it. And 15 years ago, filmmaker Mia Stewart started making a documentary film, Searching for Onoda, from the perspective of the people of Lubang. Originally from the island, members of her own family—particularly her mother, lola, and lolo—figure heavily in the film.

Stewart has been facilitating the first English translation of Imaginary Hero in a joint effort to dispel the myth and fill out the story overseas. As of April 2023, she is raising funds to complete this venture. In her documentary, she continues the conversation started by Imaginary Hero with the ghostwriter’s sons, who reveal more about Onoda and their father’s relationship with him. She has struggled to fund the film over the last decade and a half, often using her own savings to proceed. A festival premiere and distribution may still be years away. Harari distributed his film in, according to his podcast with Nathan Callahan, “more or less 20 countries,” with a production budget of 4 to 5 million euros. This is a relatively scant budget for a period war film but far more than the thousands Stewart has so far raised and needs to finish. She began Searching for Onoda long before Harari or Herzog entered the picture, and in part due to which stories have an easier time getting financed, made, and released in this industry, will get her word in last of the three.

I talked with Stewart and Harari separately over zoom about their different approaches and the problem of Onoda’s widespread misrepresentation. Herzog’s PR team at Penguin Random House passed on an interview, saying the director was no longer doing press for the book. In his place, I highlight excerpts from Twilight World that I feel speak for him.

Whose Lost Time?

In Onoda: 10,000 Nights, nearly every Filipino is cannon fodder without a name. The sole exception is a woman Onoda kills, Iniez (played by Angeli Bayani), who is identified only in the credits. The only Filipino that Herzog names in Twilight World is the infamous dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whom the Japanese government bribed to pardon Onoda for his war crimes on live television. Otherwise, Herzog only ever refers to Filipinos in the book collectively as “peasants,” “sentries,” “rice farmers,” “islanders,” and “donkos” (a slur). In my interview with Harari, he slips into a similar tendency: “When [Onoda] kills the young Filipino peasant … Iniez… She’s not a peasant, sorry, we don’t know what she is... She’s just Iniez.” Because both versions tell the story from or close to Onoda’s perspective, the people of Lubang straddle the peripheries, only coming into focus in a rifle’s line of sight. But also wanting to appear sympathetic to Onoda’s victims, they include pity for them at the edge of the page or the frame. 

The limits of Harari and Herzog’s subsidiary empathy look even more obvious when confronted with a film that centers the people who were impacted by Onoda. Based in Australia in 2021, Stewart flew all the way to New York to attend the premiere of Harari’s film at New Directors/New Films and interview him in person for her Searching for Onoda documentary. After all, by selecting Onoda as his subject, Harari is now part of the larger media narrative myth around Onoda. In the audience Q&A after the ND/NF premiere, Stewart asked Harari, “My mom grew up on [Lubang] island during Onoda’s time, and Onoda and his men actually shot and killed my grandfather’s brother, so it was very difficult for me to separate that from the film… I do commend you for tackling such a complex story and also a very complicated character. When you created this film, did you have any reservations about criticisms you might face creating a story about such a controversial character?”

Harari, anticipating Stewart’s attendance as she had emailed him beforehand, replied, “Yes, I was very conscious of the difficulties regarding the point of view of the film—my choice to always be on his side, which is the wrong side—because he has a vision of history that is objectively wrong as we know it as an audience and [that I know as a] writer… I hope that in my film, the violent and shocking aspects of Onoda, and the humanity of his victims, the Filipino people on the island, exist even if we’re on Onoda’s side…To me, they exist very strongly, in my mind, in my artistic attempt and the way that the actors embodied the [characters].”

Similar to his film, Harari retains a measured distance and enough awareness to see incoming criticisms from afar and plausibly deny charges of ill intention. Knowing how little screen time Filipino characters have in the film—my generous guess is 5 of 165 total minutes—I find his conviction and hope that their perspective exists “very strongly” hard to accept. According to Imaginary Hero, Onoda himself alternately reports having killed upwards of 130 people, or, when he’s feeling coy, no less than 30. Harari only shows Onoda killing twice, and only in self-defense.

Months after the ND/NF screening, Stewart told me that the audience reaction didn’t seem to incite reflection about the violence of Onoda’s actions. “What annoyed me after was how emotionally connected people felt to Onoda and his story,” she said. As much as Harari can say that he was trying to create distance between himself and Onoda, he ultimately created a romanticized view of Onoda from Onoda’s perspective. Onoda was able to go back to his life and create a whole new life in Japan. There were people who just couldn’t do that.” 

Unlike Harari, Stewart cannot so readily leave the story behind and is driven to finally show audiences what happened from her family’s side. When she adapted Onoda’s memoir into a creative nonfiction paper in high school, her mother corrected her—there were huge parts missing from the story that her mother knew about firsthand, like Onoda’s larceny and violence. Inspired to record the islanders’ stories from that point on, she started returning to Lubang to film research interviews on a MiniDV camcorder, some of which appear in a 96-minute rough cut of Searching for Onoda that I viewed for this piece. Stewart gives the vast majority of the run time to firsthand testimonies and oral histories of the people in Lubang. Her interviewees’ faces are recorded within feet of the camera operator (often Stewart herself), center frame, and stare directly into the lens. She rarely cuts or turns her camera away from their faces and words, employing sparse B-roll and animation only to visualize Onoda’s narration: quotes from interviews, his own memoir, or Imaginary Hero. Her lola Joaquina Viaña, her mother Estela Stewart nee Viaña, her great-auntie Miming, and other Lubang friends and family remember their encounters with Onoda. Their meticulous detailing of Onoda’s patterns of migration, raids, and killings, and of farm life under constant threat is an attempt at making up for the lack in Harari and Herzog’s depictions and Onoda’s own account. This narrative repair is essential to remembering and reflecting how dramatically Onoda’s looming presence strained everyday life in Lubang, where denizens observed an early evening curfew until he finally left.

Interviewing the daughter of Pelagio “Lyong” Tagle, Stewart learned that the man was “hacked with a saw” after being shot. Her lola told her the story of how Onoda killed Francisco Villar with a bolo. Several years later, Stewart talks with a group of men who corroborate her grandmother’s testimony of the gruesome murder, and intercuts the two stories to emphasize their similarities. Onoda also killed her mother’s uncle, Emilio Viaña, on March 8, 1951, the day before his birthday. His two sons relay the story to the camera: While tending the land, the three of them came under fire by Onoda. Viaña took a bullet, then his sons dragged him to safety and canoed him back into town, “but he had already lost too much blood, and died.” As with other victims, Viaña’s death affected future generations. Both sons returned to the island to care for their mother and younger siblings, never finishing their education in Manila. One of the sons was shot in the leg, giving him a permanent limp. “That’s why so many elderly people have one leg now,” another man tells Stewart, citing Onoda’s tendency to target kneecaps and an artery near the groin. Each story is only a small part of the whole. She talked with many locals who, due to Onoda’s looting and burning of their harvest or the murder of a family member, had to forgo their education.

Stewart told me she estimated that “60 or 70%” of the people she interviewed have since passed away and that her interviews are the only record of their stories. She said, “I’m happy with it just being a recording and acknowledgment of their experience. This was and still is a story that was intended to be told for my family. It’s essentially a documentation of my family’s and the people on the island’s experience.”

Stewart also shared an early English translation of Shin’s book, Imaginary Hero, with me. In it, Onoda proudly explains, “It’s wasteful to use 1 bullet for 1 person. I tried to figure out how to kill 2 people with 1 bullet. Donko is timid, so they never come into the mountain alone. They always come in 3 or 4. So I decided to hide in a shade to ambush. And I wait till they line up in a line, and I fire.” Tsuda then analyzes, “It was clearly a murder. At least it was not a fight. I say this because from hearing his stories carefully, it was clear that the islanders had no intention to kill.”

In contrast, Harari and Herzog frame Lubang civilians and police as actively antagonistic, seeking out and ambushing Onoda and his comrades. Stewart also noticed this tendency in Harari’s film, such as when Kozuka, one of the three men who accompanied Onoda after the war, is killed by local police: “Harari shows that the islanders had basically instigated an attack. He portrayed the islanders as less passive than I believe them to be and know from interviews and my family members.” In Tsuda’s book, he writes, “I have never heard him [Onoda] talking about any incident where the islanders initiated the fight. Hiroo bragged, ‘We didn't make a mistake to be found by donko.’ Then why did he shoot the islanders?”

Should Fictions or Memories Lay in the Gaps of History?

When Onoda was deployed to Lubang in 1944, the Japanese had occupied the Philippines for two years. They were not at war with the island nation so much as they were seeking a strategic foothold in the Pacific against the previous occupants, Americans. Situated in a power struggle between two imperialist forces, the Philippines absorbed brutal crossfire. Japanese and American airstrikes reduced Manila to debris. Japanese troops committed infamous war crimes such as the Manila Massacre; the Bataan Death March, where, just north of Lubang Island, upwards of 16,000 Filipino and 500 American prisoners of war died during their forcible transfer to Camp O’Donnell; and the sex trafficking of around 1,000 Filipina women and children. Filipinos were also subject to lurid scare tactics, the CIA turning local mythology against them most infamously when they drained the blood of the corpses of communist Huk soldiers and punctured their necks with bitemarks to suggest real-life aswang, a vampire-like creature. 

The myth of Onoda, as it is peddled by Onoda: 10,000 Nights, feels akin to such reality-bending scare tactics and gives no indication of the aforementioned history. Harari finished and released his film having read a single book on Onoda, a French book: Bernard Cendron and Gérard Chenu’s Onoda: Seul en guerre dans la jungle, 1944–1974. He explains this decision in interviews, such as in KUCI’s Film School: “Film School Radio with Mike Kaspar” podcast: “I didn’t read historical books about Japan or the war, because the fact is that everything about Onoda’s story can be understood even if you don’t really know the general situation of the war, the Pacific War, or the history of Japan.” 

Herzog similarly describes Lubang and its people as removed from his idea of history: “Other than a sense of the day coming to an end, there is no indication of time. It’s as though it were forbidden—there’s not even a real sense of present because each performed action is already in the past, and each ensuing one is future. All here are outside history, which in its taciturnity will not allow present.” Void of any sense of familiarity with the place, these broad observations borrow from culturally ingrained stereotypes of the tropics as mystifying and dangerous to heat-averse Westerners. In Twilight World, the lieutenant wonders what power he has over his rifle, which in real life he maintained meticulously until his return to Tokyo: “‘Sometimes,’ says Onoda, ‘it feels to me that there is something about these weapons that takes them out of human control. Do they have a life of their own, as soon as they’re devised? And doesn’t war seem to have a life of its own too? Does war dream of war?’” 

Was it the rifle and the jungle that possessed Onoda to kill? The trope of “going native”—often applied, in war, to colonial soldiers ostensibly moved to madness by the nature of the foreign environment, which is in fact being consumed by the outsiders’ violent nature—has historically shifted blame to the people on the defense and mis-situated its own metaphorical mirror. If Onoda went mad, it was from seeing his violent nature reflected in the people and nature that he destroyed, not for seeing them as they were/are.

Stewart, introducing home video footage of herself growing up on the island early in the film, sees Lubang beyond its relation to Onoda. Unlike the unplaced jungles of Harari and Herzog’s imaginaries, the real-life landscapes of Lubang generate vivid, specific recollections. In Searching for Onoda, locals walk Stewart through the trails and tunnels Onoda took, caves he lived in, and rice fields he burned. They show her a coconut tree with one of Onoda’s bullets still lodged in its husk. Stewart’s mother remembers him vaulting out of the window of the home economics classroom with a pair of scissors. The mayor at the time of Onoda’s surrender, Augustin “Rudy” Aguilar, remembers how many times the soldier got sick during his term—just twice, once with a slight fever. This collective memory conjures imagery far more vivid than Onoda’s own censored accounts and the nondescript visuals of Harari’s film and Herzog’s book. A record of such details is critical because decades of hazily heroizing Onoda has so much required their suppression.

“I wanted people to forget when [the film] was made, who made it, why it was made,” Harari told Asian Movie Pulse, “and to just be on the journey and experience.” In addition to when and why, he hopes you’ll forget where: for practical reasons, he shot the film not in the Philippines, but in Cambodia. As a prior French colony, for example, Cambodia offered French-speaking labor; the crew was mostly Cambodian. France, Germany, Belgium, and Italy co-financed the film. “If you add up all those nationalities,” Harari calculated, “it makes the film from nowhere.”

His version of the story, like previous laudatory reporting, is predicated on forgetting the facts that naturally abound in Stewart’s film. She told me, “I’d love to invite [Harari] to the island and actually see where Onoda had lived and what he had done. I think if they actually filmed on the island and not Cambodia that it might have changed the way he did the film. Being physically not on the island, I think he was able to remove himself emotionally to a certain degree and depict Lubang Island however he wanted.” His choice of shooting location allowed him to further avoid confrontation with the real history of Onoda and Lubang people, and enables his fiction, which is redundantly limited to how Onoda has already most commonly been portrayed.

Grounding Onoda

In my call with Harari over Zoom, he could not help but situate the film’s journey within Western genre trappings: “My culture, my background, and my interests as an occidental man are very much influenced by romanticism. If I have been fascinated by Onoda and very interested in his story, it was because I could very easily project onto it something of romantic literary myth… I try to see the whole aspect of Onoda—and it was not completely bad and not completely good. It was, once again, not simple.”

When Stewart interviewed Harari after the ND/NF screening, he revealed he knew “the real Onoda was much scarier” than the one he depicted, and was a “sociopath” who was probably “happy to have killed some enemies.” Late into writing the script, his friend translated and summarized a few pages of Imaginary Hero that described Onoda stabbing the chief of a Lubang village to death. “I was, of course, shocked … and I understood that my script was too gentle and too evasive about the violence of Onoda.” This, he says, led him to create the scene where Onoda orders Akatsu to stab a Filipino captive to death, showing Onoda’s manipulativeness, but again taking the murder out of his hands. He goes on to doubt the veracity of Onoda’s testimony. “Every one of us has reasons mysterious even to ourselves to say what we say,” Harari maintained, “So the truth is not exactly always what you say. And in [Onoda’s] case, to me, it's completely ambiguous—completely.” 

Harari and Herzog leave Onoda a cipher, or, as the latter describes him, “a rumor, a report.” Crucially, after spending time with the people of Lubang, Stewart’s work-in-progress project also provides a fuller picture of Onoda. She brings the audience closer to him with Onoda’s own voiceover, giving him a conflicted interiority that Herzog and Harari eschew for distance.

In the final 20 minutes of Searching for Onoda’s rough cut, we leave Lubang for the first time and follow Stewart to Japan. However, just days before Stewart is scheduled to meet Onoda there, he dies. She attends his public memorial at the Yasukuni Shrine, where she meets his wife, who is in unfit mental condition to be interviewed, and witnesses a collective remembering and celebration of the man that feels, to both her and the film’s audience, totally jarring against everything that came before. One former colleague from the youth nature school that Onoda founded tells Stewart she thinks of him as a grandfather; others swear by his kindness with convincing smiles. Archival footage of Onoda lecturing at the nature school shows the warmth he emitted later in his life and the adoration he received from people in return.

Hiroshige Kando, one of Onoda’s closest friends, expresses this dramatic personality shift to the camera by showing two posters of Onoda’s face, one from when he first returned from Lubang, and the other from decades later. In the first, Kando describes Onoda as looking like a “demon.” In the second, he describes Onoda as “beaming.” Late in life, Stewart realizes, Onoda finally found happiness. Where Harari and Herzog might have fixated on the supposed paradox in the contrast, Stewart, in voiceover, cuts through it—“I want to tell you a story about a man who has committed acts of evil but is given a second chance.”

A.E. Hunt is an endeavoring filmmaker, cameraperson in production, and writer with bylines in Filmmaker, Criterion, Sight & Sound, Film Comment, American Cinematographer, MUBI Notebook, and more. He is also vice president of Dedza Films, a distributor for and by underrepresented filmmakers.