Werner Herzog's first novel is about the Japanese soldier who refused to surrender until 1974

·4 min read
Imperial Japanese Army intelligence officer Hiroo Onoda (left) didn't realise that Japan had surrendered in 1945, and kept fighting on the island of Lubang until 1974, when his former commanding officer (right) was brought out of retirement to order him to stand down - Alamy
Imperial Japanese Army intelligence officer Hiroo Onoda (left) didn't realise that Japan had surrendered in 1945, and kept fighting on the island of Lubang until 1974, when his former commanding officer (right) was brought out of retirement to order him to stand down - Alamy

By way of a preface to The Twilight World, his first work of literary ­fiction, Werner Herzog recalls being invited for a private audience with Emperor Akihito in 1997. The German filmmaker was in Tokyo to direct an opera, but at the moment this great honour was mentioned, he bottled it and declined, to the abject horror of everyone he was dining with.

“If not the Emperor, who then would you like to meet?” came a voice, eventually, into the awkward silence. “Onoda,” was Herzog’s instant reply.

Hiroo Onoda was the legendary Japanese soldier who continued to lie low on an island in the Philippines for 29 years after the cessation of war in 1945. Herzog indeed had several chances to meet this national celebrity before his death in 2014. From their conversations, and the known history of Onoda’s epic guerrilla campaign in the ­jungle, he has fashioned this rather Hemingway-esque novella.

“The night coils in fever dreams,” it begins, before circling back to the moment in December 1944 when Onoda, with a small retinue of half a dozen men, receives his orders. The island of Lubang was held to maintain some spurious degree of strategic importance this late in the war, even after the Japanese withdrawal. Onoda’s first two tasks, both of which he failed in, are to destroy Lubang’s landing pier and airfield with explosives, to prevent them coming under US control.

Once he had penetrated the ­jungle to stay on guard, with three straggling subordinates, there was no way for superiors to alert him when the war ended. Leaflets dropped in his vicinity are assumed to be US fakes. So is a newspaper he finds at a hilltop camp, as late as 1971. As clinching proof of subterfuge, Onoda notes to his surviving companion Kinshichi Kozuka that the front page is dated to March 19, when his own calculations, totted up over two and a half decades, only get them as far as March 15.

Director Werner Herzog on location in Peru, filming Fitzcarraldo in 1981 - Sygma
Director Werner Herzog on location in Peru, filming Fitzcarraldo in 1981 - Sygma

The single-minded intransigence that caused him to squander half a lifetime skulking in the undergrowth make Onoda an archetypal Herzog hero – and he’s far from the first (thinking back to Herzog’s 1972 classic Aguirre, the Wrath of God) with a doomed mission in the jungle to pursue.

Twice, too, Herzog has been drawn to the story of German-American Navy pilot Dieter Dengler, who was shot down in Laos in 1966 and captured by the Vietnamese (those films are his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and the excellent 2006 dramatisation Rescue Dawn, with Christian Bale). He also followed the sole survivor of a plane crash in Peru, Juliane Koepcke, back to the site of her ordeal, for 1999’s Wings of Hope.

The form of The Twilight World, with its short chapters and vivid scene-setting, is very cinematic: indeed, it feels like a film unspooling inside Herzog’s head as you read. “Restlessness. Darkness. The pier at Tilik extends some seventy meters into the bay…” Perhaps he might have originally conceived it for the screen, but he was recently beaten to it by a 2021 feature about Onoda called 10,000 Nights in the Jungle, by the French director Arthur Harari. Surprisingly slender as the novel may be, the lapidary refinement of Herzog’s prose gives it a sculptural quality; re-reading is like turning it in the light.

When Onoda was finally brought back to Japan in 1974, he was given a hero’s welcome, and published a bestselling memoir. Even in the Philippines, where he returned years later for a visit, he was surprisingly well received, despite his brutal killings of more than 30 Lubang islanders over the years, by rifle, sword and bolo knife, because of their assumed enmity. (“The matter of those he had killed among the population never quite went away,” Herzog drily comments.)

It’s not in the nature of Herzog’s art to delve into the political controversies that have dogged this ­figure, who became a darling of Japanese nationalists for keeping alive the sacred, shattered values of loyalty to the imperial army. Instead, this book considers the allure of Onoda as a deluded adventurer lost in time – an extreme example of a human ego haunted by those missions he failed, and stranded like us all on a continuum that scarcely notices we exist.

Fittingly, Herzog’s radiant descriptions of the natural world are what dominate the book, and it’s the infinitesimal that reigns supreme. “A fat drop of water on the waxy leaf of a banana plant glistens briefly in the sun and another year is gone.”

The Twilight World by Werner Herzog, tr Michael Hofmann, is published by Bodley Head at £14.99

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