Thursday, May 26, 2022

The Twilight World by Werner Herzog

It is not really surprising that one grows trust - issues after fighting 5 years of intense war.

So when Hiroo Onada, a Japanese officer on an endless guerrilla mission on the island of Lubang in the Philippines, is informed that Japan has surrendered and the conflict is over, he does not believe it and creeps even deeper in the jungle to continue the fight. For thirty more years...

Initially consisting of four soldiers, over the years the squad is reduced to a single person. One soldier surrenders in the fifties and walks out of the jungle. Two others are killed by Philippine troops trying to oust them out of the forest. Only Onada keeps eluding all tentative of contact in the decades following the end of WW2. 

Onoda will remain hidden until 21 February 1972, when Norio Suzuki, a young world-traveller, onto whom the soldier has stumbled in the forest, convinces the old man to come out of his hiding . 

His is the story told in The Twilight World, the latest book by famous cinematographer Werner Herzog. Herzog has a penchant for exceptional characters, especially so if they are hidden, lost or trapped in the jungle. Suffice to remember his movies or documentaries featuring Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Dieter Dengler and Juliane Koepcke. And now with his recent novel, the Twilight World, he has added to these Hiroo Onoda. 

The title of the book sounds even more dramatic in the original German: "Das Dämmern der Welt, like in the operatic word "Götterdammerung", a slow darkening, a closing out of the light, a creeping darkness preceding a full black-out. 

When on tour in Tokyo in 1997, Herzog shocks his hosts, by preferring a meeting with the jungle rescapee instead of with their Emperor. According to the German, He and Onoda, both jungle - aficionados, connect easily and have long discussions. The soldier tells his story and the 100-page novel is Herzog interpretation of it. While clearly irenic in intention, the author sides with the loner; the point of view in the narrative is the one of the warrior. The peaceful inhabitants of the island, who fear the ghost in the forest are rarely mentioned, their perspective is omitted. 

One can either mock or pity Onada for wasting away 30 years in the jungle. But the truth is more complex. Over the decades American war planes and warships kept flying over or passing the island. Unbeknownst to him, they are enroute to the next battlefields, the Korean and then the Vietnamese. Refusing to surrender, the old Japanese remains a danger for the isolated local civilians he encounters on the fringe of the jungle. And it is rather unfair from Herzog that he tells about the death of the two companions of Onada, killed in ambushes by Philippine soldiers and not about the 30 farmers the Japanese officer kills over the years, stealing their food and destroying their crops. 

As long as one of the belligerent parties decides to continue the fight, and there is always one who does, the fight continues. 

That is also Onoda's statement in a sentence that might be a blurb for a book on Human History. 

"The truth is that War is never over. Only the locations of the battlefields change"