The Twilight World by Werner Herzog

“The Twilight World,” mythologizes the real-life story of a Japanese straggler after the Second World War

Werner Herzog is going back to the jungle with his first novel in the twilight of his life. The Twilight World romanticizes the journey of a man who refused to surrender for over 30 years. Japanese lieutenant Hiroo Onoda who was on the wrong side of history refused to give up his post unless he was relieved from his duty by his commanding officer. The outside world continued to flourish while he stagnantly remained at war for 30 years. I am fascinated by Herzog’s delving into the story of a reclusive soldier. I wonder myself. Are we all living in our own jungles, holding down to a fort to our convictions only to find out we were out of touch? Is this the twilight of Herzog’s own life? Did he himself get bogged down by his own beliefs till the twilight of his own life? Did he surrender to the rest of the world?

In 1997, Werner Herzog was in Tokyo to direct an opera. His hosts asked him, Whom would you like to meet? He replied instantly: Hiroo Onoda. Onoda was a former soldier famous for having quixotically defended an island in the Philippines for decades after World War II, unaware the fighting was over. Herzog and Onoda developed an instant rapport and would meet many times, talking for hours and together unraveling the story of Onoda’s long war.
 
At the end of 1944, on Lubang Island in the Philippines, with Japanese troops about to withdraw, Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was given orders by his superior officer: Hold the island until the Imperial army’s return. You are to defend its territory by guerrilla tactics, at all costs. . . . There is only one rule. You are forbidden to die by your own hand. In the event of your capture by the enemy, you are to give them all the misleading information you can. So began Onoda’s long campaign, during which he became fluent in the hidden language of the jungle. Soon weeks turned into months, months into years, and years into decades—until eventually time itself seemed to melt away. All the while Onoda continued to fight his fictitious war, at once surreal and tragic, at first with other soldiers, and then, finally, alone, a character in a novel of his own making.
 
In The Twilight World, Herzog immortalizes and imagines Onoda’s years of absurd yet epic struggle in an inimitable, hypnotic style—part documentary, part poem, and part dream—that will be instantly recognizable to fans of his films. The result is a novel completely unto itself, a sort of modern-day Robinson Crusoe tale: a glowing, dancing meditation on the purpose and meaning we give our lives.

In “Burden of Dreams” (1982), a documentary on the making of “Fitzcarraldo,” Herzog mused on the “articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity” of the jungle. “The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing, they just screech in pain,” he said, continuing, “We are cursed with what we are doing here.” And yet, he affirmed, he loved the jungle, “against my better judgment.” With Onoda, he was able to share what Joseph Conrad called “the peculiar blackness of that experience.” In “The Twilight World,” Herzog explains, “I had worked under difficult conditions in the jungle myself and could ask him questions that no one else asked him.” This long-steeped book distills their conversations into a potent, vaporous fever dream; a meditation on truth, lie, illusion and time that floats like an aromatic haze through Herzog’s vivid reconstruction of Onoda’s war. Read more >>

“Onoda’s war is of no meaning for the cosmos, for history, for the course of the war.”

The Japanese lieutenant Hiroo Onoda emerged from hiding, in 1974, after fighting the Second World War for twenty-nine years. He’d been deployed to the Philippine island of Lubang in 1944, when he was twenty-two and had received secret orders to hold his position even as the Imperial Army withdrew from its airfield there. His commander promised that someone would come back for him eventually. When the war ended, the following summer, Onoda had no way of knowing it, and his jungle vigil continued. He was joined, at first, by three fellow soldiers who’d got lost in the jungle during the retreat, but then one man wandered off and surrendered, and the other two were killed in skirmishes with local police. Hoping to lure Onoda out, the Japanese dropped leaflets and sent search parties. His brother spoke to him through a loudspeaker; his father left him a haiku. But Onoda had sewn himself so seamlessly into his surroundings that he eluded detection. Trained in military intelligence, he dismissed all outside communication as propaganda. In the U.S., newspapers called him a “straggler” or “holdout,” words that failed to convey the sublime futility of his mission. Read more >>.

After the war ended Onoda spent 29 years hiding in the Philippines until his former commander traveled from Japan to formally relieve him from duty by order of Emperor Shōwa in 1974. He held the rank of second lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army. He was the penultimate Japanese soldier to surrender, with Teruo Nakamura surrendering later in 1974.

Of interest: Werner Herzog Reads Curious George