Book Review: ‘The Twilight World,’ by Werner Herzog

In the jungles of Lubang, first with other Imperial Army holdouts, later on his own, Onoda subsisted on stolen rice, scavenged fruit and, on occasion, water buffalo meat (smoked under cover of fog). When a leaflet landed on the forest floor in the fall of 1945, announcing the war’s end, Onoda took it as forgery, “the work of American agents.” When one of his band, Yuichi Akatsu, surrendered to the Philippine Army in 1950, loudspeakers appeared on a mountaintop, playing a recording of Akatsu assuring Onoda that he was being treated well. Onoda decided that the voice was a simulation or that, if genuine, Akatsu had been tortured to produce it.

As days melted into months, decades, Herzog writes, time slowed, congealed, evaporated: “A night bird shrieks and a year passes. A fat drop of water on the waxy leaf of a banana plant glistens briefly in the sun and another year is gone.” Michael Hofmann’s resonant translation conveys the portentous shimmer of Herzog’s voice. Sometimes, Herzog writes, Onoda had doubts; not of his duty but of the reality of his experience. “Is it possible that I am dreaming this war?” he asked himself. “Could it be that I’m wounded in some hospital and will finally come out of a coma years later, and someone will tell me it was all a dream? Is the jungle, the rain — everything here — a dream?”

But more than a quarter-century into his campaign, when a plane looped above the island, broadcasting a direct appeal to Onoda from President Ferdinand Marcos, assuring him of amnesty, he suspected a trap. And when his own brother recorded a message that echoed across the treetops for weeks, begging “Hiroo, my brother” to come out of hiding, Onoda’s self-deluding mind recast it as a cryptic hint that the Imperial Army was about to retake the island.

It was not until February 1974 that a hippie Onoda stan, Norio Suzuki, flushed the soldier out. Spotting Suzuki, Onoda leaped at him and pointed a gun at his chest. “How could I be an American agent?” Suzuki protested. “I’m only 22.” Many men in mufti had tried to take him before, Onoda responded. “I have survived 111 ambushes,” he said, adding: “Every human being on this island is my enemy.” Suzuki had to promise to fly in a commanding officer from 1944 before he would stand down.

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