Werner Herzog’s New Novel, The Twilight World, Tells the Story of the WWII Japanese Soldier Who Famously Refused to Surrender

As every­one knows, Japan con­ced­ed defeat in the Sec­ond World War on August 15, 1945. But as many also know, cer­tain indi­vid­ual Japan­ese sol­diers refused to sur­ren­der, each con­tin­u­ing to fight the war for decades in his own way. The most famous was Lieu­tenant Ono­da Hiroo, who hid out in the Philip­pines mount­ing guer­ril­la attacks — at first with a few fel­low sol­diers, and final­ly alone — until 1974. Ono­da became a celebri­ty upon retun­ing to his home­land, and his admir­ers weren’t only Japan­ese. In Tokyo to direct an opera in 1997, Wern­er Her­zog request­ed an intro­duc­tion to one man only: the sol­dier who’d fought the war for 30 years.

Now Ono­da has become the sub­ject of one of Her­zog’s lat­est projects: not a film, but a nov­el called The Twi­light World. In his native Ger­man (brought into Eng­lish by trans­la­tor-crit­ic Michael Hof­mann), Her­zog has writ­ten of not just his own meet­ing with Ono­da but nar­rat­ed Onoda’s own long expe­ri­ence in the Philip­pines.

“Onoda’s war is of no mean­ing for the cos­mos, for his­to­ry, for the course of the war,” goes one pas­sage quot­ed by A. O. Scott in The Atlantic. “Onoda’s war is formed from the union of an imag­i­nary noth­ing and a dream, but Onoda’s war, sired by noth­ing, is nev­er­the­less over­whelm­ing, an event extort­ed from eter­ni­ty.”

One thinks of the pro­tag­o­nists of Her­zog’s films, both imag­ined and real: the steamship-drag­ging rub­ber baron Bri­an Sweeney Fitzger­ald, the downed Navy pilot Dieter Den­gler, the delud­ed con­quis­ta­dor Lope de Aguirre, the ill-fat­ed wildlife activist Tim­o­thy Tread­well. In Onoda’s case as well, Scott writes, “Her­zog declines to treat him as a joke. He is clear­ly fas­ci­nat­ed by the absur­di­ty of this hero’s sit­u­a­tion, and also deter­mined to defend the dig­ni­ty of a man who had no choice but to per­se­vere in an impos­si­ble mis­sion.” Any­one famil­iar with Her­zog’s career, full of har­row­ing encoun­ters and unpre­dictable turns but clear­ly oper­at­ing by an iron log­ic all its own, can imag­ine why he saw in Ono­da a kin­dred spir­it.

Eight years after his death at the age of 91, Ono­da remains a fig­ure of gen­er­al fas­ci­na­tion, the sub­ject of his­to­ry videos viewed by mil­lions as well as last year’s Ono­da: 10,000 Nights of the Jun­gle, a fea­ture by French direc­tor Arthur Harari. Of course,  “the guy who stays in the field long after the war is over is, to mod­ern eyes, a com­i­cal, cau­tion­ary fig­ure, an avatar of patri­o­tism car­ried to ridicu­lous extremes,” writes Scott. “We rarely pause to look for motives oth­er than blind obe­di­ence, or to imag­ine what those years of phan­tom com­bat in the wilder­ness must have felt like.” Per­haps we twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry West­ern­ers sim­ply lack the imag­i­na­tive pow­er nec­es­sary to do so — all of us, that, is except Wern­er Her­zog. You can pre-order his nov­el, The Twi­light World, now. It hits the shelves next week, on June 14th.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Wern­er Her­zog Offers 24 Pieces of Film­mak­ing and Life Advice

Wern­er Her­zog Tells a Book Club Why The Pere­grine Is One of His Favorite Books, a 20th-Cen­tu­ry Mas­ter­piece

Wern­er Her­zog Dis­cov­ers the Ecsta­sy of Skate­board­ing: “That’s Kind of My Peo­ple”

The Dream Dri­ven Film­mak­ing of Wern­er Her­zog: Watch the Video Essay, “The Inner Chron­i­cle of What We Are: Under­stand­ing Wern­er Her­zog”

Time Trav­el Back to Tokyo After World War II, and See the City in Remark­ably High-Qual­i­ty 1940s Video

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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