Werner Herzog has portrayed the poetic excesses of human drama as the brilliant director, producer and screenwriter of more than 60 feature films and documentaries, author of more than a dozen books and director of more than a dozen operas.
His first novel, The World of Twilight, is an additional and lyrical story about Hiroo Onoda, a real Japanese lieutenant who terrorized Filipino villagers on Lubang Island with guerrilla tactics for 29 years after the end of World War II.
Much like Herzog’s documentaries, which cut short their central inquiries by re-enacting truth as fiction under his signature philosophical novel, The World of Twilight begins with the writer himself. In Tokyo in 1997 to direct the feudal opera “Chushingora,” Herzog insulted his hosts by refusing an invitation from the Emperor of Japan. Shocked, someone asks Herzog who he would prefer to meet.
He replied, “Onoda.” “A week later, I met him.”
Herzog’s hallucinogenic account of Onoda’s 1974 meeting with Norio Suzuki, a college dropout who travels to Lubang Island, is interrupted after he made a list of world adventures: Onoda, Yeti, Panda. Herzog briefly positioned himself as the narrator – writing of the insects, “I began to hear with my Onoda ears that their tinnitus is not aggressive, not turbulent.” – Before sliding into the third person.
Did Onoda long for his family, sex, or safety as he navigated the woods, changing camps at night, sometimes walking backwards to dodge trackers? The film The Twilight World largely eschews psychology and self-reflection, both of which Herzog called the “great disasters of the 20th century,” chronicling how Onoda and fellow soldiers Shimada and Kozuka stored munitions in homemade palm oil and misunderstood them (as evidence of the expansion of World War II) flying Aircraft toward the subsequent American wars in Korea and Vietnam.
Herzog refused to make a frank judgment on his subject’s devastating refusal to accept the end of World War II, but he nonetheless stressed the lens on who he thought was important: Onoda. Such a one-man introduction evokes Herzog’s 1982 film “Fitzcaraldo.” The climax of that infamous story recapitulates the corrupt ambitions of a would-be rubber baron who is recruiting Aboriginal villagers to haul a ship through a steep, exposed forest for the purpose.
Herzog wrote in his Useless Seizing: Meditations Made by Fitzcarraldo, “I had the feeling that my work and my vision were going to destroy me, and for a fleeting moment I let myself take so long and hard to look at myself, something I wouldn’t do otherwise — out of instinct, in principle , in a sense of self-preservation–look at myself with an objective curiosity to see if my vision has really ruined me.”
Onoda passed away in 2014 at the age of 91. Public infatuation hears his story with a rotten nostalgia for a code of conduct that requires loyalty to the chain of command, no matter what. But where is the honor in ambushing farmers who are recovering from the war imposed on them and harvesting rice?
Onoda was left with orders to destroy the transportation infrastructure on Lubang Island but never surrendered or killed himself, reportedly killing up to 30 residents, and wounding many more, for which he was later pardoned. Readers of “The Realm of Twilight” won’t learn the human cost of Onoda’s steadfast ignorance because the narrative adheres to his genius survival.
Beautifully translated from German into English by Michael Hoffmann, “The Twilight World” reveals soldiers’ companionship with nature and with each other, but concludes without examining the collective damage their imperial imaginations have done. By imitating the nesting dolls with a time geometry from 1997 to 1974 to 1944, where they lingered before turning back, the construction of the novel would have made it possible to see Onoda and its surroundings even more.
Onoda Herzog is not a historical lunatic, but a man of impressive focus who sticks to life and refuses to give up the fight. Onoda was armed as an instrument of war, a Stoic intention that compelled Herzog. Onoda says, “Sometimes, I feel like there is something in these weapons that is out of human control. Do they have a life of their own once they are invented? Doesn’t it seem that war has a life of its own too? Does war dream of war?”
Having lost his men to surrender and shoot, “Onoda wanders on alert, sees everything, hears everything. He is always ready. But he is not allowed to be just a jungle, to be part of nature. He is separate and part.” Ignoring found newspapers, dumping leaflets and his brother’s audio recordings delivered over a megaphone, he didn’t leave the forest until 1974, after Suzuki brought in the 88-year-old ex-officer of Onoda, to deliver official orders declaring the war over and relieving him of the service. .
In his frantic search for the truths of ecstasy, Herzog gave readers a gateway to human folly, self-discipline, and domination—certainly the work of his life.