Herzog likes to set movies in the tropics and the polar regions, in part to explore how characters respond to environments that challenge them. Extremes like these also prompt him to muse upon what happens when humans align themselves not with each other but with elements and other animals. The landscapes the director conjures in works like Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and Encounters at the End of the World are bleak and sublime. Such films are sensuous experiences, mesmerizing in their evocation of the world even as they track people’s struggles to survive in it.
Onoda’s interminable travails in the jungle seem a natural choice for the documentarian-turned-novelist to fictionalize. Ordered to conduct guerrilla warfare in the Philippines in 1944, the Japanese soldier was sent to an island 100 miles southwest of Manila whose strategic importance few acknowledged. He established a base of operations on Lubang as quickly as the existing Japanese unit decamped from it. For 30 years, and in defiance of radio programs, newspaper accounts, and amplified messages from family pleading for him to surrender, he remained in the jungle in dogged obedience to his 1944 directives. With his three-person crew, he subsisted on bananas, coconuts, scavenged rice, and the occasional cow that the group shot or requisitioned from villagers.
Over the decades, his band of soldiers reduced itself to a single compatriot. After Private First Class Kinshichi Kozuka was killed by shoulder and chest wounds, Onoda spent his last two years in Crusoe-like, companionless solitude. Only when his aged superior officer presented himself in person and revoked his three-decades-old order did Onoda turn himself in.
“Oral instructions! This was what I had been waiting for all these years,” the soldier explains with more than a hint of triumph in his 1974 memoir No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War.
Elegant in its brevity, The Twilight World (through Michael Hoffman's translation) makes cogent Onoda’s story, offering a rendering that accords in most particulars with the chronology Onoda establishes in his memoir. Both understand his experience as one “outside the flow of time,” as Onoda writes. And both create memorable images of warfare by evoking, for instance, the bluish shine of bullets at night. “Most details are factually correct; some are not. What was important to the author was something other than accuracy, some essence he thought he glimpsed when he encountered the protagonist of this story,” Herzog avers in an epigraph.
Fair enough. Given that The Twilight World adopts as much as alters Onoda’s retelling of events, however, Herzog’s refusal to recognize the 1974 publication seems ungenerous. That said, the atmospheres the two books create and the ideas they develop are radically distinct. Onoda’s story is a guide thronged with facts about the making of tools and the mending of clothing, complete with meticulous line drawings. The Twilight World is a reverie less focused on delineating action than on rendering impressions. Herzog registers the onerousness of Onoda’s day-to-day existence as much to render the flora and fauna that make the soldier’s domestic improvements necessary. The jungle is the central and abiding presence in this novel. Dense and claustrophobic, it is a place thrumming with life in which “nothing happens.”
Onoda embodies this paradox, perpetually confined as he shifts from camp to camp. He also illustrates the existential oscillation between moments of terror and hours of tedium that we all experience. In the soldier’s case, this pattern is extreme, a shift between a minute’s taut awareness during an ambush and years of dulling if dream-inducing actions, repeated so often that they do not so much mark time as stop it in its tracks.
The novel explicitly sets itself one task: to delineate the place where external reality confronts memory and dream. Samuel Johnson understood matter as the stone he painfully struck with his foot to refute philosophical idealism. For hapless Timothy Treadwell in Herzog’s own Grizzly Man, imagination and desire founder upon the real with terrifying literalness, when, yearning to live with bears, the animal enthusiast is eaten by Alaska grizzlies.
The protagonist of The Twilight World is much smarter. Over the course of his long and single-minded military campaign, he dodges not only the voices of villagers but also hails of bullets. Waiting and listening intently in a landscape loud with crickets and the incessant tapping of water droplets, Onoda spends as much time intuiting where enemies actual and illusory might appear as he does confronting the too-too solid flesh of rats together with ants, rain, and an all-consuming mold that mottles everything from binocular lenses to clothing.
The situation created is one of suffocating intrigue. Herzog narrates most of the book in the third person; most often, we’re situated at a close remove from Onoda. This small distance is a canny choice, as it allows us a vantage on the landscape within which the soldier maintains his camouflage and covers his tracks. But the first-person narrator of the book’s frame offers us our initial sighting. Onoda is in the beginning not so much an apparition as a stir in “moldering leaves.” Slowly, the leaves shift and a “green man takes form.” As with other moments that the book lingers upon, this encounter is both intimate and interrogative. The narrator wonders: “Is it a ghost? The thing I have been watching all along without recognizing it is a Japanese soldier. Hiroo Onoda. […] He peels the wet leaves off his legs, then the green twigs he has carefully fastened to his body.”
By unspooling Onoda’s figure at this gravid pace, Herzog gestures adeptly toward his character’s tensely executed but excruciatingly patient maneuvers in a world dense with plants and buzzing with insect life. Drawing out the scene, the writer transforms action into an opportunity for reflection.
There are other striking observations in this book. In a later passage, one in which we seem to hover alongside Onoda, the abiding nature of his decades-long watchfulness in the jungle splits and doubles him, producing a “shapeless time of noctambulism, even though things carry on as before.” Twin to Onoda, this “dream sibling” takes in “the jungle; the swamp; the leeches; the mosquitoes; the screams of the birds; thirst; the bumpy, itching skin.”
At its best, the book moves with a dreaminess that does not sacrifice the satisfactions of concrete image. Hearing his brother’s recorded voice, Onoda understands that truth is “unpredictably enriched with reality, like the veins of ore in rock.” But there is as well the occasional mining of lead. A passage that charts Onoda and his men’s efforts to improve their arts of disguise ends with the following flat-footed sentence: “They have become one with the jungle.”
Herzog has always been more interested in the world than the people he puts in it. Time, an immensity ungraspable enough to substitute for religion in the eyes of the secular, has long been his proving ground. But place also serves him as a vehicle for exploring philosophical conundrums. Across his distinguished career, he limns consciousness alongside the desires we have to escape the bounds of our heads. The Twilight World is striking in its evocation of these constraints as well as in its turbid atmosphere and innuendo. Yet there is at times a thinness to the prose. Where the book’s language becomes abstract, its central character’s strange existence diffuses into a mist that renders him insubstantial. In Herzog’s films, this ghostly quality works in startling and memorable counterpoint to sumptuous cinematography and soundtracks that distill and clarify so skillfully that the experience of watching and listening becomes almost tactile. But however philosophical they are, novels satisfy in part by illuminating the feeling lives of their characters. In the end, it’s hard work to elucidate ideas without leaching fiction of its sustaining immediacy.
Anne Goldman is a professor of creative writing at Sonoma State University and the author of Stargazing in the Atomic Age (2021), a Kirkus Best Book of the Year.