With his latest work, a novel called The Twilight World, the filmmaker Werner Herzog has chosen a subject so tailor-made for him that it verges on self-parody. In a cinematic oeuvre devoted to questing megalomaniacs and half-bestial outcasts, it seems inevitable that he would eventually find his way to Hiroo Onoda, most famous of the so-called “Japanese holdouts” after the Second World War—that is, soldiers stranded on islands that were bypassed by the US military in its advance across the Pacific, who refused to surrender for years or even decades after the conflict’s end.
In Onoda’s case, fanaticism made him a celebrity. His periodic clashes with the Filipino constabulary on the small island of Lubang in Manila Bay were reported in the papers back home; over the years, as his few fellow holdouts surrendered or were killed, they fed rumors that their leader was still alive, somewhere in Lubang’s minuscule jungle hinterland. By the 1970s, he had already become a figure of kitschy legend, occupying a place in the popular imagination akin to the yeti or the rarely sighted Chinese panda.
Such, at any rate, was how he appeared to Norio Suzuki, a young dropout from law school in Tokyo who decided to forestall a life of salaried drudgery by traveling the world to encounter each of these three legendary beings, in that order. (Only his first quest was successful; Suzuki, himself a highly Herzogian figure, was killed by an avalanche in the Himalayas in 1986.) Upon his arrival on Lubang in 1974, however, he achieved a trifecta: He was found by Onoda, succeeded in not being killed by him, and, most astonishing of all, persuaded him to return to Japan. Onoda consented on one condition: that his former superior officer, the one who had originally commanded him to hold the island indefinitely against the expected arrival of the American and Filipino forces, personally order him to surrender.
Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, then in his 80s, was swiftly reactivated and brought to the island to issue this command. With solemn dignity, Onoda handed in his sword to the local authorities, a surrender subsequently reenacted as a photo op with then–President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos. The latter, in a gesture of magnanimity that might also be taken as the recognition of one right-winger for another, returned it to him and declined to bring him up on charges of robbery and murder.
Back in Japan, Onoda was feted and felt out of place. He soon decamped for South America—a refuge, evidently, not only for ex-Nazis among the Axis powers—but eventually returned to his home country. (After reading in the newspaper about a young Japanese man who had murdered his parents, he felt it his duty to counteract such anomie by founding—what else?—a youth wilderness camp.) And so, in 1997, while Herzog was living in Japan to direct the opera Chusingura, the filmmaker sought him out, apparently unaccompanied by cameras.
We can regret that Herzog has not (yet) made Onoda’s story into the feature film for which The Twilight World at times feels like a treatment—or, better, the documentary that its narrative frame suggests it could have been. Had Onoda not died in 2014, we can picture what that documentary might have looked like: probably something like 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly, about a German American Vietnam War pilot and POW, or the following year’s Wings of Hope, about Juliane Koepcke, the sole survivor of a plane crash in the Amazon jungle. Yet such films, in which the survivor revisits the scene of their ordeal, are for the most part testimonials rather than reenactments. Relying largely on images conjured by words, they are in one sense already close to written texts. It might therefore seem a short step into the wholly written medium of The Twilight World, whose opening pages read like a kind of ritual of induction, by which the narrator starts “to hear with Onoda’s ears.”
In Herzog, however, the distinctions are never so neat. Retaining the habits of the documentarian, the novel frequently adopts the perspective of a nonparticipant onlooker, essentially that of a camera operator. We view its protagonist closely from the outside: close enough that his motives can be intuited, while retaining a basic opacity.
Questions that might preoccupy another writer—above all, what disposed the thoroughly ordinary Onoda, in his prior life a minor colonial opportunist, to such extraordinary fanaticism (a question that only partly answers itself)—are dismissed as inconsequential. Explaining, for Herzog, would amount to explaining away. “What was important to the author,” he informs us, “was something other than accuracy, some essence he thought he glimpsed when he encountered the protagonist of this story.”
For Herzog, this is only to be expected; to fault The Twilight World, as some have done, for failing to provide a sociological account of Onoda’s mania is, in essence, to fault it for being a work by Herzog. Magical thinking and ritual actions are constants in his work. The repeated template of the Herzog film presents an act of faith that ends in failure, yet a failure that renders the act more grand by making it autonomous: one that doesn’t depend for its meaning on any external effect. Onoda fits the type only too perfectly. His concrete assignments—to destroy the pier at Tilik and the airstrip at Looc—both fail. But this merely sets the stage for a drama of persistence and renunciation that blends self-abasement with megalomania.
Despite occasional self-rebukes for falling short of their mandate to engage in a guerrilla war “without glory,” Onoda and his band find their task redeemed in formalism: “Again and again,” the narrator tells us, “the men come to this point in their conversations. What should War look like? How could it be simplified?” Unable to accomplish anything—a possibility ruled out by the Japanese surrender some six months after they are left behind on the island—they dream of reducing war to its stylized essence: “two men fighting with sticks.”
The men’s ignorance of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki gives their ruminations a distinct irony: As in so much else, they are simply out of date. And yet, as Herzog makes clear, this was not through a lack of opportunity for being better informed. Much like Timothy Treadwell—the protagonist of 2005’s mesmerizing found-footage documentary Grizzly Man, and the hero in the Herzog canon whom Onoda most resembles—Onoda and his men are never as far from civilization as you might think. It isn’t just that they are dependent for supplies on making raids on the local Filipino farmers. Throughout Onoda’s years on the island, there are many attempts to contact and convince him that the war is over (by dropped leaflets, by an audio recording broadcast by plane). And yet, bearing out the axiom that there is no evidence a radical skepticism cannot convert into self-justification, Onoda always finds a way to persuade himself that these are frauds or, perhaps, coded messages warning him not to surrender.
Such interpretive ingenuity can yield moments of sublime bathos. In the book’s most perfect scene, Onoda and his men encounter that quintessential found object: a piece of chewed gum. Stuck under a railing on a metal bridge deep in the jungle, it prompts anxious discussion. How long does gum last in the jungle? Is that indent the mark of a wisdom tooth? Do Americans even have those? Are they really men? In general, though, the ironies here (as so often with this artist of grand gestures) tend to be a bit on the nose. When Onoda interprets the flights of bombers and passage of naval ships he witnesses over the years not as evidence of subsequent American wars (in Korea and Vietnam) but as movements in one long, unending war, such would-be wisdom of the holy fool mixes insight with triteness. The gum, however, stubbornly is what it is.
The existential comedy of this encounter with brute, stupid reality, which the men put through the mill of the local logic and massive illogic of their futile campaign, is a reminder of everything The Twilight World shares with Herzog’s greatest films. By standing out so sharply against its background, it also measures how far this slight prose work falls short of them.
“We do not need virtuosos of syntax,” Herzog wrote to himself while filming Fitzcarraldo. The primary referent of this remark is, presumably, film grammar (though Herzog’s appreciation of syntax in the literal, textual sense is doubtless as fine as that of any filmmaker you could name). With it he declares his commitment to the reality in front of his lens—not as an end in itself, but as the embodied sign of some larger vision that defies representation. There has always been something refreshingly primitive in his film technique, with its high reliance on hand-held cameras, and his willingness to shoot on location using natural light, with a carelessness about chance conditions that welcomes them, like so much else, as found objects. (In the early masterpiece Aguirre, the Wrath of God, you never quite lose the sense of seeing what in fact you are: cheaply costumed actors hacking their way through the jungle accompanied by a documentary film crew.) It is a truism about Herzog’s films that the reality of their making erodes that of the story, that they substitute, for the suspension of disbelief, the test of faith. Reading The Twilight World, you can’t help missing the filmed works’ insistence that the symbolic act be real.
It isn’t as if writing is incapable of similar performances. Just think of the commitment to writing-as-living in Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, with its notice to the reader that “in this book, all results from the flipping of coins result from the flipping of actual coins.” The French author Emmanuel Carrère, an enthusiast of Herzog’s work on the screen and the page, has long foregrounded his own writings’ entanglement with their author’s life; his first book was a monograph on the German director’s films.
Herzog’s two previous books participate in their author’s efforts at instantiating fresh realities. Of Walking in Ice (1974) originated as a journal that Herzog kept while he walked from Munich to Paris in early winter to be by the bedside of the German film historian Lotte Eisner, believing that doing so would prevent her from dying. (He arrived; she did not die.) Conquest of the Useless (2009) reproduces a notebook he kept during the filming of Fitzcarraldo, which he claims he could not bear reading for several decades. There is something exiguous about each of these productions; each is in some sense a byproduct. This is the source of their life. At its best, Herzog’s writing in The Twilight World approaches a fable-like simplicity, with a gentleness that is almost painful. What is missing is any sense of risk. Nothing here feels wrung from him.
The book’s hints at some greater intensity mainly serve as reminders of what was more compellingly expressed elsewhere. Whatever motivated its translator, the ever-resourceful Michael Hofmann, or perhaps the English publisher, to render its title as The Twilight World, the phrase misses an important resonance of the more accurate rendering “twilight of the world,” as it appears in the text. Few artists seem less dispirited than Herzog at the prospect of the destruction of the world. Meanwhile, for this most anarchistic of filmmakers, an exit from civilization, in fantasy at least, is to be welcomed. Crucially, this does not mean an escape into a pristine nature that no longer exists, that was never hospitable to humans, and that he refuses to countenance even in imagination (early in the novel, we read of the jungle “crackling and flickering like loosely connected neon tubes”).
Instead, Herzog is drawn to something simpler: relative independence, reliance on a modest set of technical means, an escape from bureaucratic routine and predictability. (He does not omit the irony that Onoda generates his own highly organized routine in his long years on the island and is devastated when he learns that his calendar had been off by several days.) Among the indignities of the world is that it reduces grand efforts to foolishness—the usual Herzog theme. The Twilight World aspires to work in the opposite way: “After that, Onoda and Shimada [another of the holdouts, who will later be killed by a search party looking for them] are on their way, off into the decades that lie ahead of them. Often walking backward so that their traces are heading in the wrong direction.” It’s an irresistible image, wistfulness and absurdity there for the taking. An image worthy of a much better novel—or film.