Werner Herzog Writes His Novel

The Japanese protagonist of the director’s fiction debut refuses to give up the fight of World War II

The Twilight World, the debut novel from one of the most acclaimed living directors, Werner Herzog, serves up an urban legend with elements straight out of today’s shocking headlines.

The novel happened to appear just a few weeks before the public assassination of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe by a onetime member of Japan’s navy on July 8. In the flurry of coverage following this shocking and cowardly act, a number of articles have noted that one of Abe’s goals as head of state was to revise the country’s postwar constitution, with a view to easing its strict limits on the size and role of the Japanese military. We still have much to learn about the assassin, and anything we might say at this point is speculation, but it seems fair to ask whether he acted partly out of frustration with Abe’s failure to undo the constraints that have inhibited a once fiercely nationalistic military tradition and consigned the armed forces to a marginal role ever since 1945.

Werner Herzog
‘The Twilight World,’ by Werner Herzog.

Maybe urban legend is not the mot juste for a story with a rural setting. The Twilight World is a novel inspired by the life and times of a real person, Hiroo Onoda, who never ceased believing in the greatness of Japan’s military and the geopolitical aims it pursued during the Second World War. For Onoda, a second lieutenant in the Imperial Army, the war did not end when nearly everyone else thought it did.

Entrusted with a mission in the jungles of the Philippine island of Lubang, Onoda disbelieved reports of Allied advances and Japan’s surrender. Well into the 1960s and 1970s, he led a rag-tag band of soldiers in a campaign of harassment and sabotage against the Filipino army and local farmers whom Onoda believed to be pawns of the Western aggressors. Onoda organized attacks on farms on Lubang and got his puny force into shootouts with Filipino soldiers. A minuscule band grew even tinier as Onoda’s men succumbed to enemy fire, fierce weather, and sagging morale in a hopeless situation from which his zealotry denied any release or relief.

Herzog’s novel exerts a morbid fascination as it conveys Onoda’s incredulous reactions to newspapers serving up a version of world events incompatible with his conviction that Japan was still at war with the United States. There was no convincing Onoda. He believed such newspapers were one of the more elaborate forms of enemy propaganda designed to lure him out of hiding, and he pointed to the passage of fighters and bombers in the skies over Lubang as evidence that the war was still on. Those planes were indeed American and they were on military missions, but the theaters of war in question were Korea and, later, Vietnam. Try persuading Onoda of that. He’ll denounce you for waging psychological warfare in a dastardly effort to coax a loyal soldier of the Imperial Army into a trap.

The Twilight World is a chilling book. You could find no more perfect illustration of the psychology of someone who first chooses what to believe, and then, through a cognitive dissonance impervious to evidence and reason, proceeds to ignore, distort, deny, or mutilate all iterations of external reality that do not fit his preconceptions.

Reading this novel, I thought of Herzog’s 2005 documentary about another eccentric loner in the wilderness, Grizzly Man. The subject of that film, Timothy Treadwell, dwelled in a reality he found congenial, disregarded the warnings and concerns of others, and went back to a remote part of the Alaskan wilderness at just the time when the season was turning and grizzlies became more aggressive as their need to build up layers of fat for hibernation grew. Another parallel with Onoda is Treadwell’s arrogance in jeopardizing others for the sake of his personal obsessions. If he wanted to risk his own life, that was one thing, but Treadwell did not have to take his girlfriend to the remote spot where she too would become the victim of a ravenous grizzly.

Charles Manson. David Koresh. Jim Jones. Kim Jong-un. Lots of cult leaders and heads of rogue states come to mind here. You will no doubt that think of other troubling analogues to Hiroo Onoda, whether in your own life or on the world stage. We are at a juncture now where another individual with decided views about the continuing relevance of ancient imperial ambitions—not to mention a nuclear arsenal—holds power in Moscow, and has so far shown little openness to arguments about respecting the sovereignty of neighbors for the sake of regional and global stability.

Werner Herzog is not just one of the most original and iconoclastic directors around. The man can write, and his insights into the dangers of cognitive dissonance have virtually limitless implications.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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