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The Twilight World by Werner Herzog: Hiroo Onoda’s war without end

The curious case of a Japanese soldier who fought on in the Philippines after the second World War was over

The Twilight World
Author: Werner Herzog, translated by Michael Hofman
ISBN-13: 978-1847927231
Publisher: Bodley Head
Guideline Price: £14.99

For his fiction debut, the singular, brilliant film-maker Werner Herzog draws on the real story of a Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda — who fought on after the second World War was over.

Onoda was stationed on the island of Lubang in the Philippines and ordered to defend it until the Imperial Army returned. Isolated and cut off from communications, Onoda never wavered — for 29 years, fighting a war that had long since passed.

“Most details are factually correct; some are not,” Herzog writes, coaxing us to an ambiguous space, where the essence of Onoda is pored over. Using a framing device, Herzog places himself in Tokyo in 1997, where he had first met the soldier. He was directing the opera Chushingura, and had been invited to a private audience with the emperor, which he turned down in order to meet Onoda and discuss his time in the jungle — an evocative terrain that has featured in many of Herzog’s own films.

Herzog’s background in film-making sets this novel apart, because he has such an ability to conjure up vivid and powerful images, it is emblematic of what makes him so special — his masterful storytelling. It often feels as if he is keenly observing Onoda through a lens — through his relationship with the character of the jungle. That jungle is a haunted place, but is Onoda haunting the jungle, or is the jungle haunting him? The novel is deeply immersive, situating us in the “fever dreams” of jungle life; it is richly impressionistic.


Onoda is a perfect subject for Herzog to turn his attention to, intrigued by his stoicism and commitment to a cause. He is a true outlier — a recurrent theme for Herzog. The novel is brilliantly translated by Michael Hofman, who in turn harnesses Herzog’s own singularity. Time here takes on a dream-like quality “A night bird shrieks and a year passes. A fat drop of water on the waxy leaf of a banana plant glistens briefly in the sun and another year is gone.” Onoda is sometimes unsure as to what is real and what is not. “Is the jungle, the rain — everything here — a dream?” It is a question that yields some beautiful writing, this twilight world.