Hiroo Onoda is barely twenty years old when his special talent is discovered. It is rare and precious, especially in times of war: He can survive. In Japan in 1944, however, this advantage can also be used negatively, as Hiroo’s disappointed father does: the gift disqualifies him from the honorable task of piloting a kamikaze.

For a career as an intelligence officer, on the other hand, it is a recommendation. Onoda’s supervisor and mentor, Taniguchi, immediately recognizes the recruit’s potential. He initiates him into deception maneuvers, trains him in guerrilla tactics and prepares him for a war of attrition that promises no glory.

On the Philippine island of Lubang, 3,000 kilometers from Tokyo, he is supposed to hold out and resist the advancing Americans. Before leaving, he inculcates one thing in his protégé: his body belongs to the nation, he is denied the right to die.

Onoda will follow the rules of secret warfare more thoroughly than his teacher ever imagined. He is the most famous of the so-called “Perseverants,” those stragglers who ignored surrender and the end of the war and held out at their posts in the jungle until the 1970s.

Arthur Harari’s film, like Werner Herzog’s Onoda novel The Dawning of the World, which was published almost at the same time, begins with its discovery by a Japanese tourist. The camera approaches the legendary island with the young traveler full of impatience and respect. However, the goal is clear, but the time plane is not. Harari leaves us in the dark as to whether we aren’t already following his title hero on his way to his destiny at the start.

From now on, the dividing line between present and past will dissolve again and again. The most reliable agent of this time travel is the old, wistful barracks song “Sado Okesa”, which accompanied Onoda during his war and lures him in 1974 to the tent of the young student Suzuki, who has set himself the ultimate goal of finding the famous missing man. Onoda’s return to civilization is by no means sealed with their encounter. He only wants to surrender when his superior Taniguchi orders it.

Arthur Harari, who is known to local audiences at best as an actor and screenwriter of films by his partner Justine Triet, is fascinated by the motif of infatuation. His characters have to realize late that their actions and their existence were based on a mistake. This already applies to his masterful directorial debut “Diamant Noir” from 2016, which deals with inheritance and revenge in the diamond dealer milieu in Antwerp. This is already a film that confidently leaves behind the traditional responsibilities of French auteur cinema, a neo-noir in the spirit of De Palma and James Gray.

With his second directorial work, he finally goes beyond the framework of domestic production conditions. Since he could not find sufficient funding and sponsors for a Japanese-language film in France, his producer looked for partners in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Cambodia and Japan. After ten years of planning, three years of tense production preparations and 13 weeks of shooting in the Cambodian jungle, Harari has made a film that is second to none in every respect.

At the same time, he reinforces his authorial style by taking up the theme of the search for a father, which already characterizes “Diamant Noir”. Onoda (embodied by Yûya Endô and Kanji Tsuda at different ages and with equal intensity) goes to war as a good son. For 30 years it will be the centrifugal force to which it subjects its existence. Needless to say, Harari cannot avoid answering the urgent questions that this peculiar life story poses: how did this happen? And why did it take so incredibly long?

Harari’s screenplay does this with wondrous ease, thickening the flow of time on the one hand and setting inconspicuous ellipses on the other. Onoda’s fanatical patriotism (at the press conference after his return home he simply declared that he had carried out his orders) is a sufficient but not exhaustive explanation. An obvious lead would be the madness that Onoda might have succumbed to. But this soldier does not go into a frenzy, and his director refuses any kind of metaphysics.

Rather, he shot an unashamed adventure film. “Onoda” proudly follows in the tradition of Defoe, Stevenson and Conrad. Harari tells a drama of sturdy bodies and everyday, cunning chores. The fear of having to get involved with a cinematic single-handed sailor is unfounded. Hiroo is not alone, he has three resourceful companions, a solid male economy, the number of which has dwindled over the decades.

As early as autumn 1945 they heard that the war was supposed to be over. They think that’s American propaganda. Search parties from home scare them away. Even when Japanese newspapers are leaked to them years later and a transistor radio falls into their hands, they refuse to be taken in by a “deception”. They consistently decipher the real-world news as a continuation of the world war.

They speculate about new Asian alliances, which they meticulously mark on a world map. They take the rumor of a war in Indochina as confirmation. It’s no accident that Harari’s screenplay was awarded a César: it grants interior views of a bizarre yet compelling logic.

The director doesn’t want to leave it at that on paper, his production bursts with exuberant confidence in the possibilities of cinema. His jungle chamber play is told as dryly, pragmatically and adventurously as a genre piece by Raoul Walsh. But his curiosity has a feverish verve of its own. She rubs against the concrete.

Harari’s protagonists adapt to nature with immense ingenuity. The jungle, always a place of destiny in the cinema, where one does not come innocently and is confronted with oneself, is not a green hell for her, but an everyday living space that can be mapped and controlled. In it, they move like ghosts, of the past and of themselves. Harari films them as something only cinema can show: invisible people.

Onoda hated peace. When he finally finds out about him, he accepts that his life was a fiction. Perhaps, his director harbors this hope, if he understands that this war, like all wars, is going on too long.