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‘Oppenheimer’ finally opens in Japan, the only nation to experience horror of nuclear war

Japanese moviegoers finally got the chance to see “Oppenheimer” this weekend, eight months after the biopic’s worldwide release, following concerns over how it might be received in the only country to directly experience the horror of nuclear weapons.

The Oscar-winning blockbuster by British-American director Christopher Nolan was one of 2023’s most successful films and its joint release on the same weekend as “Barbie” created a global movie spectacle dubbed “Barbenheimer.”

But that framing left many Japanese people feeling uncomfortable — as did the painful content of a movie that centers on the devastating technology unleashed by J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team of scientists.

Some in Japan felt that the unofficial “Barbenheimer” marketing campaign trivialized the 1945 nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and studio Universal Pictures opted not to include the country in its global release rollout last July.

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The three-hour biopic has broken several records since its release last year, becoming the highest-grossing movie set during World War II, according to Universal.

In Japan, it ranked fourth at the box office following its release Friday, according to industry tracker Kogyo Tsushinsha, raking in 379 million yen ($2.5 million) in its first three days.

As part of its promotional campaign, Universal sought the views of atomic bomb survivor Tomonaga Masao, who is the president of a Nagasaki-based “hibakusha” group — the name survivors call themselves. In quotes published on the movie’s official Japanese website, Masao said could feel the titular character’s struggle in the latter part of the film, when Oppenheimer begins to push back against the nuclear arms race that emerges after the war.

“This is… connected to the fundamental problem of the world today, where a nuclear-free world is becoming more and more distant,” he is quoted as saying

“Here we sense Nolan’s hidden message of pursuing the responsibility of politicians,” he added.

Former Hiroshima Mayor Hiraoka Takashi is meanwhile quoted saying that he saw “a man full of contradictions,” whose scientific work was weaponized by the state and whose warning against downplaying the threat of nuclear war was later ignored by those same authorities.

“The atmosphere of those days still fills our world today,” he said, adding: “I would like to watch it again and think about what a nation that believes in nuclear deterrence is.”

Cillian Murphy plays J. Robert Oppenheimer in 'Oppenheimer.' - Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures
Cillian Murphy plays J. Robert Oppenheimer in 'Oppenheimer.' - Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

The biopic, which swept the Academy Awards last month, follows Oppenheimer, the physicist and son of a German textile importer who worked with the US government to devise a bomb to quell the threat of Nazi Germany and its allies.

Oppenheimer’s invention was first used with devastating effect on August 6, 1945, when a US B-29 bomber named Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Three days later, another B-29, named Bockscar, dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. At least 110,000 people were killed instantly in the twin bombings. Hundreds of thousands more were believed to have died from further side effects, such as cancer, within the following five years, according to the US Department of Energy’s history of the Manhattan Project.

The bombings finally prompted Japan to surrender, bringing an end to World War II. But it remains an intensely painful moment for Japan and a source of huge ethical debate to this day — which partly explains why last year’s “Barbenheimer” memes were received so differently in Japan.

Social media was awash with unofficial fan-made “Barbenheimer” memes last July, since the two blockbuster movies were released on the same day. Warner Bros. Film Group sparked backlash in Japan for embracing the memes for its “Barbie” film on its X account and later apologized. Warner Bros., like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.

A rival hashtag, #NoBarbenheimer, emerged on social media in Japan at the time. Images shared online showed signs posted at the entrances to several Tokyo theaters warning that the movie featured images of nuclear tests that could evoke the damage caused by the bombs.

After watching the film, eight months on from its initial release, viewers in Japan took to social media to express mixed feelings.

“When the names of Japan, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were mentioned, I had mixed emotions,” one X user wrote. “But I was fascinated by the beautifully described scenes of the atomic bomb tests.”

Another user described it as “heavy, painful heart wrenching, sad and fragile… yet beautiful.”

Rishu Kanemoto, a 19-year-old student, saw the film on Friday.

“Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the atomic bombs were dropped, are certainly the victims,” he told Reuters.

But he also expressed sympathy for Oppenheimer.

“I think even though the inventor is one of the perpetrators, he’s also the victim caught up in the war,” he added.

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