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Oppenheimer premieres in Japan: What took so long? 

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer had its very first screenings in Japanese cinemas on the 29th of March 2024 – eight months after it was released in the rest of the world. The film, exploring the life of the eponymous father of the atomic bomb, made over $950 million at the box office. It was nominated for thirteen Oscars and succeeded in seven categories, including Best Picture, at the 2024 Academy Awards.

At the time of its initial global release, on the same day as Mattel’s blockbuster Barbie, I was battling homesickness as I reached the end of my year abroad in Japan. I found myself desperate to join in on the ‘Barbenheimer’ cultural phenomenon sweeping the West. These hopes were squashed, however, when Warner Brothers stirred anger in Japan after engaging with fan-made memes depicting Barbie posed next to mushroom clouds.Universal sub-distributor Toho-Towa then failed to announce a release date in Japan. The controversy even prompted the creation of the #NoBarbenheimer hashtag by Japanese netizens on X (Twitter).

When, upon my return to Europe, I finally got the chance to see the film, I found myself torn. As a subjective depiction of the groundbreaking scientist’s life, I thought the film brilliant. It humanises a historical figure who has so often been either discredited, villainised or even forgotten, and sheds light on an important turning point in history. On the other hand, I was disappointed. I felt that the failure to include any depiction of the Japanese people’s suffering in the film was a missed opportunity to show audiences how truly horrific the destruction wrought by atomic weapons is. In doing so, it creates the risk of younger audiences not understanding the significance of Oppenheimer’s invention and the reason for his internal turmoil. As Spike Lee put it, “[i]f it’s three hours, I would like to add some more minutes about what happened to the Japanese people. People got vaporised. Many years later, people are radioactive.”

I have had the opportunity to visit Hiroshima twice. My most recent trip there was a compulsory one, during the summer of my year abroad. Our group of Kobe University students visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum –  a harrowing experience, even upon my second visit. Galleries of photographs and personal belongings accompany detailed accounts of the experiences of victims of the city’s atomic bombing. We engaged in an open discussion between foreign exchange students and Japanese students. Nao Fukuoka, a peace activist and third generation Hiroshima A-bomb survivor whose grandfather lived through the bombing, led the discussion. She recalled how Japan’s younger generation’s lack of engagement inspired her to join a group of elderly atomic bomb victims, or hibakusha as they are known in Japanese, working with the Japan-based NGO Peace Boat. She has travelled around the world with these survivors as they shared their first-hand experiences. Hearing their passion for their mission as spokespeople for world peace and nuclear disarmament, I found myself moved and impressed by the ongoing strength of the people of Hiroshima. My opinion of the United States’ bombing of Japan is therefore a profoundly emotional one.

My path overlapped with Oppenheimer‘s once again this year as I visited my grandparents in New Mexico over the winter break. The state of New Mexico is home to the town of Los Alamos, known primarily as the Manhattan Project’s main hub for nuclear research and the birthplace of the atomic bomb. It remains one of the United States’ most important national laboratories. 

We drove up the winding road to the mesa top, where the town is perched overlooking a sprawling desert landscape. The primary attraction there is the Bradbury Science Museum, which takes visitors through the Lab’s history from its World War II beginnings to the present-day. As expected from an American federally-funded museum, it, like Nolan’s film, reflects the Western narrative that rationalises the need for the development and dropping of the atomic bombs. A sign placed beside a lifesize model of Fat Man, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days after Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima, ambiguously reads: “Many consider the Manhattan Project a brilliant achievement that ended the war and brought decades of peace. At the same time, many believe the development of the atom bomb has created profound dilemmas for humankind.” Only a few feet away, the museum shop sells Fat Man/Little Boy earrings and lapel pins. I could not help but worry that such disturbing souvenirs risked trivialising the bombs’ significance in the history of humankind.

Japanese reception of Oppenheimer has been divided. Toshiyuki Mimaki, who was three years old when the bomb destroyed his home town, was an audience member at one of the first screenings in Hiroshima. He told The Guardian, “I was waiting for the Hiroshima bombing scene to appear, but it never did.” The 82-year-old continued, “It’s important to show the full story, including the victims, if we are going to have a future without nuclear weapons.” 

Others see the showing of the film in Japan as necessary. In the About Asia podcast, Yuki Miyamoto, a nuclear ethics professor at DePaul University, said: “I think it’s great that the film is released.” In her view, the absence of hibakusha (or any victims at all) in the film shows Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s place in the American mind. 

If travelling between Hiroshima and Los Alamos and seeing the different reactions to Oppenheimer in Japan and the West have confirmed anything in my mind, it is that perspectives on the nuclear bombings remain unaligned. In Western memory, it is still the American perspective that dominates. While Oppenheimer has reopened the conversation surrounding nuclear weapons, I hope that in the near future, a response sharing the Japanese perspective will be released. The United States’ framing of the atomic bomb as the epitome of scientific achievement and a vessel for peace has too often led to the West’s neglect of its Japanese victims. Oppenheimer calls himself “Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”. The world needs to be reminded of what that meant for Japan and continues to mean for us all. 

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