Will ‘Oppenheimer’ bomb in Japan?

MIXED REACTIONS — People walk by a poster to promote “Oppenheimer” March 29 in Tokyo. It finally premiered in the nation where two cities were obliterated 79 years ago. Japanese filmgoers’ reactions understandably were mixed and highly emotional. AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko

Hollywood movies often get later openings in Japan than in the U.S. or the rest of the world. But the delay is usually about a month. “Oppenheimer,” the blockbuster biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who headed the U.S. effort to build the first atomic bomb during World War II, opened in Japan on March 29 — eight months after the film became a huge hit in the U.S., and a month after it swept the top Academy Award trophies.

Because of the film’s subject, no one was surprised to see that Japan was cautious — more than usual — about letting the feature open. After all, Japan is the only country in the world that has suffered the effects of the atomic bomb created by Oppenheimer, on two cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The raw emotions from history are still a sensitive topic for many Japanese, especially older citizens who lived through the war, including the hibakusha, survivors of the atomic blasts, or their descendants. John Daub, an ex-pat YouTuber who streams on the “Only in Japan” channel and “Only in Japan GO!” with livestream reports, says he understands why there has been resistance to “Oppenheimer.”

“When it was first announced, I really wanted to see it,” he says on a Zoom interview from Tokyo. “They built it up as a historical feature, based just on this one man’s life.”

Daub adds that at first, he was disappointed when the film wasn’t released last year. “I didn’t quite understand why. And that’s when I started to talk with people, in particular friends down in Hiroshima. And I started to think more deeply about it,” he says. That’s when he noticed a level of dread that Japan seems to feel about the movie.

“Right now, we’re days away from the release of this movie here. And it’s a Best Picture winner. So you would think it would be something that would be highly publicized. But there’s not one advertisement in the entire city of Tokyo. Usually I will see posters in the subway stations. I haven’t seen anything for ‘Oppenheimer,’ which is curious, especially for an Academy Award winner. No posters, no billboards. Nothing. It’s just a really sensitive thing.”

The Japanese are cautious about how the film will treat the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and whether Hollywood will tell the tale from an American perspective.

(Spoiler alert: Although critics loved the film, it does focus on the Oppenheimer character; director Christopher Nolan has said in interviews that he chose not to focus on the actual bombing, and had the team at Los Alamos where the bomb was developed learn about the Hiroshima bombing via President Harry S. Truman’s speech on the radio. In a later scene, Oppenheimer has a couple of quick jarring flashes of victims suffering from the bombing, and stepping on a charred corpse.

“But what put it over the edge last year was that Barbenheimer scandal,” Daub continues. Because both “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” were released in the U.S. on the same day last summer, the social media omniverse invented some very unfortunate visual memes that went viral, and using the hashtag “Barbenheimer.” It was one thing for people to create such memes with Photoshop or AI, but Warner Brothers’ Barbie social media team decided to share one that had a scowling Oppenheimer carrying a laughing Barbie on his shoulder while a fiery mushroom cloud roiled in the background, and added the caption, “It’s going to be a summer to remember.”

Considering the still lingering sensitivity and the fact that Japan every year commemorates the Aug. 6 and Aug. 9 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with somber ceremonies to promote peace for the future, the Japan office of Warner Brothers immediately released a statement of apology for the post, and a few days later, the parent company in the U.S. offered its own apology and deleted the post. Despite the apology, the “#NoBarbenheimer” hashtag went viral in Japan. The box office for Barbie even fell flat, although that could be partly because Barbie isn’t as iconic a doll there as it is in the U.S.

Daub says Japanese were offended by the dumb marketing faux pas, but not surprised. They’re more nervous now that Japan is presented in some negative way by the film. (Spoiler alert: It’s not, though Japan is almost mentioned as a footnote in the biography.)

“We here in Japan, we see a lot of Hollywood pictures portray Japan in a way that the West sees Japan and not in an accurate way. And I guess that is one of the issues with Hollywood pictures in general.”

Daub has worked over his three decades in Japan to show the country’s real people and culture, and has even filmed several episodes for his channel that address the bombing of Hiroshima with emotional sensitivity. In one, he filmed the son of a Hiroshima survivor who as a student close to the epicenter went to help victims. The son now is a tour guide at the city’s Peace Memorial Park, who’s teaching his own young son to carry on that educational legacy. In a deeply-researched episode last year, Daub interviewed an elderly woman who was 14 when Hiroshima was destroyed, who became a conductor just three days after the bombing. Daub even rode one of the trams that had been repaired and ran back then, and is still in service.

Maybe Hollywood will eventually seek out these lesser-known people and focus on their tragedies, heroism and remarkable stories, now that the tale of J. Robert Oppenheimer has taken home its stack of awards.

For now, though, Daub says his Japanese wife and her family aren’t interested in seeing “Oppenheimer.”

“I’m talking as someone who lives here in Japan. People don’t express their feelings here publicly. They’ll express by not going to see the movie, I think. I don’t know how it’s going to do. I expect it maybe might not play for very long.”

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