In Japan, ‘Oppenheimer’ suffers the atomic fallout of Christopher Nolan’s one-sided creative vision

From Hollywood to Hiroshima, ‘Oppenheimer’ is once again the talk of the town after its premiere in Japan this weekend, eight months since it first released in the United States

Updated - March 31, 2024 03:49 pm IST

Published - March 31, 2024 02:32 pm IST

A woman looks at current movie posters including Best Picture-winner  ‘Oppenheimer’ at a movie theatre in Hiroshima

A woman looks at current movie posters including Best Picture-winner ‘Oppenheimer’ at a movie theatre in Hiroshima | Photo Credit: IRENE WANG

Nestled less than a kilometre from the epicentre of the cataclysmic first atomic bombing in Hiroshima, the halls of Hatchoza cinema relived the harrowing legacy of 1945, this weekend. The long-awaited arrival of Christopher Nolan’s Best Picture winner on Japanese soil, eight months after its American debut, has sparked a variety of reactions across the Land of the Rising Sun.

At a film festival in Hiroshima earlier this month, Kyoko Heya, the president of the fest, seemed terrified over the prospects of screening a film of the kind in the city. “Is this really a movie that people in Hiroshima can bear to watch?”, Heya told the Japan Times.

For many, the film’s nuanced portrayal of the titular “father of the atomic bomb,” was both captivating and contentious. Cillian Murphy’s Oscar-winning performance delved into the revolutionary physicist’s moral quandaries surrounding the use of nuclear weapons during World War II, and received praise for his introspective examination of a complex historical figure. Yet, it was the glaring absence of explicit depictions of the human suffering inflicted by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that drew ire from some quarters.

Cillian Murphy in a scene from ‘Oppenheimer’

Cillian Murphy in a scene from ‘Oppenheimer’ | Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

“Of course, this is an amazing film which deserves to win the Academy Awards. But the film also depicts the atomic bomb in a way that seems to praise it,” a 37-year-old Hiroshima resident told Reuters, capturing the sentiment of many.

Takashi Hiraoka, a 96-year-old former mayor of Hiroshima who bore witness to the horrors of the atomic bomb, told the Asahi Shimbun, “The film was made in a way to validate the conclusion that the atomic bomb was used to save the lives of Americans”.

The omission of visceral imagery depicting the devastation wrought upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki left a palpable void for those who had hoped for a more comprehensive portrayal of the human toll of nuclear warfare, etched into the collective memory of its citizens. Nolan had previously defended this contentious creative choice by arguing against a departure from storytelling perspective. “He (Oppenheimer) learned about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the radio — the same as the rest of the world”, Nolan told NBC earlier last year.

This perceived lack of accountability also resonated with more than a few. “Oppenheimer created the atomic bomb, which means he made this world a very scary place. Even if he did not intend to kill many people, he cannot be seen as completely unaccountable”, Yu Sato, a student at Hiroshima City University told the Japan Times.

Yet, amidst the discord, there were voices of appreciation for the film’s underlying message. Per the Guardian, Professor Masao Tomonaga, an A-bomb survivor and honorary director of the Japanese Red Cross Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Hospital, found solace in what he deemed an “anti-nuclear” narrative and highlighted the film’s emphasis on Oppenheimer’s moral awakening.

Tomonaga also underscored the generational divide that influenced the criticisms. “The hibakusha (survivors of the bombings) are all very old, so this is a film for young people … it’s now up to future generations to decide how to rid the world of nuclear weapons”, he said.

As movie-goers lined up for the subdued premiere in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district this weekend, the absence of grandiose Hollywood-style fanfare was a tacit acknowledgement of the solemnity of the film’s grim subject matter. As per reports from local media outlets, certain cinemas across Japan displayed notices at their entrances cautioning viewers about potentially triggering imagery.

The film amassed a staggering $800K on its opening day, a feat that eclipsed the earnings of recent blockbuster Dune: Part Two, with projections soaring between $2.5 million to $3.5 million for its inaugural weekend.

However, amidst Oppenheimer’s triumph, a titan of a different nature capitalised on the very same story — this time, told from the lens of Japan’s collective trauma. TOHO’s Godzilla: Minus One redefined the boundaries of success. Garnering accolades and smashing box office records, the film not only claimed the title of highest-grossing live-action Japanese film in North America but also won the franchise’s first Oscar.

Takashi Yamazaki, director of the Oscar-winning kaiju blockbuster expressed his desire to present a counter-narrative to the epochal events portrayed in Nolan’s film. “I feel there needs to [be] an answer from Japan to Oppenheimer. Someday, I would like to make that movie.”

Around 140,000 people died in Hiroshima and 74,000 in Nagasaki when the United States dropped atomic bombs on the cities, days before the end of World War II. While Japan meander’s through a flurry of emotions, leveraging the cinematic merits of the film with the sensitivities of war, still fresh, the country seems to be doing a fine job navigating the provocative return of their greatest foe on Japanese territory (since Godzilla).

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