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'Oppenheimer' memes stir debate in Japan, where 'Barbenheimer' jokes aren't welcome

Warner Bros. apologized for "insensitive" tweets after facing criticism from its Japanese branch.
/ Source: TODAY

With Christopher Nolan's film "Oppenheimer" raking in over 400 million dollars at the global box office since its release on July 21, there's no doubt the biopic about physicist Robert J. Oppenheimer, the so-called "father of the atomic bomb," has been a cinematic success.

But amid the hype over Nolan's portrayal of Oppenheimer's journey in building the bomb and facing political forces intent on his downfall, the film has also drawn unease from viewers about its portrayal of the actual atomic bombs' devastating impact in Japan. Over 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were killed or wounded, by conservative estimates.

Does “Oppenheimer” “stay in its lane“ by sticking to a narrow U.S. perspective, or is it “missing” an essential piece? Read on for an overview of the Japanese and Japanese-American reception of the historical film.

How does the film depict the atomic bomb's impact in Japan?

The film most directly alludes to the destruction caused by the bomb through a scene where Oppenheimer gives a victory speech to the team of scientists at the Los Alamos Laboratory after the successful bombings.

As Oppenheimer makes strong statements about wishing they could have used the bomb on the Germans and is greeted with thunderous cheers, visions flash before his eyes: a woman with her skin peeling off of her and a blackened body that crumbles like porcelain when he steps on it.

"I bet Japan didn't like it," he says, looking queasy as the crowd becomes more excited.

Nolan also includes a scene between the military officials deciding which cities to drop the bomb on, where U.S. secretary of war Henry Stimson crosses Kyoto off the list of options because of its "cultural importance to the Japanese people," a true story.

"Also, my wife and I spent our honeymoon there," Stimson says, not seeing the irony in his words. "It’s a wonderful city."

The film does not include any direct depictions of the Japanese people or the destruction caused by the bomb.

What has the response from Japanese and Japanese-American audiences been?

In the wake of "Oppenheimer's" first few weeks in theaters, some people of Japanese descent have raised qualms about Oppenheimer specifically in regard to what they call its lack of engagement with or visibility for Japanese victims of the atomic bombings.

Olivia Cruz Mayeda, a Japanese and Filipina American journalist, wrote in a commentary for KQED that she and her partner "sobbed quietly" in the theater as they watched Robert J. Oppenheimer and his colleagues celebrate the success of their invention on-screen.

She also said Oppenheimer's sense of guilt, especially his remarks in the ending, and the film's general anti-bomb stance did little to ease her bitterness.

"I was left thinking of the quote by Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle: 'Not only will America go to your country and kill all your people … they’ll come back 20 years later and make a movie about how killing your people made their soldiers feel sad,'" Cruz Mayeda wrote.

The Barbie Japan Twitter account denounced the linkage of "Barbie" movie with "Oppenheimer" via "Barbenheimer," saying the double feature craze trivialized the bomb. Some of the Barbenheimer memes and fan art depict the atomic bomb mushroom cloud rendered in hot pink.

"There is currently a movement by overseas fans (#Barbenheimer) recommending that people watch the two movies 'Barbie' (distributed by Warner Bros.) and 'Oppenheimer' (distributed by Universal Pictures), together which were both released in the United States on July 21, 2011," the statement, translated to English by NBC News, read. "Neither this movement nor these activities are officially sanctioned."

Warner Bros. then issued a response, saying, “Warner Brothers regrets its recent insensitive social media engagement. The studio offers a sincere apology," per Variety.

Some people on Japanese Twitter also posted memes referencing 9/11 in the context of Barbenheimer, replacing the mushroom cloud with the World Trade Center, emphasizing the national tragedy and lives lost in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"It is very, very rude, sad and angry to make jokes about the heartbreak for Japan. STOP IT NOW!!!!" one Japanese Twitter user wrote, saying there are "forbidden areas" that "should not be treated as black jokes" like the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and 9/11.

May Niiya, 25, is a fifth-generation Japanese American whose family members directly suffered both in Japan and the U.S. as a result of hostile Japanese-American relations during World War II.

She tells that the victory speech scene didn't go far enough in depicting the horrors of the reality of the bomb's impact, especially when compared to Japanese-created works she'd seen and read (Hayao Miyazaki's "Grave of the Fireflies," "Barefoot Gen" a graphic novel).

"What I drew from the stories that I grew up hearing and the media that I grew up reading about was people's skin and muscles literally melt off their faces so you can see their skeleton," Niiya says.

Niiya also says that although she understands Nolan’s goal in making the film “stay faithful to Oppenheimer’s perspective” and only include images and scenes the scientist could have actually witnessed, she still felt that the film "was really disappointing in terms of ethics and justice."

“My feeling is that art always has politics behind it,” Niiya says. “And there’s always messages behind films that we watch. If Christopher Nolan is just trying to create a piece of art that is apolitical, I don’t think that exists.”

Is 'Oppenheimer' banned in Japan?

Oppenheimer is not currently banned in Japan, contrary to what rumors may suggest. However, Toho-Towa, the biggest distributor of Hollywood films in the country, has yet to set a release date for the film.

In contrast, Barbie will premiere in Japan on Aug. 11 of this year.

Regarding Oppenheimer's release in Japan, a spokesperson for Universal Studios told Variety in June that "plans have not been finalized in all markets." Oppenheimer was released in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world on July 21, there have been no updates since June about a Japanese debut.