6 Apr 2024

'Tepid response' to Oppenheimer in Japan

From Saturday Morning, 9:45 am on 6 April 2024
de Christopher Nolan
Cillian Murphy.
COLLECTION CHRISTOPHEL © Universal Pictures - Atlas Entertainment - Syncopy
historique; history; biopic; biographie; biography; J. Robert Oppenheimer (Photo by Universal Pictures - Atlas Enter / Collection ChristopheL via AFP)


Oppenheimer has finally opened in Japan, eight months after it was released in the United States. 

The seven-time Oscar winner, which tells of the race to develop the atomic bomb, grossed US$2.5 million in its first weekend in Japanese cinemas. 

Matt Alt, the Tokyo-based author of Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World, told Saturday Morning it was a "tepid response".

"Oppenheimer's release in Japan was extremely low key. I don't recall seeing any billboards or any kind of major advertising for it.

"In fact, I was only reminded it was coming out when a preview for it played before another movie in the theatre."

Japanese distributors delayed the release of the film, following criticism it minimised the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Alt said there had not been any open protest about Oppenheimer opening in cinemas but there were a range of responses from the Japanese public.

"There are people who are of course, dramatically opposed to it in any way shape or form. There are those who may not like the film but understand what it is they are trying to do; they understand the artist's - Christopher Nolan's - intent and then there are those who actually like it.

"So, it is a quite wide variety of responses."

There had been some comment about how the film did not visually show the effects of the bomb dropped on Japan, but Alt said the film verbally described the effects in detail.

It also described the effect of the air raids in Tokyo, which were less discussed in the Western world, but killed even more people than the nuclear bombings did, he said.

"To the film's credit, it does deliver a nuanced portrait of Oppenheimer who had very complicated feelings about the actual use of the weapons.

"This is not a film that is blind to the effects of what happened with the Manhattan project and the creation of the atomic weapons and the start of the arms race. 

"But it is still, no matter how you look at it, a story told by the victors."

Anger over 'Barbenheimer'

Another contributing factor for the delay of Oppenheimer was the controversial 'Barbenheimer' memes.

"The fact that the memes came into existence didn't surprise or really offend many people here in Japan because Japan is a heavily connected net-using country and people here understand that memes - even edgy ones - will be generated around nearly anything," Alt said.

"The anger in Japan was focused almost exclusively on Warner Brothers who actually amplified that meme, they retweeted it and so it was seen as a very crass move by a lot of people here in Japan.

"You know, this meme exists ... [but] when a company ... uses it to promote their own content, that is seen as something quite vulgar."

While an apology was issued by the official Warner Bros account, the promotion of the meme had a big impact on how the Barbie movie was viewed in Japan, Alt said.

"[Barbie] wasn't a big hit and I have heard, even from people in my own circle, especially among younger citizens, people in their 20s, that they will never go see Barbie because they feel it has been tainted by this controversy."

Alt said Oppenheimer was currently number four on the box office charts in Japan behind a children's anime about an atomic-powered robot cat.

"So, it's an interesting and ironic turn of affairs that this movie about nuclear war is being outperformed by a cartoon here in Japan, but there you have it."