‘Oppenheimer’ Opens in Japan Eight Months After Worldwide Release

The acclaimed biopic of the Manhattan Project’s leader has been met with mixed reviews by Japanese audiences

Poster for Oppenheimer
A poster for Oppenheimer in Tokyo Marcin Nowak / Anadolu via Getty Images

Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s three-hour biopic about the “father of the atomic bomb,” released to widespread acclaim last July. The film premiered in nearly 80 countries, and its worldwide box office revenue totals over $960 million.

But one country was conspicuously absent from the movie’s international rollout: Japan, the only nation in history to experience the devastation of a nuclear attack.

The film finally opened in Japan last Friday, eight months after its world premiere. It placed third at the country’s box office in its opening weekend, generating $2.5 million. The reaction to the movie has been mixed.

“I knew the horrors of atomic bombs only through pictures and numbers like how many tens of thousands died, but the film made me realize how scary it was with the power of the images and the sounds that made my body shake,” Kana Yoshigiwa, a 29-year-old viewer in Japan, told the Wall Street Journal’s Chieko Tsuneoka.

Several Tokyo movie theaters even posted warnings about the film’s intense imagery. But some Japanese viewers criticized the movie’s focus on physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, leader of the top-secret Manhattan Project, rather than the atomic bombs’ devastation in Japan.

“During the whole movie, I was waiting and waiting for the Hiroshima bombing scene to come on, but it never did,” Toshiyuki Mimaki, chairperson of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organization, tells Yuri Kageyama of the Associated Press (AP).

Mimaki was 3 years old when he survived the attack on Hiroshima. The city’s former mayor, Takashi Hiraoka, also felt uneasy about the film’s narrative focus.

“From Hiroshima’s standpoint, the horror of nuclear weapons was not sufficiently depicted,” Hiraoka, 96, said at a preview event, per the AP. “The film was made in a way to validate the conclusion that the atomic bomb was used to save the lives of Americans.”

The death toll from the bombings is staggering, though estimates vary. On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, leading to the deaths of approximately 140,000 people. Three days later, on August 9, the country dropped a more powerful bomb on Nagasaki, killing between 60,000 and 80,000 people.  

Oppenheimer follows the eponymous scientist’s life and career, which culminated in the development of the first atomic bomb. After the U.S. government used the weapons he created, he developed conflicted feelings about his role in the attacks. “According to American Prometheus, the book on which the movie was based, Oppenheimer said that he generally supported the U.S. government’s decision to use nuclear weapons. But he never understood the need to bomb Nagasaki after destroying Hiroshima,” writes NPR’s Anthony Kuhn.

Kai Bird, co-author of American Prometheus, told Smithsonian magazine’s Andy Kifer in July that the film does engage with ethical questions surrounding the bomb’s creation.

“Nolan covers in a very deft way the argument among the physicists over whether the bomb was necessary or not and has Oppenheimer after Hiroshima saying the bomb was used on a virtually already defeated enemy,” said Bird.

In the decades following World War II, Japanese filmmakers built their own body of work exploring the attacks and their aftermath. For example, the producer Tomoyuki Tanaka created Godzilla in the 1950s as a metaphor for the atomic bomb. The film was released in 1954—two years after the U.S. ended its occupation of Japan.

“When the Japanese had their independence back, and as filmmakers were thinking about giant monsters, people began to think about that connection between monstrosity and the atomic bombing,” William Tsutsui, author of Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters, tells NBC News’ Kimmy Yam.

In March, another film about the monster—Godzilla Minus One—won Best Visual Effects at the Academy Awards. At the same ceremony, Oppenheimer took home seven awards, including Best Picture.

Takashi Yamazaki, director of Godzilla Minus One, shared his thoughts on Oppenheimer in an online discussion with Nolan, per the AP.

“I feel there needs to be an answer from Japan to Oppenheimer,” he said. “Someday, I would like to make that movie.”

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