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A Japanese perspective on Oppenheimer

A Japanese filmmaker describes the experience of watching Christopher Nolan's latest film about the atomic bomb.
Last Updated : 19 April 2024, 19:38 IST
Last Updated : 19 April 2024, 19:38 IST

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I am a film director from Tokyo, the capital city of Japan. My first feature film was ‘The Albino’s Trees’ (2016). It’s about a white deer which is regarded as vermin by urban dwellers but as god by mountain folks – people who value nature and tradition. ‘Ring Wandering’ (2021) was my second feature, a magic realism film. It brings together memories of the Japanese wolf, now extinct, with the Tokyo Air Raids of 1945. Towards the end of World War 2, the United States firebombed central Tokyo, killing over a lakh people and rendering 10 lakh homeless in one night. This film won the coveted Golden Peacock Award for the Best Feature Film at the 52nd International Film Festival of India.

Since I have been making films about what humans are losing in the name of progress, I could not skip Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-winning 2023 film ‘Oppenheimer’.

This film on American physicist J Robert Oppenheimer was released worldwide in the summer of 2023 and became a massive hit. However, it reached Japanese theatres only this March, eight months later. Given it is a biopic on ‘the father of the atomic bomb’, many Japanese people were concerned about its content. Although Hollywood films have not been big hits in Japan of late, ‘Oppenheimer’ received positive response from many. The film distribution company in Japan took an extremely cautious approach. It conducted an advance screening in Hiroshima. It was the first of the two cities where the atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945. Nagasaki, five hours away from Hiroshima, was bombed three days later. The distribution company shared the audience’s reactions to highlight that ‘Oppenheimer’ is by no means a film that glorifies the atomic bomb.

This, and the fact that not much was known about the life of Oppenheimer, triggered a lot of interest among audiences here. Not to mention, Nolan is highly acclaimed in Japan.

Masakazu Kaneko

Masakazu Kaneko

Reconnecting with past

I watched the film on an IMAX screen in Tokyo on the third day of its release in Japan. Sure, humanity has benefited greatly from science but it has also created powerful tools of destruction. Thus, I have mixed feelings about the film.

However, rather than lamenting it or feeling angry, I was intrigued to see many young Japanese turn up for the film. Young audiences are known to prefer anime or manga films. But I overheard these young viewers keenly discussing the biopic on their way out after the show had ended.

I found this significant. Even for those living in Japan, the only country to have experienced atomic bombings on civilians, the memories of World War 2 are beginning to fade. The bombs (called Little Boy and Fat Man) were detonated 79 years ago. For people in their teens and 20s, these bombings are either history lessons taught briefly in schools or an episode so distant from the present that they don’t feel particularly inclined to talk about it. I am sure many learnt of Oppenheimer, the scientist, only through the film.

Nolan, thus, deserves kudos for giving younger audiences a chance to engage with a tragedy that shaped history.

I was born in 1978. This was 33 years after the bombings. At the time of the bombings, my father was one year old, and my mother, not even born. Our family has always lived in Tokyo, which is about 900 km from Hiroshima and 1,200 km from Nagasaki. None of my ancestors suffered from the atomic bombings or radiation exposure. I learnt about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks from textbooks, movies, novels and comic books. 

Hiroshima in ruins after an atomic bomb codenamed ‘Little Boy’ was dropped on it in the early hours of August 6, 1945. A photo clicked by the US army.

Hiroshima in ruins after an atomic bomb codenamed ‘Little Boy’ was dropped on it in the early hours of August 6, 1945. A photo clicked by the US army.

Photo Credit: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

For me, the Tokyo Air Raids is a more personal story because my grandparents survived it. American B-29 bomber planes raced low, dropping over 1,500 tons of firebombs on the city of Tokyo below. It started just after midnight on March 10, 1945. It is described as the single worst firestorm in recorded history yet it isn’t discussed as seriously.

 The Museum houses clothes and other belongings of the victims.

The Museum houses clothes and other belongings of the victims.

Photo Credit:  Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

My family’s experiences have shaped my worldview that war must not be repeated. It inspired me to make ‘Ring Wandering’. The idea was to remind people that we should not forget those who died in the Tokyo Air Raids. 

Inside and outside world

Returning to ‘Oppenheimer’. Let me share the positive aspects first. I was impressed with Nolan’s skilful use of complex editing in portraying Oppenheimer’s character. It reminded me of Cubist paintings. He intertwined humanity’s ongoing struggle with the guilt of wars and the emotional struggles of an individual. This approach avoids sending a singular message and triggers viewers to think independently.

In the second half, Oppenheimer was afraid of the power of the nuclear weapon and opposed the development of a stronger weapon of mass destruction, the hydrogen bomb. This reflects Nolan’s intention to warn humanity about the political state of affairs. Due to Oppenheimer’s stance on the hydrogen bomb and his past connections with Communists, he was suspected of being a Soviet spy. He lost opportunities as a scientist.

Silence on radiation 

As a Japanese person, I found the lead up to the creation of the atomic bomb suffocating to watch. Some viewers feel the film doesn’t depict the aftermath of the atomic bombings explicitly. I have a different opinion on this. I feel such images are not necessary. If such images had been shown, it might have given an impression that Oppenheimer struggled with inner conflict and harboured strong feelings of sympathy, and remorse towards the suffering of Japanese people, who were considered enemies by his country. Instead, the repercussions are conveyed through numbers. This shows the limits of how much one can empathise with others amid racial and national conflicts.

My biggest discomfort arose from the complete absence of perspective on the effects of radiation. While the bombings had killed over 2,10,000 people immediately, it is estimated over 5,00,000 people have since died from radiation-related illnesses (like leukemia). The fallout from atomic bombs lies not only in the immediate casualties or injuries but also in the powerful radiation, which affect survivors and the land they inhabit for a long, long time.

In fact, it’s widely reported that the first victims of nuclear radiation were in New Mexico in the US. The atomic bomb, nicknamed Gadget, was tested secretly in the supposedly isolated Jornada del Muerto desert of New Mexico, a month before it was used to blow up Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Families living downwind of the Trinity Test site started reporting infant deaths and unusually high occurrences of cancer – running for four generations even. The radiation victims have been demanding compensation since.

When watching the movie, it was distressing to think how the test contaminated the land once inhabited by Native Americans. The radiation fallout can turn a land inhabitable, and make it impossible to return to its original state for hundreds of years, as we well know from the case of Chernobyl. I wish the movie had depicted this vividly.

As a native of Japan, I find myself constantly questioning Hollywood’s depiction of nuclear weapons - it obscures the horror of radiation. Take the case of Nolan’s 2012 superhero film ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. Batman saves Gotham City from being nuked. He heroically moves the nuclear weapon to a remote location outside the city and then detonates it. The film turns a blind eye to the radiation effect. Even in ‘Dune: Part Two’ (directed by Denis Villeneuve, 2024), nuclear weapons are portrayed as ‘incredibly powerful bombs’. But it remains silent on the trail of destruction they can leave behind.

Non-aggressive stance

I learnt about the dangers of nuclear radiation early on, from a manga (comic) called ‘Barefoot Gen’ (written by Keiji Nakazawa). It illustrated the effects of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. It used to be available in the libraries of elementary schools across Japan. In my high school years, I had the opportunity to listen to the stories of survivors (called Hibakusha) during a trip to Nagasaki. As an adult, a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum left me shocked. It has on display clothes, wristwatches and tricycles of the victims, roof tiles melted by the heat and rice bowls and coins that were reduced to lumps. A number of photographs record the burnt skin of atomic bomb victims. Learning about the tragedy and futility of wars has influenced the films I create.

Peace is our way of life now. Due to the overwhelming defeat (or destruction?) caused by the atomic bombings, Japan established Article 9 of our Constitution in 1947. It states that we must never fight a war again. This law has greatly influenced our politics, culture and religious views. However, lately the Japanese government has been trying to amend Article 9 and move away from its pacifist stance for self-defense reasons. I am against it. 

Engage with empathy

Japanese films on the subject have been more nuanced. The 1989 ‘Black Rain’, directed by Shohei Imamura, comes to my mind. It is about a young woman, Yasuko. She survives the bombing in Hiroshima and suffers no signs of radiation sickness. Still, nobody wants to marry her. It is a critique on how the Japanese society saw survivors as flawed. Imamura skilfully portrays the bombing on Hiroshima through monochrome footage and shows how it mercilessly stripped away the joys of everyday life, sometimes with a touch of humour.

The 2016 anime ‘In This Corner of the World’ also offers a contrast of pre-war and post-war Hiroshima. Directed by Sunao Katabuchi, the film isn’t rabble-rousing yet it stirs the audience’s heart with its anti-war message. Resilience is second nature for us. Our country is often hit by typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis and we are accustomed to recovering from sudden and severe damage. The film is an ode to the fortitude shown by civilians. Here, a young woman named Suzu moves to Kure, a small town outside Hiroshima, after marriage. She loves to draw, but as the war rages, she loses what is most important to her. Her desperate attempts to search for happiness tugs at the viewer’s heart.

I find greater value in art that allows for engagement with the subject and that nurtures imagination. This is contrary to the current trend of movies that stimulate viewers with intense and vivid visuals and sounds, and fast-paced narration. The film industry caters to humanity’s desire to visualise the unseen and advancements in CGI are gradually eroding human imagination. Like Prometheus, who paid a heavy price for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humanity, are we paying for technological progress with loss of our imagination? Gladly, ‘Oppenheimer’ questions whether such progress and power are truly necessary.

I believe it is imperative to make films that nurture empathy towards each other. This is needed now more than before. We have entered another dangerous era – the age of the Internet where hatred and misinformation is spreading fast and endangering our lives.

(Translated by Fumiko Matsuo)

How the bomb changed Japan

N Manoharan, director, Centre for East Asian Studies, Christ University, Bengaluru

The 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought a military-confident Japan to its knees. Up until then, Japan had been unstoppable — it had decimated the US Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, occupied China and parts of Southeast Asia, and landed at the gates of India (Nagaland, Manipur and the Andaman Islands) and Sri Lanka.

Surrendering is not part of the Japanese spirit but the bombings humbled them
psychologically. They went from militarism to pacifism. Under Article 9 of the post-war ‘Peace Constitution’, they renounced war as a sovereign right of the nation and vowed not to use force to settle international disputes. It forbids them from keeping armed forces with war potential.

Japan became the leading voice championing international disarmament. It became a vocal member of Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and readily joined the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (that aimed at banning nuclear test
explosions). 

After the bombing, the Japanese turned to their culture for solace as reflected in their movies and literature. The country became inward-looking, and returned to its Buddhist moorings. Japan retreated from its ambition of dominating the world. From being a conservative and isolated society, it rapidly turned into an economic power and
a centre for education and technology.

Lately, Japan wants to amend Article 9 and remilitarise to prepare against perceived threat from China and North Korea. 

(As told to Barkha Kumari)

Like the story? Email: dhonsat@deccanherald.co.in

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Published 19 April 2024, 19:38 IST

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