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'Oppenheimer' finally premieres in Japan to mixed reactions and high emotions

People walk by a poster to promote the movie "Oppenheimer" on Friday in Tokyo.
Eugene Hoshiko
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AP
People walk by a poster to promote the movie "Oppenheimer" on Friday in Tokyo.

Updated March 29, 2024 at 1:00 PM ET

NAGASAKI, Japan — Eight months after premiering in the United States, the Academy Award-winning movie Oppenheimer opened Friday in Japan.

The film's Japanese distributors never explained why they decided to wait to release the film in Japan. It appears to be due to the sensitive nature of the film's topic in the country where the atomic bombs J. Robert Oppenheimer helped build killed some 200,000 people in August 1945 and led to Japan's surrender in World War II.

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In the city of Nagasaki, the second city to be devastated by a nuclear weapon, just three days after Hiroshima, housewife Tsuyuko Iwanai shared her thoughts as she exited the theater.

"The film was only about the side that dropped the A-bomb," she noted. "I wish they had included the side it was dropped on."

"But then I thought you might think about it differently, if you're in a different position," she added.

Indeed, one of the most controversial points about Oppenheimer is director Christopher Nolan's choice not to directly depict the carnage and agony that the atomic bombs unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but instead to focus on Oppenheimer.

Moviegoer and Nagasaki resident Koichi Takeshita explained how he understood the story by reading Oppenheimer's face.

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"The last look of Oppenheimer in the film was that of pain," he observed. "It was a look of either regret, because he was the person who made the A-bomb, or he didn't know what to do and was sad, as tens of thousands of people died."

Nagasaki residents saw little about their city in the film.

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.

Oppenheimer visited Japan in 1960, but never went to either city.

Some survivors of the U.S. attacks on Japan have seen the film. Among them is 80-year-old doctor Masao Tomonaga.

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Dr. Masao Tomonaga takes the pulse of an atomic bomb survivor at a care home in Nagasaki, Japan.
/ Anthony Kuhn/NPR
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Anthony Kuhn/NPR
Dr. Masao Tomonaga takes the pulse of an atomic bomb survivor at a care home in Nagasaki, Japan.

He says that at an advance screening of it, he looked at the atomic bomb blast, and saw himself.

"Under that explosion, I was there. I was there, in Nagasaki," he says.

He doesn't remember the blast because he was only 2 years old at the time. His family later explained to him that he survived because his home was about a mile and a half from ground zero. He was asleep in bed when the bomb was dropped.

The blast flattened his house, but he survived unscathed. Seeing the film helped him visualize it.

"I was able for the first time to imagine my situation sleeping on a bed under the 600 meter-high explosion," he says. "So that was my first impression about the movie."

Reuters reported that some cinemas in Japan displayed signs warning moviegoers that the film contains images like nuclear tests that might trigger memories of the bombs.

Three days a week, Tomonaga cares for atomic bomb survivors at this a home run by the Roman Catholic Church on the outskirts of Nagasaki. He's treated thousands of them, including 700 leukemia patients, which is his specialty.

The average age of the home's 450 residents is in the mid-80s. Being a bomb survivor himself, Tomonaga says he'll eventually move in and spend the rest of his life here.

Tomonaga says that as a student at University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1980s, he learned the difficulty of trying to change Americans' minds about the use of nuclear weapons in World War II.

"At that time, it was difficult to argue with those who believed that America was right in dropping the atomic bomb," he says. "If I had said this to my fellow doctors, it would destroy the peaceful atmosphere in the lab, so I didn't say it."

Similarly, U.S. citizens would have a hard time convincing Japanese people that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary and justified, as many in Japan believe that their country was already defeated and on the verge of surrender when the U.S. dropped the bombs.

Back at the theater, the last of the audience trickles out at the end of the film's morning showing on the first day.

Housewife Tsuyuko Iwanai says she doesn't usually go to the movies, but she felt that Oppenheimer was worth seeing.

"I came because things are going on in many places such as Ukraine," she says, "and I feel nuclear weapons are more likely to be used these days."

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report in Tokyo and Nagasaki.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.