Seventy-eight years ago this week, the United States dropped two atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Estimates of how many people died vary from 129,000 and 226,000 people, with tens of thousands more dying from radiation poisoning or burns in the months to come. What’s known is the population of Hiroshima on August 5, 1945 was 350,000. By December, it was only 140,000. Though Hiroshima had a sizable military presence, most of the dead were civilians.
Lumping a pink, upbeat movie like “Barbie” with a film about the inventor of the atom bomb has made me feel uncomfortable from the start. While “Barbenheimer” has given a boost to movie theaters, the excitement about “Oppenheimer” unsettles me.
When I was 17, I declared I would not have children because I was so worried about a nuclear holocaust.
A few years later I visited Hiroshima twice when I lived in Japan. It was a moving, chilling experience to learn more about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which caused 200,000 people to die, mostly innocent civilians.
The bombings had devastating humanitarian consequences, causing immense suffering, loss of life, and long-term health effects for survivors (known as hibakusha) and their descendants.
Christopher Nolan has defended his decision not to show or mention the Japanese people who died or the Native people downwind from the Nevada Test Site who received signiﬁcant radiation exposure. He said the story was told from Oppenheimer’s point of view.
“We know so much more than he did at the time,” Nolan said. “He learned about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the radio, the same as the rest of the world.”
But how many movie goers understand what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Nolan missed an opportunity to give ignorant Americans a broader perspective than what we were taught in school, that the U.S. dropped the bombs to end the war. At what cost?
And what happens as a result of this whitewashing?
Warner Brothers, excited about the Barbenheimer craze, tweeted out fan art mashing the movies together. One depicted Barbie with atom bomb hair, while another had Oppenheimer holding a triumphant Barbie on his shoulders, with a nuclear holocaust in the background. Seriously. Faced with backlash in Japan, Warner Brothers apologized. Too little, too late.
The movie makes clear Oppenheimer’s regret about his work, but it is the height of insensitivity not to understand how Japanese people feel about this movie.
Perhaps, if the movie had shown the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these works of “fan art” wouldn’t have been so awful and offensive.
Recognizing and acknowledging the suffering of the Japanese and Indigenous peoples is crucial for building mutual respect and empathy. It acknowledges their pain and suffering and reflects a commitment to being compassionate and understanding towards others' historical traumas. And guess what? It’s just the right thing to do.
Not only did Warner Brothers fail in its marketing, but Hollywood also failed in its opportunity to educate.
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