by Eddie Wong. Posted on Aug. 27, 2023.
Christopher Nolan’s hit film, “Oppenheimer” has stirred much commentary over the exclusion of any images or direct mention of the victims of the U.S. Army’s use of atomic bombs. Never mentioned in the film is the horrific toll on the Japanese people: an estimated 220,000 people killed or wounded. Commentators have not criticized the merits of the filmmaking as much as they do point out the ramifications of not mentioning the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who were murdered in the name of gathering research on the impact of atomic explosions on human beings and as a direct warning to soon-to-be post-WWII rivals, the Soviet Union. Nolan’s defense is that Oppenheimer never directly apologized for the bombings, although Oppenheimer did signal regret and a sense of guilt in a scene where he tells President Truman that he had “blood on his hands.”
Whether or not you think “Oppenheimer” is worthy of the praise it’s received is not the issue at hand. Full disclosure, I have not seen the film yet. But the points raised by Asian American community members in Kimmy Yan’s NBC Asian America article, “Oppenheimer draws debate about absence of Japanese victims in the film are instructive and deep:
“I don’t think we should depend on Hollywood to tell our stories with the nuance and the depth and the care that they really deserve,” Nina Wallace, media and outreach manager at Densho, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the stories of those of Japanese descent. “But it is true that these institutions that are in positions of power, positions of influence, put more value on stories of men like Oppenheimer, like Truman, than it does on the Asian and indigenous communitifor es that suffered because of decisions that those men made.”
Stan Shikuma, Co-President of Seattle JACL said, “I understand how showrooms and Hollywood cannot be all-encompassing. … But I think it also points societally to the lack of nonwhite, non-U.S. initiatives or perspectives…That lack of more of a global perspective allows atrocities to continue to happen because we still dehumanize other people that we don’t know.”
“Even within the realm of entertainment it’s still demoralizing and making, once again, unreal the experience of Asian people,” said Brandon Shimoda, a Japanese American writer and curator of the Hiroshima Library.
These comments and others have led others to recommend additional films for viewers who want to see other perspectives about the creation and use of the atomic bomb. Let’s begin with the Center for Asian American Media’s blog 5 Films to Watch as an Alternative to Oppenheimer“ by Lauren Lola. Two of the films which are highlighted are by Steven Okazaki. “The Mushroom Club” is a 35 min documentary about survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. He later elaborated on that short film with a feature-length documentary “White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (2007, HBO/Farallon Films). “The Mushroom Club” is available for rental from CAAM and “White Light/Black Rain” is available at many public libraries and on HBO Max.
Here is a 10 min clip from “White Light/Black Rain” posted on YouTube by a fan of the film. I encourage you to see the entire work which is comprehensive in its historical perspective as well as devastating on a personal level.