What’s the Matter with “Oppenheimer?”

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.”

Shredded clothing and radiation burn display at Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. Photo by Eddie Wong.

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.

 

The most stunning film about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is the animated feature “Barefoot Gen,” which was released in 1983 based on a manga series by Keiji Nakazawa, who was also interviewed in Steven Okazaki’s “The Mushroom Club.” Written from Nakazawa’s direct experience as a six-year old who lost most of his family in the blast, “Barefoot Gen” delivers horrific realism conveying the pain and suffering of people who at 8:15 am on Aug. 6 were just going through their morning routines. The film does not paint an idyllic picture of life before the blast. Hunger and malnutrition are underlying themes as the Japanese military allocate precious resources for war, even as the prospects of Japan’s victory had long faded. “Barefoot Gen” also shows the resilience of the Japanese people who rebuild after the war. But they and we should never forget the act of wanton murder that the U.S. perpetrated on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The film can be seen via this link: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/barefoot-gen

The last film that viewers should watch is “The Day After Trinity,” a 1981 documentary by Jon Else about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project.  This riveting documentary presents an in-depth look at the scientists and military personnel who created the atomic bomb as well as an examination of the bomb’s impact on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In other words, it tells the full story.  This film is widely available from public libraries and streams on the Criterion Channel. And it is also available on the Internet Archive albeit in three sections. The following link to section three includes  the reaction of some of the scientists upon hearing news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.  Newsreel footage of the carnage and destruction immediately follows. https://archive.org/details/thedayaftertrinity/thedayaftertrinityreel3.mov

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Author’s bio:  Eddie Wong is the publisher/editor of East Wind ezine.

Featured Image:

Memorial at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. Photo by Eddie Wong.

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