‘There wasn’t enough about the horror’: Hiroshima survivors react to Oppenheimer

<span>People walk by a poster promoting Oppenheimer in Tokyo on Friday.</span><span>Photograph: Eugene Hoshiko/AP</span>
People walk by a poster promoting Oppenheimer in Tokyo on Friday.Photograph: Eugene Hoshiko/AP

It is hard to think of a more emotionally charged venue than Hatchoza for the first screening in Japan of the Academy Award-winning film Oppenheimer. The cinema in Hiroshima is located less than a kilometre from the hypocentre of the first atomic bombing in history – the devastating culmination of the American physicist’s work.

The film finally premiered in Japan on Friday, more than eight months after it opened in the US, to reviews that ranged from praise for its portrayal of J Robert Oppenheimer – the “father of the atomic bomb” – to criticism that it omitted to show the human misery it caused in Hiroshima and, days later, Nagasaki, in the final days of the Pacific war.

Instead, the film details a haunted Oppenheimer’s struggle to justify Harry Truman’s decision to use the bomb and, in the then president’s eyes, bring to an end an increasingly costly war against an enemy determined to fight to the death.

“There could have been much more description and depiction of the horror of atomic weapons,” said Takashi Hiraoka, the 96-year-old former mayor of Hiroshima, who attended a special screening earlier this month. “From Hiroshima’s standpoint, there wasn’t enough about the horror of nuclear weapons, but I would encourage people to go and see it.”

Audiences in Japan were forced to wait to see Nolan’s hit biopic, which secured seven Oscars last month, after criticism last year that it had been marketed in a way that trivialised the tragedy. Viral “Barbenheimer” memes sparked an online backlash in Japan, forcing its local distributor, Warner Bros Japan, to apologise.

Many hibakusha, or survivors of the atomic bombings, had hoped the film would at least acknowledge the misery unleashed by the Enola Gay, a US B-29 bomber, after it dropped a 15-kiloton nuclear bomb on Hiroshima on the morning of 6 August 1945. The blast killed between 60,000 and 80,000 people instantly, with the death toll rising to 140,000 by the end of the year. Three days later, the Americans dropped a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki, killing 74,000.

Prof Masao Tomonaga, an A-bomb survivor and honorary director of the Japanese Red Cross Nagasaki Atomic Bomb hospital, said he had come away believing Oppenheimer was an “anti-nuclear” film.

“I had thought the film’s lack of images of atomic bomb survivors was a weakness. But in fact, Oppenheimer’s lines in dozens of scenes showed his shock at the reality of the atomic bombing. That was enough for me.”

Tomonaga, 80, who spent his professional life studying the health effects of exposure to radiation from the atomic bombings, added: “The hibakusha are all very old, so this is a film for young people … it’s now up to future generations to decide how to rid the world of nuclear weapons.”

Toshiyuki Mimaki, a co-chair of Hidankyo, a confederation of A-bomb survivor groups, who was three years old when the bomb destroyed his home town, was among the audience in Hiroshima on Friday.

“I was waiting for the Hiroshima bombing scene to appear, but it never did,” said Mimaki, 82. “It’s important to show the full story, including the victims, if we are going to have a future without nuclear weapons.”

There was praise, though, for Nolan and Cillian Murphy, who won the best actor Oscar his portrayal as Oppenheimer, whose moral crisis over his role in developing a weapon that was used on civilian populations loomed large in the film’s climax.

“I’m a fan of Christopher Nolan, so that gave me another reason, along with the venue, to come and see it as soon as it came out,” said Mei Kawashima, a young Hiroshima resident. “When Hiroshima was mentioned in the film, it triggered something in me.

“This was really a film about Oppenheimer the man, and the way he wrestled with his conscience, so in that sense, I think it was right not to broaden it out too much to show the aftermath.”

Shogo Tachiyama, a university student, said he had known very little about the man whose work would result in the destruction of the city where he was born six decades later. “We learned about the bombing and its aftermath at primary school, but I knew nothing about Oppenheimer,” he said.

“I learned a lot from the film, and it’s made me think again about what I and other young people can do … starting from the insistence that nuclear weapons should never be used again.”

This may not be the end of the Oppenheimer story, at least on the big screen. Takashi Yamazaki, the director of the Oscar-winning Godzilla Minus One – another film with a strong nuclear theme – suggested in an online discussion with Nolan that the time may be right for an account of the bombings from a Japanese perspective.

To enthusiastic agreement from Nolan, he said: “I feel there needs to [be] an answer from Japan to Oppenheimer. Someday, I would like to make that movie.”