Anger Over ‘Barbenheimer’ in Nuclear-Scarred Japan

by Pelican Press
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To Americans eager for signs of life in an ailing cinema culture, the simultaneous box office success of the “Barbie” movie and the biopic “Oppenheimer” has been cause for celebration, with filmgoers embracing the jarring juxtaposition of the two very different blockbusters.

In Japan, however, this jubilant fusion, including “Barbenheimer” double features and online mash-ups of Barbie’s pink fantasia with images of Oppenheimer-era nuclear explosions, have been met with a very different response: anger.

For days, Twitter users in Japan, where nuclear bombings by the U.S. military during World War II killed hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have been spreading the hash tag #NoBarbenheimer.

And on Monday, the backlash ignited a rare display of internal Hollywood corporate discord, as the Japanese subsidiary of Warner Bros. criticized its headquarters’ handling of social media for the “Barbie” movie.

In a letter posted to the official Japan account for “Barbie,” which will be released in Japanese theaters on Aug. 11, the Japan subsidiary lamented its American counterparts’ promotion of Barbenheimer memes as “highly regrettable.”

In one such instance, the official “Barbie” movie account responded to a fan-made image depicting Barbie with an atom bomb bouffant with the comment, “This Ken is a stylist.” In another, it replied with a kissy-face emoji to a movie poster showing Barbie and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, against the backdrop of a nuclear explosion. “It’s going to be a summer to remember,” the studio’s tweet said.

Some Japanese Twitter users responded with photos of the bombing victims. Others said that they had canceled their plans to see the movie. “Nuclear weapons aren’t cool,” one user wrote in reply to a tweet promoting the movie.

Barbenheimer, the Japanese Warner Bros. subsidiary noted, “is not an official activity” of Warner Bros., and it said it had demanded that the company’s headquarters take “appropriate action.”

By Tuesday afternoon, the post had nearly 30 million views and tens of thousands of retweets. Many users added a hash tag in Japanese, #BarbieNoKen, a play on words that translates to “The Barbie Incident.”

In a statement on Tuesday, the Warner Bros. headquarters said it “regrets its recent insensitive social media engagement” and offers “a sincere apology.” The “Barbie” movie account’s replies to Barbenheimer posts have since been removed.

While the “Barbie” movie will be released in Japanese theaters a week before the 78th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, “Oppenheimer,” a Universal Pictures film, has not yet received a release date in Japan.

That has led to some speculation that the movie may not be shown at all in Japan, to avoid offending local sensibilities over the legacy of the nuclear attacks. In response to a question from The New York Times, Universal said it was not aware of the Barbenheimer controversy.

An official ban seems unlikely: Japan has robust freedom of speech, and previous American movies touching on war-era subjects have played to modest audiences in the country. That includes the 1996 film “Infinity,” about a scientist involved in the Manhattan Project, which was led by Mr. Oppenheimer and gave birth to atomic weapons.

It’s also not unusual for foreign films to debut in Japan well after their releases at home. “Infinity” took nearly two years to make it to Japanese cinemas.

Brooks Barnes contributed reporting from Los Angeles.

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