Barbenheimer sparks backlash in Japan over nuclear bomb memes

HONG KONG — The summer dominance of “Barbenheimer” has driven millions around the world to see two very different films and enjoy a rare moment of cultural confluence. But in Japan, the easy conflation of the two blockbusters has angered those who see it as trivializing the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the US dropped atomic bombs in 1945.

Internet memes and mashups of Barbie’s pink wonderland with nuclear mushroom clouds have been embraced by the official Twitter account for the Barbie movie, which initially responded positively to the mashups.

Margot Robbie in “Barbie” and Cillian Murphy in a scene from “Oppenheimer”. Warner Bros. Pictures / Universal

“It’s going to be a summer to remember,” said a now-deleted tweet from the account in response to a mashup poster that showed Margot Robbie, who plays Barbie, on the shoulder of Cillian Murphy, who plays Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb.

“We always think PINK,” the studio said in another tweet, which was still online as of Tuesday morning, in response to a poster showing Robbie and Ryan Gosling (Barbie’s Ken) driving the iconic pink car away from a nuclear explosion.

Memes about the two films, which were released on the same day in most countries, have been catching on for weeks, but when the official studio account joined, they enraged fans in Japan, with the hashtags #StopBarbieRelease and #NoBarbenheimer following. called for a boycott.

Barbie’s Japanese account said Monday that the posts from the main Barbie account, run by Warner Bros. headquarters, was “extremely deplorable” and urged its American counterparts to act quickly in a rare public display of internal corporate divisions.

“Neither this movement nor these activities are officially sanctioned,” it added, referring to the “Barbenheimer” tendency.

The studio has now apologized.

“Warner Brothers regrets the recent insensitive engagement on social media. The studio offers a sincere apology,” Warner Bros. Film Group told NBC News in a statement.

However, the apology may not do much to win back Japanese fans.

Maki Kimura, 43, who lives in Kanagawa, said in an interview that despite her excitement, it was now “impossible” for her to see “Barbie.”

“I loved Barbie so much,” Kimura said. “But we can’t be silent about the atomic bomb. Even if our favorite people or things want us to change our minds.”

That Barbie is scheduled for release in Japan on August 11, two days after the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing, only further disappoints fans.

“Really bad timing,” said Chiho Komoriya, 45, a customer support agent from Sendai. “I feel sorry for the film crew,” she said, adding that she was now hesitant to watch the film.

“Oppenheimer,” released by Universal Pictures, does not have a release date in Japan. Universal did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News. In response to a question from The New York Times, Universal said it was not aware of the Barbenheimer controversy. (NBC News and Universal Pictures are both units of NBCUniversal.)

“It’s a problem to make jokes about nuclear explosions and make jokes about the bombing of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, which killed so many people,” said Jeffrey Hall, a lecturer in Japanese studies at Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan.

Across television sets in Japan, documentary series and films are shown regularly in the weeks leading up to the commemoration of the bombings, focusing on the plight of those who suffered from the nuclear fallout, many of whom are still affected by radiation effects transferred to the current generation.

“So the image of a mushroom cloud is something that Japanese people don’t associate with happy, friendly jokes, but something that is very seriously associated with death and suffering,” Hall said.

This is not the first time that the two films have caused controversy in the region.

Some social media users and critics have pointed to the absence of Japanese victims in Oppenheimer – director Christopher Nolan said that “to depart from Oppenheimer’s experience would betray the terms of the storytelling.”

Barbie, meanwhile, is banned in Vietnam because of a scene that features a map showing the hotly contested South China Sea, although Warner Bros. defended his image as nothing more than a “childlike crayon drawing” rather than any kind of political statement.

Childhood fans of Barbie, like high school teacher Kaori Kikuchi, have always admired the character. But she said the “Barbenheimer” incident had drained all the excitement of the film.

“Even though the movie is so great, I’m sure I’ll remember the atomic bomb meme, that’s why I can’t watch ‘Barbie,'” Kikuchi, 28, said.

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