“Oppenheimer” makes you feel absolved? Where does Nolan’s “Zone of Interest” lie?


This article is a translation of this .


Christopher Nolan’s film “Oppenheimer” has finally been released in Japan. The reason why Toho-Towa, which usually handles Universal films, did not distribute it and it was instead distributed by Bitters End has still not been announced, but in any case, I’m glad it has been released. You can’t say anything unless you watch it.

As expected, or perhaps I should say as feared, the reaction in Japan is different from that in America, where it was a huge hit and showed strength in award races, winning 7 Academy Awards among others. In fact, I myself find it difficult to know how to evaluate it and what standards to use.

This film was made in America, the country that dropped the atomic bomb, by the British director Christopher Nolan. This is information outside the film itself, but it inevitably comes to mind.

Moreover, given the historical facts about the representation of the atomic bomb in America, I don’t think we should forget the above when watching it.

For those interested, Yuki Miyamoto’s book “Why the Atomic Bomb Is Not Evil: America’s Nuclear Consciousness,” which teaches about the atomic bomb at an American university, describes various aspects of American culture’s history of representing the atomic bomb as a pop icon. The “sexualization of the nuclear” (p.49), for example, may be useful in considering the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon.

America Feared Communism More Than Nuclear Power

First, I will point out the good aspects of the depiction in “Oppenheimer”.

It mentioned the point that towards the end of the war, Japan’s defeat was imminent, and there was no need to drop the atomic bomb to end the war. Another good point was that it portrayed Oppenheimer’s anguish as a scientist in developing nuclear weapons. It was also good that it presented the idea that the terror of nuclear weapons is not a thing of the past but continues into the present. In fact, nuclear weapons have spread all over the world since then.

Furthermore, it is important from the perspective of “knowing others” that it simply allows the audience to experience America’s motivation for nuclear development from an American viewpoint. It depicts that it began with the logic that if Nazi Germany also started nuclear development, they had to get ahead of them, or else they would put the world at risk. It is important that it showed that the horror of nuclear weapons has not ended, but continues to this day. (However, this film lacked the perspective of showing the severity of the radiation contamination caused by nuclear weapons.)


Japanese audiences can complement the lack in this film.

From here, I would like to consider watching “Oppenheimer” in Japan.

In the film, there is a scene where they view slides of photographs such as “someone wearing striped clothing with striped burns” showing the damage in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the photographs themselves are not shown, and the depiction of the damage remains limited to Oppenheimer’s subjective hallucinations. This could be considered the biggest point of criticism in Japan.

On the news of a Nagasaki broadcast on the day “Oppenheimer” was released, they reported on the situation at a local movie theater. The impression of a young man was striking. The youth said, “The fact that there were no gruesome images actually made it feel more impactful.”

This is a noteworthy impression, I think. This is because Japanese people, especially those from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are well aware of the damage caused by the atomic bomb even without seeing it in a film. Since they know about it, they can fill in the restrained parts with their imagination. In fact, could it be said that Japanese audiences are the ones most capable of complementing the lack in this film through their imagination?

Of course, audiences from any country will likely try to imagine the hidden cruelty. However, it is unclear how realistically they can imagine it and to what extent they can truly understand it.

The idea that Japanese people are the ones most capable of vividly imagining the hidden aspects seems deeply ironic.

American Fiction says “They want to feel absolved”

Although I initially listed the good points of this film, I don’t think it’s something we can wholeheartedly celebrate as “America having reflected” on its actions.

This may not be a criticism of the film itself. It may be more accurate to call it a criticism of the environment in which this film is being received.

I think we need to consider whether this film has become an “absolving entertainment.”

“American Fiction” was a film that competed with “Oppenheimer” for the Best Picture Oscar. It’s the story of an intelligent but unsuccessful Black novelist played by Jeffrey Wright who, as a joke and with irony, writes a story about a stereotypical Black man mired in crime and poverty, but ends up being highly praised for “depicting the truth of society.”

There is a impressive dialogue frome this movie. “White people think they want the truth, but they don’t. They want to feel absolved.”

Our society has become inclined to recognize diversity and listen to the voices of minorities. That’s wonderful, but in the end, isn’t it just that the white middle and upper classes are consuming it as entertainment? Don’t they just want to consume works that allow them to feel appropriately regretful and “updated” to a moderate degree? “American Fiction” raises that kind of question.

America didn’t need to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. “Oppenheimer” depicted that, but among the Americans who went to see this film, were there none seeking an “absolving entertainment” as proposed by “American Fiction”?

I can’t help but think, “If there had been direct depictions of the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it would have been too much as an absolving entertainment.”

I’m not sure whether Nolan was oblivious to doing this or not. Rather, they seem somewhat aware of it. This is because toward the end of the movie, there is a scene that feels like a self-aware jab at it.

There is a scene toward the end where Oppenheimer, who was persecuted during the Red Scare, is honored years later. Einstein says: “They’ll serve salmon and potato salad, make speeches, give you a medal… Pat you on the back and tell you all is forgiven… Just remember. It won’t be for you… …it’ll be for them.” Afterward, Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, played by Emily Blunt, firmly refuses to shake a certain man’s hand.

Isn’t this somewhat reminiscent of how white people re-evaluate and “update” their values by appreciating the tragic stories of Black people, but mostly for their own benefit? While Oppenheimer doesn’t loudly criticize this aspect, one could say it depicts this side of human nature.

Additionally, drawing a parallel to American Fiction, even if it merely serves as an entertainment-based pardon, in our consumer society, it may be necessary to function as a pardon in order to convey anything at all. So an attitude of knowingly circulating it as a pardon despite its deceptive nature could be justifiable. The ending of American Fiction had precisely that kind of feeling.

What is Nolan’s “Zone of Interest”?

Additionally, if we compare the film to other Academy Award nominated films, there is Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest”. (This year’s Oscar slate prompted comparisons and finding commonalities across different works.)

The film depicts the daily life of a German officer’s family living next to the Auschwitz concentration camp. While horrific atrocities are occurring at the neighboring facility, the family’s sole concern is preserving their affluent lifestyle. The camera only shows this family, never the victims in the camp.
You just hear tiny screams and gunshots from distant and see smoke frome the chimneys in the backgroud.

It poignantly highlights this family’s “zone of interest” being solely their own comfortable existence, oblivious even to the atrocities next door.

An individual’s “zone of nterest” and its scope varies. Where did the makers of “Oppenheimer” focus their “zone of interest”? This film too does not depict the victims. While sharing the absence of victims with “The Zone of Interest”, their approaches seem quite different. The latter exposed the perpetrators’ grotesqueness by omitting victims, while “Oppenheimer” chose to depict the developer’s perspective.

However, it seems impossible for humans to expand their “zone of interest” to encompass every facet of this world. And a single film cannot address everyone’s “zone of interest.” Perhaps “Oppenheimer” allows us to recognize the discrepancy between Japanese people’s “zone of interest” regarding nuclear weapons and that of other nations.

Such discrepancies are natural. With that as a premise, we Japanese must consider how to convey the atomic bombings to the world.

The most impactful scene for me was the previously mentioned one where Emily Blunt refuses a handshake. Oppenheimer shakes hands with the man who ruined him, but his wife Kitty firmly refuses. Their different responses mirror Japan’s attitude towards this film. Some may absolutely reject a film that omits victims, while others evaluate it with some understanding of the other perspective. Both stances are ethically justifiable.

In any case, we should recognize the different perceptions around the atomic bombings. This film provides a valuable opportunity as we consider how we Japanese should convey it to the world based on that awareness.