Will Christoper Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’ Get a Theatrical Release in Japan?

Christopher Nolan’s historical epic “Oppenheimer,” about the creation of the atomic bomb during World War II, is preparing for a massive global debut next month. As of now, though, the film’s distributor Universal has yet to announce when — or if — it will premiere in Japan.

A spokesperson for the studio says “plans have not been finalized in all markets.” Universal is releasing the $100 million-budgeted “Oppenheimer” in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world on July 21.

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The situation in Japan is complicated given the film’s subject matter and the devastation the bombs wrought on the country. “Oppenheimer” centers on American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy), who led the efforts to build the weapons of mass destruction that ended the war. Approximately 200,000 Japanese civilians died after two atomic bombs were dropped in 1945 over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though the movie’s focus may not be enough to prevent the country from playing “Oppenheimer” in its theaters, if it does secure a release date, it’s not clear that Japanese moviegoers will be interested in seeing a film about the topic.

Other American-backed movies set in the Pacific theater of World War II have played in Japanese cinemas — though to mixed results. Hugh Jackman’s 2013 “X-Men” movie “The Wolverine,” which had a sequence involving the bombing of Nagasaki, generated a muted $7.9 million. Meanwhile, the Japanese-language “Letters From Iwo Jima” ($42.9 million), the second of Clint Eastwood’s 2006 companion pieces, earned far more than “Flags of Our Fathers” ($13.1 million), which recounted the same battle from the American perspective. “Oppenheimer,” sources say, differs from those films in that it is a talky R-rated drama that is largely set in laboratories and the halls of American government, not the battlefield.

Whether “Oppenheimer” will play in Japan comes down to Toho-Towa, the country’s biggest distributor of Hollywood films. The company has yet to screen the movie but is expected to do so soon.

There are other factors that make Japan a unique moviegoing market. Unlike most territories, Hollywood studios have influence but not the final say in when its movies will open in Japan. It’s also often the last country to release Hollywood films, in part because marketing efforts are highly structured. It’s not unusual for American-made movies to debut in Japan months later than they do in North America. And those plans are usually late to come together.

That said, two other major tentpoles that are premiering domestically in July have already been given release dates in Japan. Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” is set for Aug. 11 and Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” lands on July 21.

Nolan’s films, including “The Dark Knight” trilogy, as well as “Inception,” “Interstellar,” “Dunkirk” and “Tenet,” tend to make a huge portion of their money at the international box office. That may not be the case with a firmly American story like “Oppenheimer,” which studio sources believe will be more popular with U.S. moviegoers than foreign crowds. Japan, one of the top moviegoing markets, has been a modest territory for Nolan’s prior efforts. His two most recent releases, “Tenet” and “Dunkirk,” grossed $25 million and $14.8 million respectively in the country’s cinemas.

Nolan, who shot the movie in 70mm with Imax cameras, has stressed the importance of “Oppenheimer,” arguing that the aftershocks of the technology reverberates to this day.

“Like it or not, J. Robert Oppenheimer is the most important person who ever lived,” Nolan said at CinemaCon, the annual convention for movie theater owners. “He made the world that we live in for better or for worse. His story has to be seen to be believed.”

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