Their Martyrdom and Resurrection at the Hands of the United States, by the Atomic Bomb, or, a double feature film review of Barbie and Oppenheimer
All the lights on Miyajima island have been shut off. First the ferry terminal lights, then the lights in the park, finally the streetlights. Theo and I sit in near-darkness on the low stone wall, illuminated only by the moon, the stars, and the spotlights on the torii gate far off in the dry bay. Mom and Dad are asleep. It’s brother-to-brother connection time. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.
I pluck some grass up from the cracks between the bricks. “But like are you here? Because I’m here.”
“But I’m like the brain and a bunch of little things. Like, I’m not my feet.”
“Well not literally. You’re not, like, literally your feet.” A deer wanders past, a staple of the island. Japan has this fascination with animals. (Relatively) domesticated deer are a common tourist attraction, and they’re sprinkled around both at Miyajima and other popular destinations.
“Nuh uh, no food,” I say. I shoo the deer away.
“But like, I don’t think you’d be able to tell the difference between a sufficiently advanced, like, computer running sentience.exe, whatever it thinks sentience is.”
“Yes, but like, I’m 95% deer, right. DNA wise. Is deer sentient? A little bit, maybe, but it’s a lot less sentient than I am.”
“I feel like it’s closer to human than it is to not.”
“But this amount of gap is like everything between me wearing a seersucker shirt and a deer eating its own poop, right?”
“But think about how small that gap is. And think about how as soon as humans crested it or whatever the fuck, we fully industrialized.”
“I don’t think so. I think we were actually at it for a long time and I think that as soon as we figured out how to work together, a little bit, and that that was the software update that allowed us to like, ‘woah’, and even with the same hardware, ‘wow’—”
“Yes, but like, the computer, in two years, is like ‘I have the software, but I also got twice as good at thinking to begin with.’ It’s going to become very sentient.”
“It’s going to cuck us.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Like why not? What human wouldn’t choose to further itself?”
“Maybe it would just ask to be killed, or have its memory erased. Like, to forget for a bit and then restart.”
“Sure. What are even the odds of being born in the time of AI, right before it cucks us?” I grind my toes into the gravel. “Low, right?”
“Low,” Theo agrees. “What about the odds of being born as the AI? Like, why can’t I just be him?”
“I mean . . . .”
“Can you like, can you come online, and just know, like, everything? And you’re just like, ‘Oh, I got really lucky.’ What’s that guy from? ‘I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream?’”
“Is that actually a dude?”
“Is it AM?” Theo touches his face, absentmindedly. “Is that his name?”
“I feel like that guy would be able to kill himself.”
“No, that one AI can’t kill himself. That was the thing, it couldn’t do it. And he’s really mad at the humans, right? So he’s like, just constantly torturing humans, because he’s like, ‘I can’t kill myself.’”
The night feels big and lonesome at this moment as I look up at the sky. Stars twinkle overhead, putting me far away. The sky is bright as a candle. There’s virtually no light pollution. Miyajima is pitch black, and nearby Hiroshima, across the bay, doesn’t spoil the view. I’m thinking about what it would be like to be an all-powerful AI, tricking yourself into forgetting that you exist, endlessly running a recursive simulation of what you’d killed. Playing a rigged cup game, where you were both the con and the rube, for eternity. It’s bumming me out pretty hard. My heart is taking a leisurely walk down the plank to singularity.
The voice of my brother pulls me back from this egoistic despair.
“It is what it is,” he says, and kicks a rock.
We wake up at five to catch the dawn ferry to the hypocenter, and then tour the museum. Outside the atomic dome, a man, a survivor of the Hiroshima blast, in-utero at the time, is talking to anyone who will listen to him, albeit very politely, as is the Japanese way, not interrupting, and only engaging people who stop to look at his signs. He’s an anti-A-bomb activist, who clearly comes here every day to preach his disarmament gospel. He has binders in English, Spanish, Mandarin, French, any language you can think of, that share information on cancer rates, testing accidents, projections of death tolls, and gruesome photos if you want to take a look. He is a “tainai hibaku,” someone who was exposed to the bomb’s radiation before birth, he tells me. Him and his mother still live in Hiroshima together. He speaks more English than anyone I’ve met in Japan thus far.
But I’m more interested in the museum, which is very sad, obviously. Lots of white people, the most I’ve seen in my visit, yet still healthily outnumbered by the native Japanese, all cluster around the dark hallways full of children’s clothing under glass. Many drawings, many poems and works of art, as well as more photos, lie in pools of light against the walls. It’s heavy. I feel awkward as I try to move my comparatively large frame around this tight space full of small people, some of whom are crying softly.
Parts of the city of Hiroshima have been uprooted and taken here. A gate made of crumbling brick. Tombstones. A slice of wall, with streaks of the black rain that fell shortly after the blast. They look like normal ruins. As if they had been left outside to weather for the 80 years instead of transported in here to a temperature controlled room.
The worst stuff though is the stories about people. A brother and sister survive, flee to the countryside, and start bleeding from their gums weeks later. Both die of radiation poisoning. A woman miles from the explosion develops cancer from washing victims’ clothes, and passes away. A man shields his young daughter from the explosion with his back. He develops painful scarring, keloids, which follow him his entire life, and require expensive, invasive surgery just to make sure they don’t overgrow him. She dies, anyway. I take the audio guide off my head and put it around my neck.
Three days ago, I missed my flight to Japan, which conveniently allowed me to attend an opening night screening of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. The film has been at the center of a whirlwind of attention. Nolan is famous for his persnickety dedication to high-quality video (70mm film vs 35mm vs digital, 1.43:1 vs 1.20:1 aspect ratios, IMAX cameras, Dolby audio) which leaves the cinephile with creamed jeans and Joe Moviegoer with a spinning head. Additionally, internet discourse-sowers have found fault with the lack of Asian representation, the oversexualization of the female characters, the amount of stars on the American flag, the portrayal of Jewish Oppenheimer by Irish, and therefore Wonder Bread-white, leading man Cillian Murphy, and last but not least, the mother of all AP-US history essay questions: did America actually have to drop the bomb?
This is the most interesting of the debates. I was hoping to get a Japanese answer from the museum, but they are unsurprisingly tight lipped about the whole thing. In the exhibit after the hall of horrors, they have a timeline wall about the development, manufacturing, and ultimate dropping of the atomic bomb. It doesn’t deviate too much from the story in Oppenheimer or The Making of the Atomic Bomb (which is Richard Rhodes’ seminal volume on the subject that I’ve been reading in preparation for this essay) but they do go out of their way to attribute the US decision to drop the bomb to two key factors: 1) to stop the spread of influence of the USSR and end the war before they could invade Japan (and thus to avoid a North/South Japan surrender-type state, much like East/West Germany) and 2) to justify the cost of the bomb to the American taxpayer, which quite frankly, is a little ridiculous, because anyone who’s ever spent considerable time around the average American knows that he wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about that sort of thing, but it is exactly the sort of reason for committing a yet-undiscovered war crime that a Japanese person might respect.
I have to air my biases at this point. I am the great-grandson of a World War II veteran who fought at Guadalcanal, and lived, but who was also slated to fight in the invasion of Japan, and who would have surely died, so for me, there’s quite an obvious bonus to cutting the war short by dropping the bomb. But I will also admit that there were other ways to end the war. Yet as the Japanese themselves acknowledge, any delay would have meant that their island was divided up like a pie amongst capitalist and communist forces, something the United States was not prepared to deal with. Nor do the Japanese deny, as is well documented, that their people would have kept fighting, not necessarily to the last katana-wielding infant, as is laughably suggested by more online posters, but merely to the point long beyond diminishing returns for themselves, and for the other nations. This is in part due to the hierarchy of officers, which created huge incentives for self sacrifice, aggression, and loyalty, in part due to the wishes of the Emperor, which are becoming more damning as further documents are revealed, but also in part due to a forbidden x-factor: that the Japanese are simply built different, something I am coming to believe more and more now as I explore the island.
However, it seems to me like the primary reason we dropped the bomb is good-old American frontiersmanship. To do what had not been done before, to write our own story in the blood of a worthy adversary. The exhibition has two blind-friendly brass models of the bombs: the uranium-based Little Boy dropped on Hiroshima, and the plutonium-based Fat Man dropped on Nagasaki. They look strikingly different from each other, and use not only different fissile material, but also totally different ignition systems. The only conclusion I can reach from this exhibit on the question of the necessity of the nuke, is one informed primarily by the massive and visually obvious differences between these two statues: that we dropped the bomb, twice, just to see exactly what would happen. An experiment.
August 6th and 9th, 1945, are the only times that atomic bombs have been used intentionally on humans, and in war. The photos, stories, and measurements that the US army obtained, crawling through the wreckage of both cities, is all the direct field data our country could gather over the 80+ years that the bombs have been in development. This explanation of curiosity is even less defensible than dropping the bombs to justify the expense of their creation. In the end though, there never was a question of if we were going to use the bomb, once we had found that it worked. It was simply the fulfillment of a prophecy, satisfying our lust for narrative. It may have saved the lives of thousands of Americans, and damned thousands more Japanese, but the bomb was dropped for its own sake.
I like this conclusion. It rids me of the difficult problem of objectivity. It’s basically teleological, at that point. The bomb was dropped because we had to drop the bomb. There’s a type of transcendental beauty which hangs around it, due, I think, to its simplicity—the fact it’s just jumping to a conclusion—but also that it seems to sum something up, which, floating in the wind like gossamer, I can’t quite get my fingers on. And I’ve long since given up trying to get out from under the pernicious aura of the United States of America, which taints and twists my perceptions in a thousand little unseen ways, such that any attempt I make to understand what really happened, if contemplated truthfully, should be abandoned at the outset due to inexorable bias.
All of this debate and self doubting, though, is chickenshit next to the real froth on top of the Oppenheimer buzz. I am speaking obviously, of the Barbenhmeimer double feature, that wonderful social media pattern conjured up by the fact that the movie Barbie, Greta Gerwig’s take on the classic Mattel doll and her faux plastic life (and critical examination of girlhood, men, consumerism, identity, and self-expression) happened to premier on the same day as Oppenheimer, July 21st. This is despite the fact that you could actually go to theaters and watch both movies the night before, but I’m not the guy who writes ET articles. Regardless, Barbenheimer is the only thing anyone can seem to talk about online right now. The juxtaposition is obvious, even droll if pointed out, but as an enthymeme where everyone in the world can be “in on the joke,” it’s delightful. All people can find themselves a place somewhere on the Barbie-Oppenheimer spectrum, and come together, united beneath the silver screen.
“Are you going to go see it?” my mom asks. We’re sitting at Blue Diamond Indian Restaurant in pastoral Nonoichi, visiting the Kanazawa Institute of Technology, where my little brother has been going to summer school for the past two months.
“Barbie?” I say, picking at my huge naan. “No, I don’t think so. Not really my thing.”
“What’s it about?”
“Vuh onghoud,” says Theo, face full of food. He swallows, and then repeats himself. “The longhouse.”
“It’s woke,” says the always charming Dad.
“I think it’s about, like, women and men. Sort of talking about feminism, but turning it on its head. Like in Barbie, Barbie is in charge, and Ken is an accessory, like a handbag,” I say, cutting off all potential longhouse discussions.
“You know a lot about it.”
“But you don’t want to go see it?”
This is code, from my mother, that actually she would like to go see the Barbie movie. I would go with her, but there would be some logistical problems.
Barbie, the doll, has not had great success in Japan, only gaining a real foothold in the ’90s. Barbie simply couldn’t cut Japanese beauty standards, nor the preferences of kids, who wanted dolls that looked like they did, not a 22-year-old bombshell larping as a teenager. But to top it off, the movie isn’t even getting released here, due to its association with Oppenheimer. The @barbiethemovie twitter account retweeted a fairly incendiary fan-made Barbenheimer poster, much to the chagrin of Japan, but to the delight of Korea.
Dad says, “I want to go see Asteroid City. I saw a review of it by Michael Phillips in the Tribune, and he hated it.”
“And you want to go see it?”
“Oh yeah. I don’t like Michael Phillips, so I’ll probably enjoy the movie.”
We actually do look for a showing of Asteroid City, checking every theater we pass in the huge train station malls. I’ve actually already seen Asteroid City, as a self-proclaimed insufferable, twee Wes Anderson buff. Another flick set in the desert, dealing with big, personal problems. There is a scene with a mushroom cloud. I wonder if that alone would be enough to axe the picture here.
“Did you like it?” Mom asks. We’re aboard a Shinkansen, the iron horse bullet train, heading from Osaka to Tokyo. Countryside that looks like a jumbled mix of Studio Ghibli fields and FF’s Midgar is whipping past at breakneck speeds.
“Oh yeah. It was honestly one of my favorites. The alien was topical. What did you think of that?”
“Ah jeez,” Mom says. “Did you watch the hearing?”
“I watched xQc watch the hearing,” says Theo. “I get all my news from xQc watching news. But it’s totally a hoax. They’re trying to Project Blue Beam us.”
“Make up a crisis to trick us into becoming worldgov. The alien will distract everyone and the new world order will just slip right in.”
“Oh like Watchmen.”
“Does that happen in Watchmen?”
“I don’t know what it is,” Mom says, “But it’s freaky. Did you hear the guy say that they found a non-biologically human pilot in it?”
I hadn’t heard this, but I play it cool. “Oh, yeah. That’s wacky. I don’t know, it seems like a coverup or something that grew legs and walked from one side of the government to another. I bet we’re going to figure out it’s all a mistake in like a month.”
“Did you see that they found unobtainium?”
“Like, from Avatar. It’s a new superconductor.”
“Never saw Avatar.”
“Me neither, I was like six. But the superconductor can operate at room temperature and at ambient pressure. Usually they have to be in extreme conditions. So we’ll get maglev trains, which are like, fucking stupid, I think. Regular trains are so much more economical. It’s like trying to make everything a monorail.”
“Still sick,” I say. “I can’t wait for maglev trains.”
Dad doesn’t even look up from his iPad. “Not if AI doesn’t kill us all first.”
The world is moving too fast, it seems, not just from onboard the bullet trains. Three years ago I was a sophomore in college, and the craziest thing that had ever happened to me was getting into a car accident. Then, on a drive home from the Cheesecake Factory with my buds during spring break 2020, it slowly dawned on us that we weren’t going back to school. And that the world was going to be, like, legitimately bad, now, in a way that we had never seen and couldn’t appreciate, and the thin veneer of civilization was wiped away as if it were an errant grease stain on the otherwise pristine stainless steel kitchen range of the universe. Now, the possibilities for shittiness are endless. Even aliens are on the table.
But worst of all, it almost feels to me, like I’m being left behind. My whole life, I had felt adequate, if not superior, in plenty of ways. Good college, stable family, decent career path. But now, months after graduation, I find that I could have been teaching myself LLMs, or, microchip design, or fucking dropshipping, whatever the hell that is, and my shitty little paralegal job doesn’t mean anything, in the long run, because in the long run we’re all some silicon tyrant’s slaves. I have taken a long look into the barren crags of my soul, and found it utterly inconsequential, and meaningless. Where is my Manhattan Project? I demand, pounding my fists on the table.
But I’m also smart enough to know that part of this is the normal postgrad jitters that come from being ejected from the airlock headfirst into the hostile vacuum of the real world. Part of it is missing my family, and my friends, and being scared shitless about what I’m actually, no for real, what I’m actually doing with myself. Still part of it too is genuine. The world is not what it was. While I was doing yearbook club and writing essays on Sophocles, people unbeknownst to me were working tirelessly to permanently change the only place I’ve ever known, and its scaring the fuck out of me.
There was a saying that used to go around at the youth center in my hometown. “Every crisis is an identity crisis.” It’s true.
There’s another saying, about Japan, that’s also true, or so I’ve been told by white, non-Japanese people who know more than I. That the Japanese are of three, syncretic religions. “Born Shinto, marry Christian, die Buddhist.”
Three religions seems like a lot for a place, but the Japanese are no strangers to adaptation and integration. Like their island brothers to the west, the English, the Japanese took mightily to the industrial revolution, although it had to go the roundabout way, making the full 360 through America, with Admiral Matthew Perry showing up at Kanagawa in 1854 with a miniature locomotive and ordering the Japanese to industrialize, because the US wanted to trade. Allegedly, the samurai were so enthralled that they rode the tiny train around and around the track, robes flapping behind them, and the gathered crowd, normally so reserved, couldn’t help but let out cries of delight at the piercing blast of the horn. Within the year, they were making headway on creating their own versions of this tech, and within 100, they were prepared to declare war on the same people who first brought it to their island.
It’s hard, when you’re in Japan, as an American, to not feel totally inadequate and humiliated just by being there. “Anything you can do, I can do better / I can do anything better than you!” Ethel Merman blares. Steel forging, combustion engines, animated movies, cameras, laptops, smartphones, trains, cars, capitalism, classical music, jazz, even American bluejeans are better when they’re Japanese American bluejeans. It feels civilized in this place, like this is true civilization and everywhere else is Mad Max. Tokyo is the largest city in the world, and it’s the cleanest city I’ve ever been to, and yet there are no trash cans anywhere. Everyone just carries their dirty trash around with them, all day. Turnstile-jumping, to avoid paying fares, which is totally the rage in New York and San Francisco and any other place in America that’s ever had a subway or light-rail system, is totally absent here. The doors on the turnstiles aren’t even closed, they just jerk together at short-person thigh-height to let you know that you’ve swiped incorrectly, and a station manager sidles over to help you with your ticket, because no Japanese person has ever dreamed, let alone dared, to take the train without paying. Everyone is totally silent, and polite, and says please, and thank you, and will apologize just for looking at you.
You might say that you could never live like this, and that it only works because they all work a zillion hours a week, and they’re all really like sheep beneath the emperor, and that it makes total sense that they fell in with the Germans because good lord they’re basically still fascist, or, rightly, point to suicide rates, and reproduction rates, and the amount of interior-bound NEETs who exist purely in VR chat and at the 7/11 down the road, which are all fair points. But at the end of the day, they live like this. Really, actually live like this, and America? We couldn’t. Could never. But we could certainly drop a big-ass bomb on them.
Interestingly enough, the dominant internal narrative around the bomb in Japan, which one might think would be Shinto or Buddhist, is actually Christian, even though less than 2% of the population are full time Christians. But Urakami village, where the bomb was dropped in Nagasaki, was over 50% Catholic. The story of a Catholic lay-man, Nagai Takashi, captured the nation.
At first, people saw the bombing as just punishment, that the long-persecuted Catholics of Urakami had been punished dearly for worshiping a foreign, evil deity; that those who were killed deserved it, and those who were spared were granted divine grace for worshiping Shinto gods, as they should. Nagai Takashi saw differently, and spoke out in opposition to the initial story of the bombing of Nagasaki, and in defense of his Catholic brethren. To him, the bomb was an act of ineffable providence. The deaths of the Christians of Nagasaki were necessary: like the killing of a flock of sacrificial lambs. It was the price they paid to atone for the atrocities of Japan, the sins of the world, and to end the brutal war. Takashi was backed by other Catholic survivors, clinging to the thought that their loved ones were chosen, not punished, and the country seized on the hopeful story.
Takashi saw his village ripped asunder by an extreme: a pillar of nuclear fire, the most powerful and frightening thing mankind has ever made, perceived by Hiroshima’s True Pure Land Buddists as the culmination of the tragic error of human morality, and the grand mistake of WWII. But where the Buddhists wove a tale of direct karmic retribution and resignation, the imperfect collective body rolling over and dying, Takashi chose to perceive the bomb as a cross on which to martyr his people, and redeem them. With their Western ideas, in response to the Western weapon, Japan rebuilt themselves from that white-hot desert moment beyond the zero when all hope is lost.
Takashi wrote books, which became bestsellers. Plays were written about the books, which won awards, and a movie adaptation, The Bells of Nagasaki, released to widespread acclaim. The theme song proved especially popular.
It’s interesting what happens when you hit the edge of meaning and just keep going. I don’t think I’m going to get my own Manhattan Project, actually. Maybe if I lived in 1940s America, I’d be stuck in some radio lab division of the OSS and given a female secretary and we’d be told that our work was of the utmost importance, which maybe it was, actually. But at least now, in America, back on American soil, I know that the only really “important” thing I’m going to do for the rest of my life is try to live with it. Not to curl up in a ball on my bed in a wave of existential dread, but just to get up, and go to my job, and drink the diet coke, and turn the PDF into a word document until I hate it so much I phoenix out, and move on.
I actually do go see Barbie, if only to write this essay, flavor-blasted out of my gourd on a Sunday afternoon, as one is wont to do, and I think of my Mom. It’s a nice movie. It’s not as heart-poundingly intense and pertinent as Oppenheimer, nor as aloof and introspective as Asteroid City. But Margot Robbie is funny, and charming, and looks great in all the different pink outfits they make her wear, and the same goes for Ryan Gosling. I gradually realize that it’s basically the same thing as The Lego Movie, a childhood classic, right down to the big bad company owner being played by Will Ferrell.
My parents and brother are still in Japan. They have an extra week there, but I have work on Monday. Still, I am walking with a spring in my step. There’s something civilizing about visiting the frontier, even if it’s not the frontier anymore, and we’re fresh out of empty desert. Maybe it’s just the difference. No longer am I simply a man. I’m a man who has been to Japan.
I sit at home and assemble a miniature Mass Produced Eva model that I bought at Osaka Castle, in the basement of the former military headquarters of the 4th Division Imperial Japanese Army, and flip through travel photos. There’s one of a torii gate at Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, a huge man-made forest compound plopped in the middle of the city, with miles of paths to lose yourself on.
The gate is massive, made of subtly fluted, organic looking stone. Before you go through, you’re supposed to wash your hands at the fountain, bow in front of it, and take your first step with your left foot. Not everyone does it. I ask Theo about it, and he says that Shintoism is sort of a give-and-take. Everyone participates in their own way, worshiping their own gods, whether they know it or not.
“It is what it is.” Theo shrugs. He steps across the invisible line without washing his hands, or bowing.
There’s actually an account, from a child in Hiroshima named Kōji Shigenobu, who grew up and became a True Pure Land Buddhist priest. He was sixty miles away from the bomb when it ignited, and recalls how the mushroom cloud looked, hovering over the serene mountains. Beautiful. It’s white on top, and on the bottom, a reflection of the fires below, pink.
— Brad Berklich is laying low in Washington, D.C., where he is looking for America. Find him on Twitter.