The same-day release of two polar opposite highly acclaimed films, Barbie and Oppenheimer, not only gave movie fanatics the cinematic double feature of the summer but also inspired a wave of memes.
Japanese fans didn’t find them funny.
Across social media—most notably on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter—Japanese users have been calling out the insensibility of some of the fan-made art combining both movies.
Fan art often uses elements from both movies, one depicting the pink doll haven Barbie Land while the other follows J. Robert Oppenheimer as he leads the effort to create the atomic bomb technology that would be used in international bombings.
On July 21, the official account for Gerwig’s film, @barbiethemovie, replied to one such edit, which depicted Margot Robbie’s character sitting on the shoulders of Cillian Murphy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer with an explosion in the back.
“It’s going to be a summer to remember,” the now-deleted post said, decorated with kissing and heart emojis.
Japanese fans’ outrage was heightened by this interaction, which some felt was insensitive and trivializing of the effects of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After online outrage called out the Barbie account for condemning the offensive meme, the official Japanese account for the film posted a statement addressing the controversy and apologizing to fans.
“We find the reaction to this fan-driven movement from the official US account for the movie Barbie to be extremely regrettable,” the statement reads. “We take this very seriously and are asking the US head office to take appropriate action. We apologise to those offended by these inconsiderate actions.”
In retaliation to the widespread Barbenheimer memes, however, some Japanese users started editing 9/11 references and imagery into Barbenheimer posts in hopes of familiarizing American fans with what the atomic bombing references feel like to Japanese audiences.
American users, however, didn’t seem to take offense. Instead, reactions varied in levels of humor, with some pointing out Americans’ familiarity with 9/11 jokes and others even complimenting the edits.
“This is top tier. I’d recommend making the smoke pink though,” one commented.
“When’s this releasing? I wanna watch Barbie bin Laden” another wrote.
X user @NickFromTokyo pointed out this phenomenon in a tweet that has since been retweeted by influential internet figures on both the right and left of American politics—namely, influencers Ben Shapiro and Hasan Piker.
The 31-year-old poster, who lives and works in Tokyo, learned about the social media response to the meme through friends who posted using the #NoBarbenhaimer hashtag.
He also said that despite the outrage, he hasn’t seen formal initiatives to boycott either of the films.
“It seems less about boycotting these movies and more about demonstrating their anger around the movement itself,” he told the Daily Dot.
Barbie will premiere in Japan on Aug. 11 while Oppenheimer’s theater opening date has not yet been announced.
Hollywood movies often premiere in Japan many months or even years after their American releases.
Users like Nick point out the cultural differences between America and Japan that lead to such contrasting reactions, where, unlike Japanese users, Americans are much more likely to poke fun at their own tragedies like the 9/11 attacks.
In contrast, the perceived trivialization of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Barbenheimer memes caused users to be upset.
“All of the tweets that I have seen have all been centered around the fan art that the Americans are creating and the seeming flippancy of Americans to take tragedies like Hiroshima and Nagasaki and belittle them through their fan art,” Nick told the Daily Dot.
“From that perspective, the pink mushroom cloud isn’t just a pink mushroom cloud—it’s the Hiroshima and Nagasaki tragedies being reduced to something to laugh at or mock.”
X user Akira Shijo also noted that the reaction to the memes varied from each side of the political spectrum.
The 27-year-old Tokyo-based web writer told the Daily Dot that for liberal-leaning Japanese people, there’s a standing prejudice regarding Americans’ moral perception of the atomic attacks, assuming that Americans morally agree with the bombings.
“When the Barbenheimer meme started gaining attention, the initial reaction came from the liberal side,” he told the Daily Dot.
“They argued that while imperial Japan was a perpetrator, using the concept of atomic bombs as a toy, let alone an official account reacting favorably to it, is unacceptable. They initiated a protest.”
Others pointed out a difference in how Japanese and American students learned about the bombings growing up, with the Japanese hearing about the devastation first hand whereas Americans were much more removed from the results of the attacks.
Despite the wildly different reactions to the viral memes, Barbie, which will see its Japanese premiere this week, has received wide success internationally, with its box office revenue passing the billion-dollar mark only weeks after its opening weekend.