(CNN) — The Warner Bros. Film Group has apologized after the Twitter account for its Barbie film sparked backlash over its embrace of memes that appeared to depict the character immersed in atomic blast imagery from Universal’s film Oppenheimer.
The posts sparked controversy in Japan and strong public criticism of Warner Bros. from the Japanese branch of the studio, which called the tweets from the official US account “inconsiderate” and demanded a response from its US headquarters. A subsidiary demanding an apology from a parent company is extraordinarily rare.
Social media has been awash with unofficial fan-made “Barbenheimer” memes since the two blockbuster films – one about the iconic Mattel doll, the other about America’s race to build the atomic bomb – were released on the same day in much of the world late last month.
The tweets from the official Barbie account responding to the unofficial memes were later deleted. But screengrabs posted on Twitter, now officially known as X, showed the Barbie account responding positively to a meme of a mushroom cloud superimposed on the head of Margot Robbie, the film’s star, and to another post depicting Oppenheimer actor Cillian Murphy carrying a cheerful Barbie on his shoulder against a burning backdrop.
Critics said the posts trivialized the nuclear attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US Air Force in 1945, which killed at least 110,000 people instantly and tens of thousands more within the year.
While the “Barbenheimer” hashtag is not part of an official Warner Bros. marketing campaign, Warner Bros. Japan said it was “extremely regrettable” that the Barbie account had responded to the posts.
“We take this situation very seriously and demand an appropriate response from the US headquarters,” Warner Bros. Japan said in a tweet Monday. “We apologize to anyone who felt uncomfortable by this inconsiderate response.”
Warner Bros. Film Group said in a statement to CNN Tuesday: “Warner Brothers regrets its recent insensitive social media engagement. The studio offers a sincere apology.”
Warner Bros., like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.
Meanwhile, a rival hashtag – “NoBarbenheimer” – has garnered attention on social media in Japan, with people using it to criticize the Barbie account’s conflation of the two films.
“We never make official 9/11 or Nazi stories. But they can make a story about the atomic bomb,” tweeted one user. “I still think there is an underlying disregard for Asia. I am too sad for words. It’s a shame.”
Another said they were “really disappointed” when they saw a post from the Barbie account, and would no longer buy a ticket. “I won’t watch it,” they tweeted.
Jeffrey J. Hall, a US academic based in Tokyo, tweeted: “The #NoBarbenheimer controversy is a reminder of the perception gap between Japan and the US over the issue of nuclear weapons.
“Japanese grow up learning about the horrors of the a-bombs and every year’s memorial ceremonies are treated as national news … Although 78 years have passed, these events are far from forgotten in Japan,” he added.
Hall went on to explain that the #NoBarbenheimer posts were not intended to condemn the US for using nuclear weapons, or a call for the country to apologize.
“They were negative reactions to how Barbie’s US marketing team was making light of the atomic bombings with positive responses to a-bomb memes,” he said.
Barbie is set to hit theaters in Japan on August 11. “Oppenheimer’s” distributor in Japan, Toho-Towa, has yet to announce a release date for the movie, according to Reuters.
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