Japan Cinema Now: Documenting the impact of The Cove
A Whale of a Tale is a nuanced documentary portrait of the ongoing controversy pitting whalers against activists
The world first heard of Taiji in 2009, when Louis Psihoyos’ documentary The Cove depicted the tiny Japanese village’s annual dolphin capture and slaughter in gruesome detail.
The now-infamous film, which went on to win the 2010 Oscar for Best Documentary, had an enormous impact on international public opinion regarding Japan, creating an Us vs. Them mentality, pitting environmentalists against traditionalists, and allowing no space for a dialogue to develop.
Encouraged by social media-savvy activists, protestors began pouring into Taiji every September during hunting season for the next 8 years. Yet their efforts did not put an end to the dolphin cull — or to whaling, although most Japanese eat neither dolphin nor whale meat.
After the release of The Cove, the swarming presence of angry outsiders, and their verbal attacks on the fishermen (who had been vilified in the film) compounded the travails of locals and exacerbated any chance at detente.
With the rallying cry on both sides reduced to a too-simple pro- or anti-whaling stance, the situation soon devolved into cultural warfare.
Onto this battleground stepped New York-based Megumi Sasaki, who followed the protests in Taiji for 6 years, and produced what is perhaps the first unbiased, nuanced portrait of the ongoing schism.
She was not concerned with recreating the tense drama of The Cove to provide a Japan-defending “corrective,” but rather, with capturing the current reality on both sides of the yawning divide. Sasaki’s A Whale of a Tale does not issue a call to action, but rather, to understanding.
The film’s release couldn’t come at a better time: Just a week ago, as a new season was set to begin in Taiji, the Sea Shepherd anti-whaling group suddenly announced that it was suspending its protests against Japan after more than a decade, including those in Taiji.
Prior to the Japan rollout of A Whale of a Tale, Sasaki screened a sneak preview of the film at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo, followed by a Q&A session that also featured one of the film’s voices of reason, Jay Alabaster.
About the film:
A Whale of a Tale reminds us of the salient facts — many of which have been lost in the ugly scuffle between the fishermen and the activists.
Organized whaling began in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, south of Nara, in 1606. For the fishermen, hunting is not only a way of life, but their very identity. Catching whales, dolphins and other fish has supported their families and fueled the town’s economy for 400 years.
For the activists, whales and dolphins are not fish but intelligent mammals, and they equate hunting them with the slave trade, fox hunting or bullfighting, all cultural practices that have been abolished or mitigated in modern times.
As the fall hunting season begins in 2010, activists and news crews pour in from abroad, wielding binoculars and cameras (sometimes violently) as they livestream footage of “atrocities” committed in Taiji cove, overwhelming the locals and the town’s infrastructure. Vans with right-wingers harass them via loudspeakers, as others look on it sheer dismay.
The film introduces us to the local whalers and several of the global protesters who have returned each year, including Ric O’Barry, the outspoken “star” of The Cove.
But Sasaki’s wisest decision is to focus the film on the activities of two mediators who provide illuminating perspectives: American journalist and researcher Jay Alabaster, who moved to Taiji in 2013 and has devoted years to befriending and earning the trust of locals; and Atsushi Nakahira, a nationalist who taught himself English so he could communicate with the protestors. An unexpected peacemaker, he eventually succeeds in bringing the two sides together for a public debate.
If A Whale of a Tale doesn’t quite turn us all into neutral observers, it moves us closer.
Sasaki’s lasting achievement is that the film recasts the ugly ideological impasse as one of globalism vs. localism — something we can all understand, irrespective of background. Still, one of the documentary’s conclusions is that Japan would likely have banned whaling by now if foreign protests had not been so relentless and aggressive.
Megumi Sasaki: “When I saw The Cove, I felt like I needed to make a film. It stuck in my throat like a little fish bone, as the Japanese expression goes. Documentary can be very powerful and influential. It’s usually used to expose the wrongdoings of those in power: the government or the big corporations. But when the camera is pointed at the fishermen in a little village by a big Hollywood powerhouse, I didn’t feel that was fair at all. I thought their voices should be represented somehow. My intention was not to make a pro-whaling movie. Whether it’s right or wrong, I wanted to leave the answer to the audience.
“This is the third year in a row that we’ve seen very few protesters in Taiji. This is directly the result of local police efforts. They have been taking down passport numbers, and when the activists try to come back to Japan, they are refused entry. A lot of activists were there from the Dolphin Project and Sea Shepherd, but both groups have been having a hard time for the last few years. But it doesn’t mean that their activism has slowed down. They’ve had big demonstrations in front of Japanese embassies and consulates overseas, so they just changed their strategies.”
Jay Alabaster: “Groups like Sea Shepherd are run like a business. They put their resources where they think they can get the most attention. So if they’re pulling out, then it’s because the attention they can get there has decreased a little.
“The protesters are media professionals. They’re very good at what they do, they have a lot of experience. If you’re going to have a debate, I think something should be said on the Japanese side. I’m working now on something — hopefully we’ll have it soon — a way for the fishermen to express themselves in English, to say where they’re coming from. I don’t know if you’ve been on Facebook, but there’s a pocket of it that is filled with hatred and meanness. If we can have a little bit more exchange of opinions, an online Q&A in English or a weekly blog with the fishermen, it could really help, for starters.”
Sasaki: “One thing I found out about the meaning of tradition is that it’s very different between Japan and the West. For Japanese, tradition is extremely important. They believe that whatever has continued for a long time has to continue in the future, too. Tradition is valued heavily in Japan. In the West, just because it’s continued for a long time doesn’t mean it’s good, like slavery. If it doesn’t fit in today’s society, it should be abolished. That’s the Western way of thinking.”
Alabaster: “The efforts of the whaling industry to survive and make itself relevant in Japan have been greatly aided by the Sea Shepherd. Everyone has their motivations, but if you went to any little town in America and without speaking English, told them to stop using guns, you would get exactly the same reaction.”
Sasaki: “For the people in Taiji, living with whales and whaling is their identity. It’s not just about food or economic activities, it’s their identity and their pride. I don’t think either side is right or wrong, it’s just a different approach … [but] it’s no longer an environmental movement, it’s now become an animal rights movement, which is way more powerful and active. I don’t think it will die down.”
New York City-based Megumi Sasaki directed the multi-award-winning documentary Herb & Dorothy (2008), about legendary New York art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel, and the follow-up, Herb & Dorothy 50X50 (2013), both of which were enormously successful in Japan as well as overseas, and continue to screen on TV and in theaters, museums and art fairs around the globe. Prior to founding Fine Line Media in 2002 to create TV and theatrical documentaries, Sasaki was an anchor, reporter and news director for NHK Television, as well as a freelance news director/field producer for many other channels.
Where it’s on:
A Whale of a Tale had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in late 2016, followed by other festival appearances. It opens in Japan on September 9.