‘Cove’ debut draws mixed reactions

by Minoru Matsutani

“The Cove,” a film about dolphin slaughters in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, drew a mixed response from an audience of 150 that included foreign journalists in Tokyo on Friday evening, the first time the award-winning movie has been screened in Japan.

The 92-minute film, which was first screened in Los Angeles July 31 and is now being shown in other parts of the United States, Australia and some European countries, was screened at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

The film contains footage of dolphins being brutally killed and reveals that dolphin meat has high levels of methyl mercury, a toxic substance.

It also explains how Ric O’Barry, a dolphin protection activist and the main character of the film, fell in love with dolphins, how local fishermen and police tried to block movie crew from filming the slaughters and how the crew used ingenious high-tech devices to secretly record the slaughters.

The movie, directed by Louie Psihoyos and filmed with hidden cameras over a five-year period, won several awards, including the Audience Award in the Sundance Film Festival in January.

“It’s about contaminating people with mercury, not about animal rights,” O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer for the 1960s TV show “Flipper,” said in a news conference after the film. “Most Japanese people don’t know what’s going on in Taiji. They need to know.”

However, some in the audience thought the film makes an emotive appeal against the slaughters based on their brutality, rather than the danger of consuming methyl mercury.

Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia editor of British paper The Times, said after the movie and news conference that “(O’Barry) said it’s not about animal rights, but obviously it’s about animal rights.”

David Wybenga, an American who runs Japan Cat Network to save abandoned cats, agreed with Parry. “The film is more about his compassion about dolphins than mercury,” he said.

Tetsuya Endo, associate professor in the department of environmental chemistry and toxicology of the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, who appears in the movie, said he was disappointed because he had heard the movie would adopt a scientific tone but instead found it to be more like a drama.

If the movie is about the high mercury level in sea food, the focus should be on tuna rather than dolphins because many more people eat tuna, he said.

“As a researcher on mercury poison, tuna should be highlighted, not dolphins,” he said.

Tuna’s methyl mercury level can be higher than some types of dolphins, according to a Fisheries Agency’s study.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry acknowledges the high mercury level of dolphins and other large fish and sea animals and advises pregnant women not to eat an 80-gram serving of bottlenose dolphin, a type caught in Taiji and one of the most toxic dolphins, more than once in two months.

The movie shows former Taiji councilman Junichiro Yamashita saying in front of a video camera that dolphin meat should be pulled out of school lunches in the town because a test he initiated found high levels of mercury in the animal. Consequently, the town stopped serving the meat for school lunches.

Endo defended Yamashita’s action on the grounds that parents have the right to oppose dolphin meat in school lunches because they can’t choose what is in the lunches, unlike supermarket customers who can choose not to buy dolphin meat. He added that everybody, not only pregnant women or children, should refrain from eating an excessive amount of dolphins. He did not specify how much he considered an excessive quantity.

The Tokyo International Film Festival is planning to show “The Cove” in October.