A Japanese woman hopes a documentary she has made will help opponents of Japan’s hunting of whales and dolphins acquire a better understanding of the practice.
“Japanese have failed to argue against the criticism, mostly from the West, because silence is a virtue in Japan and also because of the language barrier,” said Keiko Yagi in a recent interview with Kyodo News in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, where “Behind The Cove” has been screening since late January.
The 107-minute movie in English and Japanese is touted as a “counterdocumentary” to the Oscar-winning U.S. film “The Cove,” which threw the Wakayama Prefecture whaling town of Taiji into the international spotlight with bloody scenes of its annual dolphin hunt.
“Some people misunderstand and try to label me as being anti-American or a rightist,” Yagi said.
But the 48-year-old Tokyo native describes herself as “a big fan of America and Hollywood films.”
She said two American celebrities — talk show host Oprah Winfrey and actress Whoopi Goldberg — are her heroes and she has worked at the Japanese branch of Paramount Pictures.
“This film is purely about animal discrimination, as to why it is OK to kill cows and pigs but not OK to kill whales and dolphins. There is no right or left,” she said.
“Behind The Cove” was filmed, directed and edited by Yagi and is the result of her solo quest for facts about the Japanese hunting of cetaceans, propelled by a simple question: Who can judge which animal should be eaten or not?
The film, screened at the Montreal World Film Festival in September, was “incidentally produced,” she said, as she had initially planned to create “something short for release on YouTube.”
But as her quest brought “many unexpected discoveries,” it kept expanding to cover whaling history, religion, U.S. space programs and even World War II and the Vietnam War. By then she was hooked.
Finally Yagi decided to make it a feature-length film despite opposition from her husband, who feared such an attempt might make her a target of harassment by anti-whaling activists.
Yagi had never directed a film before and knew little about the whaling issue. She only had fond memories of eating deep-fried whale meat in school lunches when she was in elementary school.
But a decision in March 2014 by the International Court of Justice that Japan must abandon its “research whaling” in the Antarctic Ocean drew her attention to the issue.
The ruling handed down in a case lodged by Australia was “ridiculous,” she thought.
“Anti-whaling countries call Japanese research whaling a cover for commercial whaling on the grounds that we eat the whales caught in the research. They ignore the facts that the international whaling convention actually permits research whaling and requires any whales taken in the research to be processed as far as is practicable.”
Yagi had taken part in the production of a Japanese film as a freelancer and harbored an interest in filmmaking after quitting Paramount, where she worked in the back office, in March 2011.
Her research journey started with a compact home video camera. She used broken English to interview people including David Hance, a member of the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society; “The Cove” director Louie Psihoyos; and Richard O’Barry, a U.S. dolphin trainer who is now a dolphin rights activist and starred in the U.S. film.
She spent four months in Taiji, talking with former Antarctic whalers and chasing Sea Shepherd members monitoring the dolphin hunt. She also interviewed Japanese government officials and traveled to Washington to search archives.
Whether Yagi’s film is seen as a counter to “The Cove” must be left up to viewers.
Yagi said that Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander in Japan during the U.S.-led Allied Occupation following World War II, permitted Japanese whaling boats to catch whales in the Southern Ocean in an effort to ease food shortages.
Various points of view came to light in the film.
O’Barry, who was recently denied entry to Japan and was deported, said during the interview, “I realize that a lot of the attention (of the anti-whaling community) is … not getting through in Japan, but it is in the rest of the world.”
Psihoyos argued that his film crew’s initial objective was to get both sides of the story, but no one in Taiji would talk with them on camera.
Kunio Yonezawa, a former chief delegate to the International Whaling Commission, opined, “They kill many baby sheep and cows, don’t they?”
Although Yagi sees “The Cove” as being one-sided and “intentionally portraying Taiji, a peaceful tiny fishing town in reality, as a scary place,” she also criticizes moves seen in Japan, notably by rightist groups employing loudspeakers to shout slogans, to oppose its screening.
“I am against them both — being silent (to the criticism of the whaling) or using loudspeakers to suppress freedom of expression,” she said, adding that is why she made her film. “I wanted to use footage in order to refute footage.”
Although her film’s website became temporarily inaccessible earlier this year, with the Anonymous hacker group claiming to have carried out cyberattacks, Yagi said she will not yield to such harassment.
“Behind The Cove” will be shown in Shinjuku until March 11. Screening is to start in Osaka, Hokkaido’s Tomakomai and Okinawa between mid-March and early April.
Yagi also hopes to bring the film overseas, as she has received screening requests from Australia, France and the United States.
Even the dolphin activist O’Barry has expressed a willingness to see her film, according to Yagi. The 76-year-old American texted her, saying he tried to see her film in Tokyo but couldn’t because of deportation. He wonders how he can view it, she said.