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Taiji’s dolphin hunters have a new voice

by

Special To The Japan Times

It’s not often a documentary is made in response to another documentary, but this year two movies have addressed the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove,” which was about the capture and killing of wild dolphins in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture. First-time filmmaker Keiko Yagi’s “Behind the Cove” came out last spring, and it is clearly a rebuttal to the American film, which Yagi criticized as being one-sided.

A Whale of a Tale,” the other documentary that responds to “The Cove,” had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea earlier this month. Its director, Megumi Sasaki, a Japanese filmmaker based in New York who previously directed “Herb and Dorothy,” may suffer the unfortunate luck of having her film mistaken for Yagi’s since it came out afterward. However, the differences between them couldn’t be starker.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘neutral,'” she said during the Q&A following a screening of her film, which was also attended by residents of Taiji, including the mayor. “I think neutrality is impossible — we all have opinions. But I wanted it to be balanced.”

In that regard, her film could be characterized as a corrective, because the people of Taiji have been effectively demonized since “The Cove” made them internationally famous against their will. What the world knows about the town from the film is that it hosts a “drive hunt” that forces dolphins into a cove where they are butchered alive for food. Taiji has become ground zero for activists who mean to protect cetaceans, particularly dolphins, which are considered highly intelligent. Inspired and sometimes led by former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry, the star of “The Cove,” dozens of people come to Taiji during the autumn drive-hunt season to protest the killings. Taiji fishermen defend the hunt as a tradition, but in “The Cove” they came across as bloodthirsty and bullheaded. Sasaki thought there must be more to the story.

“My film doesn’t say whether hunting dolphins and whales is good or bad,” Sasaki tells me during a meet-and-greet at BIFF. “It provides an entry point to a bigger issue, which is globalism versus localism.” As she sees it, the idea that dolphins should not be killed and eaten is one the world has accepted, and suddenly this small town — which has been hunting sea mammals for 400 years because it is not blessed with arable land — had to confront that mindset unprepared. As shown in “The Cove,” the residents became defensive and combative, thus making their arguments less sympathetic.

“Every culture adapts to global pressures in different ways and at different speeds,” she says. “Taiji is a good example.”

What’s different about Sasaki’s film is its depiction of detente. Over the years, Taiji residents have become, to a certain extent, accustomed to the foreign activists who show up every September to record and demonstrate. While animosities still exist — one section of the film is a montage of activists throwing nasty epithets at fishermen — each side has come to understand the other’s viewpoint, even if they don’t agree with it. Relationships are now on a first-name basis.

Sasaki’s purposes were aided by Jay Alabaster, a Japan-based American journalist who temporarily moved to Taiji after “The Cove.” Alabaster knows the issue inside-out and has gained Taiji residents’ trust as someone who is fair-minded. He explains that local residents are not “barbaric and uncivilized,” as some activists insist. They just aren’t media-savvy.

In one scene, Alabaster attempts to explain the use of social networks like Twitter to a local fisherman. The main opponents to Taiji’s way of life, O’Barry’s Dolphin Project and the eco-activist group Sea Shepherd, use social media to great advantage. Taiji’s fishermen have no presence on the internet.

“These days, if you don’t have a voice in social media, you have no voice at all,” says Sasaki. “The whalers in Taiji don’t know how to handle it, so they’ll never be heard. That’s the world we live in — whoever has the loudest voice controls the argument.”

By her account, Taiji has compromised while the activists haven’t budged a millimeter. When Sasaki asks O’Barry if there’s any “middle ground,” he replies that of course there is: Taiji has to stop killing dolphins.

“Ric O’Barry is a nice guy,” Sasaki says. “I understand where he’s coming from, but he and the Sea Shepherd people haven’t altered their stance, while the town has changed somewhat.”

During a public debate, which O’Barry at the last minute withdraws from, Taiji claims they now use a more humane style of killing that eliminates the dolphins’ suffering, thus putting it in line with methods used in slaughterhouses in the developed world. Sea Shepherd says that Taiji cannot fall back on “tradition” because history shows that progress negates atrocious ideas, such as slavery. Not surprisingly, both sides didn’t think anything was accomplished and have not had a follow-up debate.

In the end, Alabaster, whose observations comprise the film’s unstated moral position, implies that Taiji’s way of life will likely disappear due to economic and demographic realities. Whaling has no future, even as the Japanese government artificially props it up as “research.” Likely, it would have vanished years ago if foreign parties hadn’t protested so aggressively. One reason Japan still hunts whales is to show that it isn’t cowed by gaiatsu (outside pressure).

Taiji’s hunts are environmentally responsible and sustainable: Hunters don’t catch endangered species, take only what they need and whatever they kill is used completely. But they can’t make a living from their kills. They can only do that by selling live dolphins to aquariums and marine shows, and now the Japan Association of Zoos and Aquariums won’t buy dolphins from them under pressure from its international parent organization.

“I think the younger generation of Taiji, and of Japan, is going to have to decide on this,” says Sasaki. “If they choose to continue, they’ll have to come up with a better explanation.”