‘The Cove’

The truth will arrive; better late than never


A Japanese diver who signed up to travel and work aboard a Sea Shepherd (the renowned, independent ocean conservation society) boat told a local magazine that, initially, she was apprehensive because of her nationality. Coming from a nation that does continuous battle with ocean conservationists, she was afraid that whatever contribution she made would be viewed with skepticism by the rest of the crew. (It turned out that she had nothing to fear.)

Since time immemorial the Japanese have taken much from the sea and given precious little in return. The traditional, unspoken attitude is that we’re an island nation with few natural resources — the ocean is there to serve and feed us and that pretty much describes its raison d’e^tre.

A case in point are the blowfish restaurants scattered throughout major cities in Japan. These restaurants often display barely alive blowfish crammed in glass tanks of full of gray water.

Putting live fish on display before gutting them and carrying them to the table isn’t uniquely Japanese — the practice is common all over East Asia. Not that this makes the practice any more palatable.

The Japanese Sea Shepherd member is right: Our genes get in the way of trying to do right by the ocean, and the weight of the guilt is almost too much to bear.

The Cove
Director Louis Psihoyos
Run Time 92 minutes
Language English, Japanese

“The Cove” (which won an Oscar for Best Documentary last year) raises a giant mirror to the Japanese and invites them to take a good, long look at their reflections. “The Cove” exposes the Japanese mind-set in relation to the sea; a mind-set that has everything to do with profit and economy and so-called cultural traditions, and nothing to do with altruism.

Twenty three thousand dolphins are slaughtered each year in a little town called Taiji in Wakayama Prefecture — a region renowned for its beautiful coastline, warm climate and . . . great seafood.

Dolphins are drawn to the calm waters surrounding the area — and for several generations the fishermen have trapped them in a cove tucked away in a national park, harpooned them, and, as the film has exposed, sold their mercury-infested meat to supermarkets and the companies that supply elementary school lunches.

Speaking from a Japanese point of view, it was rash-inducingly uncomfortable to sit through the 92-minute duration of this film, even if I’ve never eaten a cetacean in my life. Hidden cameras planted by the film team (including world-class divers and technicians from Industrial Light and Magic) expose the full horror of what actually goes on in the cove, and there are aerial shots of the thick, bloodied water immediately after the killing. “The Cove” reveals Taiji as a veritable Auschwitz for dolphins, and there’s no comfort in knowing that elsewhere in the world similar atrocities occur but have not yet been taken to task in film. Dolphin slaughter (though on a much smaller scale than in Taiji) has been a common practice in the Solomon Islands for the last four centuries. Nearly 4,000 seals are clubbed or shot to death in Canada every year. But such facts cannot cancel out the wrenching violence and gaping hypocrisy involved in capturing the dolphins, selling the best-looking ones to buyers or trainers from dolphinariums (the sale process is open to public viewing) and then surreptitiously killing off the rest of them in a nearby cove. Particularly nauseating is the smiling dolphin statue erected just outside the town, letting visitors know they have come to a nice sea resort friendly to marine animals.

Historically speaking, railing against acts of cruelty is something the Japanese have never really been good at. The general belief (especially among the older generation) is that life for the Japanese was always hard and cruel, so there was no reason why it should be different for any other living thing. That belief has been trotted out by some to explain a lot of things (like the atrocities committed in World War II, for example). But at this point in time, that whole rigmarole has worn thin, as “The Cove” so eloquently points out.

There’s really no need to consume dolphins for food, or to maintain 50 dolphinariums in this country (which outnumbers the total in the whole of the EU). So why does the capture/slaughter continue? As the film crew helmed by Louis Psihoyos points out, the Japanese market for dolphins is huge — whether it’s to make them perform for the benefit of tourists into kawaii (cute) culture or pack off their meat in white plastic trays labeled “whale kind.”

Watching “The Cove,” it’s plain to see that as long as that market exists, any changes will come at the pace of hungover snails. Hopefully, some of the film’s imagery will serve as mega shots of adrenaline. Like the fishermen (their faces mosaic-ed by the Japanese distributors only add to their shiftiness), horrible and terrifying as they close in on the dolphins like a gang of rapists, and in the aftermath, extinguishing the bonfire they’ve made on the beach with bloodied seawater.

“The Cove” is not a diatribe against the Japanese but having said that it’s almost impossible, as a collective populace — not to take this personally. The man-behind- the-project, Ric O’Barry (who used to train dolphins for the hit TV series “Flipper” before dedicating his life to freeing captive dolphins), stresses repeatedly in the film that most Japanese under 60 have never eaten dolphin meat or are aware that any slaughtering is going on, and hopes the movie will jolt the viewers, if not into immediate activity then certainly into awareness.

Until three days ago even that wish was about to be denied — initially slated to open in Tokyo on June 26, screenings of “The Cove” had been canceled after threatening demonstrations by rightwing activists outside the promotion company’s offices. The rightwingers claim the film is an attack on Japanese culture by foreigners.

At one point it looked as though a theater release would be postponed indefinitely. But after Herculean efforts on the part of the distributors and publicized protests from Japanese filmmakers including Yoichi Sai, the film opens in Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka on July 3 before going nationwide. It may burn your eyes and tear at your nerve tendons but at the risk of sounding trite, bearing witness is the very least we can do.