Megumi Sasaki first rose to prominence with her documentaries Herb and Dorothy (2008) and Herb and Dorothy 50×50 (2013) that both followed the lives of art collectors Herbert and Dorothy Vogel. A Whale of a Tale is her first feature-length film to return her to her native Japan. In it, she takes on the complex story of Japan’s dolphin hunting. Focusing on Taiji, the Japanese coastal town that is famed for its whaling, A Whale of a Tale, seeks to engage with both the environmentalists and the fishermen in order to try to present a more neutral presentation of this complicated and controversial issues.Sasaki’s film is very much as a response to Louie Psihoyos’ American-made, award-winning documentary The Cove (2009) that gained international acclaim for its presentation of the dolphin killing that takes place at Taiji.
While The Cove very much placed the environmentalists led by Ric O’Barry at the centre of the narrative, Sasaki’s film engages with two very different characters. Jay Alabaster, an American journalist who moved to Taiji, speaks Japanese and has established a good relationship with the local population and Atsushi Nakahira, an English speaking nationalist who tries to find a way to bring the two sides into dialogue. These two unlikely characters provide a more multifaceted vision of the situation than we commonly see in global media. Atsushi Nakahira, despite his right-wing beliefs, manages in the duration of the documentary to bring Taiji’s leadership and the environmentalists into dialogue and the film charts the unfortunate failure of this attempt to break the stalemate.
The fallout from The Cove proved highly problematic for Taiji and Japan. Japan’s refusal to allow any outside opinion to dictate cultural activities and the environmentalist absolute focus on a hunting ban, means the two sides are unable to engage in any form of meaningful dialogue. The entrenchment of both camps is highlighted in the film where we see Ric O’Barry, who has been involved with anti-whaling protests for decades, state that “all Taiji needs to do to stop whaling”. This very clear statement does not acknowledge the fact the entire region has depended on whaling for hundreds of years and Taiji’s local culture has been formed, in large part, by their relationship to the animals they, in essence, see as large fish. For the environmentalists, and indeed most of world, dolphins are sentient beings who should be preserved and this differentiation of opinion is key to the issue.
From a personal point of view, I certainly don’t believe that dolphins should be killed or captured but I also have tremendous sympathy for these small and often dying coastal communities that are found across Japan. A Whale of a Tale balances these two difficult and often conflicting opinions by never condoning the killing or by the same extension, vilifying the fisherman and their families whose livelihoods depend on this process. The predominantly western animal-rights activists are passionately committed to their cause but are generally culturally unsympathetic to the Japanese community and fail to understand that their approach is ultimately making the situation harder to resolve. This lack of communication is highlighted when the daughter of a Sea Shepard member (who was spending the summer in Taiji protesting the whaling) asked at the conference held between the town and the protestors what she could do to influence the local government’s approach to the issues. The mayor responses with the point that the only option was to move to Japan, join the local community and only then would she get a right to voice an opinion on Taiji’s practices. This vision of the whaling as Taiji-based affaire rather than a global issue heralds the main tension. Outsiders see dolphins and whales as an international concern whilst the local community and Japan more broadly see this as an internal affaire.
What is raised in the film is the imbalance between the two camps of access to social media power. Sea Shepard, Greenpeace and O’Barry’s Dolphin Project have a savvy and clear internet presence whilst, as we learn, most of the fishermen in Taiji barely know twitter exists. Their voices are minoritised in the global narrative about dolphin hunting that this is leading to an even greater sense of entrenchment on the part of the fisherman and the wider town. This is actually leading to the sustaining of the dolphin hunting. As one of the Japanese anti-whaling activists (a very hidden minority in Japan) note, most people in Japan don’t eat whale and dolphin meat and it would probably die a natural death if left alone but Japan’s refusal to bow to international pressure is keeping the process alive for longer than it otherwise would. It is clear that Taiji will need to to find another source to sustain the village but what the future of the town will be is left very unclear. Something needs to replace the hunting, and whilst Taiji’s Mayor dreams of the town becoming an expert hub of dolphin knowledge and conservation it is hard to see that happening in reality.
In A Whale of a Tale, Sasaki handles the material with great sensitivity and sympathy for the local community and avoids the very graphic images of death that made the Cove so notable. The film is a testament to Sasaki’s patience and care as a documentarian. This is a divisive topic and the documentary offers a balanced and careful assessment and allows all the various interest groups to have their opinion heard in a caring and thoughtful manner.
A Whale of a Tale was shown on November 18 at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.