The Oscar-winning 2009 documentary The Cove shocked the world with its brutal examination of the dolphin drive hunting that takes place in Taiji, Japan. The film’s unforgettable climax featured minutes of hidden-camera footage containing enough dolphin slaughter to make the ocean run temporarily red, and left an indelible mark on many viewers.
According to reports, sales of dolphin meat in Japan plummeted in the years after the film’s release. Additionally, the film’s advocacy against marine-mammal captivity at least predicted—if not directly influenced—the impact of 2013’s Blackfish, the documentary that almost singlehandedly shifted the public perception of SeaWorld from harmless zoo-circus to prison of precious species (the orca, in the case of that film).
Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki, whose documentary A Whale of a Tale is a response to The Cove, was also shocked by the film—though it wasn’t the visceral portrayal of the hunt that really got to her. In an interview with Jezebel last week, Sasaki said she felt The Cove was “one-sided” in its focus on American activists’ infiltration of the dolphin hunt. Furthermore, she said, the documentary—directed by activist Louie Psihoyos and produced in conjunction with his non-profit, the Oceanic Preservation Society—was “full of prejudice, misunderstanding, misleading of Japan and their belief based on Shintoism and Buddhism.”
“When you point the camera to little guys like fishermen in a little village in Japan, I think the power balance is off there,” she told Jezebel at the Japanese Society in New York, where she was doing press for A Whale of a Tale. “It’s not serving justice; it’s just bullying.”
Over the course of its 95 minutes, A Whale of a Tale ponders what place, if any, Westerners should have in arbitrating Japanese cultural practice. Whereas The Cove went for your heart, A Whale of a Tale is aimed more at your mind. The documentary features interviews with activists—many from Sea Shepherd—as well as fishermen, some of whose families include generations of people in the same line of work. A Whale of a Tale connects the modern, ongoing dolphin hunting to a whaling tradition that originated in Taiji over 400 years ago, a fairly common argument used by those who favor the hunt that activists against it (even an ex-dolphin hunter) have refuted, in part because it groups cetaceans too generally.
Sasaki, who grew up in Japan and has lived in the U.S. for about 30 years, was galvanized by her gut reaction and the lack of Japan’s critical voice on a national stage in response to The Cove’s accusations. “Japanese, culturally, don’t really do that. They don’t think it’s graceful to speak up loud and tell what’s wrong and what’s right,” she explained. From 2010 to 2015, she traveled to Taiji intermittently to capture The Cove’s effects on the town’s people, as well as greater Japan. A Whale of a Tale depicts hunts and ensuing clashes between activists and fishermen, explores the Taiji Dolphin Museum, contains footage of an annual festival in Taiji to honor (and consume) dolphins, and contains an interview with Japanese dolphin activist Nanami Kurasawa, who opposes the Taiji hunts. Some of the fishermen themselves say on camera that they understand the other side (though some—like one who claims that attempting to stop the hunts by uploading videos to the internet is “just business” to the activists—seem to have less of a grasp).
The film has largely been well received, but also the target of criticism. “A rambling blend of complaint, tourism and straw-men arguments,” is how Jeannette Catsoulis described it in her New York Times review. Additionally, The Cove’s director, Louie Psihoyos, and its principle human subject, dolphin-trainer-turned-dolphin activist Ric O’Barry, have denounced it. To Jezebel, the former called A Whale of a Tale “propaganda.”
Sasaki, in turn, called The Cove “an activist film,” and differentiated her motivations from those of The Cove’s Psihoyos by saying, “I’m not an activist, I’m just a storyteller.” She described herself as someone who looks at issues from a distance and doesn’t get “caught up in this emotional heated discussion about nationalism or environmentalism.” She declined to clarify her own personal beliefs about dolphin hunting and instead revealed that her Japanese mother told her, “There’s no good hunt of dolphins,” when Sasaki described the project to her.
“I don’t think it’s my role to impose my idea to the world,” Sasaki said. “I’m not here to change anybody’s mind or to motivate anybody to start any actions. I just wanted to show how complex an issue this is. It’s not black and white, like The Cove or Hollywood movies portray. It’s about the real life of the real people.”
It seems that there is an ideological gulf between those who support dolphin hunting and those who oppose it. Sasaki said that Japanese people find Westerners’ prioritizing of animals “puzzling,” as it opposes the nonhierarchical view of species taught by animism and Shintoism.
“Humans are just part of nature, which is flat [and doesn’t determine] who’s better or worse,” is how she summarized this way of thinking. “I think also [the Japanese] don’t understand why the intelligence of animals is humanlike intelligence, or [that their society] is a humanlike society. There are so many animals that have amazing intelligence, like birds. They migrate the same path every year without GPS. Isn’t that intelligence? Insects, or even octopus, they have their own way of intelligence that’s not humanlike.” She added, “To see animals from the intelligence point of view is really strange, especially for Japanese.”
But all sorts of cultures pick and choose what animals are appropriate for food, not always on a strictly practical basis. Monkey meat, for example, is only seen as a delicacy in select regions of Japan. Because this often comes down to gut reactions and culturally instilled, often myopic notions of what is right and wrong, people (namely Easterners) can feel a certain sense of entitlement in telling others what they can and can’t eat. The Whale of a Tale includes footage of a fisherman named Yuzuki who seems to be rationalizing dolphin hunting and consumption in that supposedly Eastern mindset by saying, “It’s not like we eat kangaroos.” Sasaki believes his point was not to perpetuate Eastern notions of hierarchy but to suggest that “Australians eat kangaroos and there’s nothing wrong with it, so why are whales and dolphins so different from eating kangaroos?”
“It’s not a question of what’s better or smarter or cuter,” The Cove’s Ric O’Barry told Jezebel by phone from Denmark. You may remember O’Barry onstage at the 2010 Oscars, where he held up a poster urging people to text a number for more dolphin info. He and his organization, the Dolphin Project, are focused on opposing the captivity of dolphins. O’Barry trained the original dolphins who appeared as Flipper on the ’60s TV series and feels responsible for dismantling the industry of dolphin shows that he helped create. He related a story in The Cove in which one of the dolphins he trained stopped breathing in his arms (dolphins don’t breathe automatically like land animals, but must consciously take in each breath). In The Cove, he describes this as “suicide,” a product of captivity-instilled depression.
“It’s more stressful for dolphins in captivity than any other animal you see in the zoo,” said O’Barry. “The dolphins in all of these places are in stadiums and they have to perform to be fed unlike any other animal you’ll see in the zoo. It’s more stressful for them. That’s why the mortality rate is so high, and that’s why they have to keep capturing more and more.”
O’Barry, who was deported from Japan in 2016 after 19 days of detainment, said he and the Dolphin Project are disinterested in the debate over dolphin meat.
“We’re not there to tell people what they can and can’t eat,” he said. “No nation has the right to tell any other nation what to eat. We work on the captivity issue, and we’ve been doing that since Earth Day 1970. This is the biggest spot for the capture of dolphins. That’s why we’re there.”
A Whale of a Tale concedes that dolphins are captured during the drive hunt, and that live dolphins fetch substantially more money than dead ones ($1,500 to $11,000 for those intended for captivity versus $40 to $110 for those made into meat). O’Barry sent Jezebel a PDF of a contract in which the Dominican Republic’s Ocean World theme park agreed to pay about $154,000 a piece per Taiji dolphin in 2006. The government of D.R. denied the import permits.
A Whale of a Tale largely glosses over the ethical argument of captivity—we see grinning visitors to the Taiji Whale Museum enjoying its dolphin shows without any interrogation. O’Barry recently traveled to China, where he observed 38 new dolphinariums with over 50 more planned. He also said he is unhappy that he appears in Saski’s film—his interviews were all shot outside, mostly adjacent to protests.
In a phone conversation with Jezebel last week, Louie Psihoyos, director of The Cove, dismissed Sasaki’s film and doubled down on his film’s critique of Japanese dolphin-hunting.
“To defend dolphin meat as a cultural thing—I don’t buy it,” said Psihoyos. “It’s poison. They say, ‘It’s our tradition.’ Big fucking deal, it’s your tradition. We had traditions of slavery, not allowing women to vote. We were smoking on planes up until 20 years ago. There are a lot of traditions that just need to go away because we’re evolving. It’s a bad tradition.”
Psihoyos claimed that before he and his crew set up hidden cameras in the cove where the dolphin hunt takes place, he “desperately” attempted to get the fishermen’s side of the story, which Sasaki has criticized The Cove for lacking.
“We spent tens of thousands of dollars and weeks of time trying to get their side of the story before realizing that the reason they didn’t want to talk is they wanted us to go away,” he said, recalling spending seven hours in the office of Taiji mayor Kazutaka Sangen for this endeavor. “If we told that story, we’d expose what happened and look what happened. We exposed what happened.”
Speaking to both Sasaki and Psihoyos about the same issue felt like refereeing an evenly matched ping-pong game. Sasaki dismissed dolphin meat’s high mercury content as a cause for concern, much as her film does by citing studies by scientists and research by Jay Alabaster (“I don’t believe that mercury is a major issue,” says the American journalist who worked for years in Japan); Psihoyos declared the mercury issue the “Achilles’ heel” of the pro-hunting side. Sasaki advocated for hearing the issue’s many voices; Psihoyos said that The Cove’s impact is proof of his side’s victory. A Whale of a Tale credits The Cove with drying up the dolphin-meat market, and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s report of Taiji drive hunt figures show that numbers have slumped since 2010 (the combined figure of dolphins killed and removed for captivity during the 2015-16 season was 652, down from the previous year’s tally of 831).
“If dolphins are so great, and if you want to protect dolphins, 300,000 dolphins die as bycatch in commercial fishing,” said Sasaki, citing a figure confirmed by the International Whaling Commission as representing all cetaceans caught in commercial fishing apparati, not just dolphins. “Why don’t we go toward that if you really want to protect dolphins? What Taiji fishermen are catching is minuscule compared to the overall ocean environment.”
When I passed on this question of Sasaki t0 Psihoyos, he said, “There’s activism around that,” and pointed to Earth Island’s initiative for dolphin-safe tuna. (Earth Island’s site says the 2012 figure for dolphins killed in tuna nets was 800.) “We’re a small organization so we work on what we can do to move the needle with the sources that we have,” he added.
Talking to both records led to an ideological impasse. Both have quick answers for the other side’s accusations, both have accused each other’s work of disingenuousness. Sasaki calls The Cove an “activist film,” and Psihoyos labels A Whale of a Tale as propaganda. I wondered, though, if Psihoyos had any theories as to what Sasaki’s motivation could be. After all, he is a self-proclaimed activist (“You’re either an activist or an inactivist,” reads a Psihoyos quote on the Oceanic Preservation Society’s website) and Sasaki says she is merely a storyteller with no real stake in the debate over the dolphin hunts.
“I think she’s trying to save face,” said Psihoyos, pausing to collect his thoughts. “If people feel at all nationalistic, they want to protect their own. I think there’s a little bit of that going on. She’s trying to defend these poor fishermen in Taiji.”
Psihoyos disagreed with the assessment that his film was Western imperialism, the work of white people attempting to control Japanese culture. “We’re not telling them what to do. We’re just trying to give them information,” said Psihoyos. “Japanese can eat dolphin meat all they want; they should know what we see as the facts. If I were a Japanese person listening to the Ministry of Fisheries’ propaganda, the Ministry of Health’s propaganda that dolphin meat is actually healthy and good for you and I saw The Cove, I would be like, ‘Thank God these foreigners came here and told us what our own government wouldn’t.’”
Ultimately, Sasaki struck a diplomatic tone, much like her movie does.
“I’m not saying activists are wrong at all. I think ultimately what American or European activists [and the Japanese] are looking for is the same thing: we want to protect the ocean,” she said at the end of our interview. “We want to have a rich, healthy ocean. That’s what everybody’s hoping for, so why don’t we move toward that? There’s so much ocean waste, debris, many whales are found starved and their stomachs are found full of plastic. Why can’t we work toward that together? Why can’t we focus on the common things instead of playing out differences, like the little difference we have. That’s my ultimate message.”
A Whale of a Tale is currently playing in New York and opens Friday in Los Angeles.