A Whale Of A Tale


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

A Whale Of A Tale
"Sasaki is trying to engage the brain rather than going for a gut reaction."

In 2009, documentary The Cove had a massive impact on audiences around the world. Its vivid depiction of the hunting of dolphins and whales in the waters surrounding the small Japanese town of Taiji sparked international outrage and won it numerous awards, including an Oscar. Amidst this widespread acclaim, Eye For Film was actually one of the few publications to query its approach and point out the numerous problems with it as a supposedly objective piece of filmmaking. Now, almost a decade later, Megumi Sasaki's film revisits Taiji to look at the impact of the documentary, bringing both its methods and its effectiveness into question.

Nobody would question the fact that The Cove has had an impact on Taiji, but what kind of impact? Young journalist Jay Alabaster, who is American by birth but has spent half his life in Japan, explains that when he first visited the town for the purposes of this film he found that nobody would talk to him, something almost unheard of in a country with a strong tradition of hospitality where travellers usually receive a warm welcome. Before long we get a hint of why that might be as we see a fisherman being hectored by a group of Americans who question his honour and speculate on his feelings in a language he doesn't understand. It's bizarre to think that anyone would consider this a potentially useful approach in a culture where the greatest of virtues is politeness.

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Whale and dolphin hunting still goes on here, along with annual festival where cute dolphin imagery welcomes children who will soon be eating dolphin stew. Whilst this might seem appalling to Westerners, it's completely consistent with Japanese values which see death as simply a part of the cycle of life. Similarly, the presence of American Sea Shepherd activists extolling the intelligence and friendliness of dolphins is lost on the locals, who fail to see significance in it not because they don't respect dolphins but, rather, because they respect all animals - including humans - equally, and consider all to have souls. Something they have taken to heart is the message that killing should be done quickly and humanely, and they have modified their technique as a result - yet they ask, quite reasonably, why their slaughter of dolphins is presented in the most horrific way possible by people who don't look at what goes on inside their native country's slaughterhouses in the same way.

Megumi Sasaki's film is not unsympathetic to the notion that whales and dolphins deserve special protection. Its focus is on the complete failure of those trying to promote that message to understand or communicate with the local people, and the lack of consideration given to the issues those people face. Taiji knows it can't carry on whaling forever - there simply isn't sufficient demand for its product now that the generation with a nostalgic attachment to whale meat (those whose lives were saved by it during the years or privation that followed the Second World War) is dying off. A shift into capturing dolphins alive for dolphinariums has led to a different set of accusations of cruelty. The local dolphinarium - another attempt to find an alternative - is much more spacious and better organised than many in the US, so it's possible that the local people simply don't know what kind of fate other captive dolphins face. At any rate, the visible absence of young people involved in the hunt speaks to its impending demise. The older fishermen talk of passing down their trade, but it's unclear who they would be passing it to.

Taiji is a town with limited economic options. Ironically the presence of whales and dolphins, together with its startling natural beauty, might make it a successful tourist destination, but The Cove has put paid to any hopes of that.

There are scenes of slaughter in this film which some viewers are likely to find distressing, though they're nowhere near as explicit as the scenes in that earlier documentary - Sasaki is trying to engage the brain rather than going for a gut reaction. Alabaster, meanwhile, tries to bring people together to talk about ways forward that can see everyone's concerns addressed. This focus on pragmatism and compromise makes for far less dramatic cinema than the dogmatism of The Cove, and in this regard the film's mission is emblematic of a much bigger cultural challenge. In a world where clickbait rules, this is real journalism. It's an invitation to viewers to invest in a deeper understanding of an inevitably complicated issue and set emotion aside in pursuit of real solutions.

Reviewed on: 28 Oct 2018
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A film about the impact of documentary The Cove on the small whaling town of Taiji.

Director: Megumi Sasaki

Starring: Jay Alabaster, Atsushi Nakahira, Rick Oliver. Atsuko Sakuma, Kazutaka Sangen

Year: 2016

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: Japan, US


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