Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Japan Cuts ’17: A Whale of a Tale

“I want you guys all dead.”
“We’ll rape you, monsters.”
“Let’s hire a hitman.”

Which organization’s followers do you think left these violent Facebook comments? It wasn’t a skinhead group. It was Sea Shepherd, the extremist environmental/animal rights organization that has made it their business to harass and intimidate the residents of Taiji, the Japanese fishing village that had the misfortune to appear in the manipulative documentary, The Cove. Although documentarian Megumi Sasaki treats Sea Shepherd far more fairly than they treat the Taiji villagers, their thuggish behavior speaks for itself in the scrupulously even-handed A Whale of a Tale (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Given its remote location and lack of fertile land, the ancient village of Taiji probably would have starved without whaling (the term whale is often used synonymously for dolphin in Japan). It is a tradition that has been handed down to this very day. With foaming-at-the-mouth intensity, Sea Shepherd will equate any appeal to tradition with Antebellum defenses of slavery. Yet, there is indeed a distinct traditional regional cuisine, largely based on whale meat.

Ever since The Cove won the Oscar, Taiji has literally been under siege from western activists. Yes, whales and dolphins are harvested in Taiji’s bay. Sometimes the resulting blood can be seen flowing in the water. The fact remains, none of the whales and dolphins slaughtered for food or captured for water parks and aquariums are endangered. None of them. Indeed, the Taiji fisherman are dedicated conservationists, who take great efforts to maintain sustainable whale populations.

None of this irony is lost on Jay Alabaster, an American expat journalist fluent in Japanese, who reported on the Taiji story at length and serves as the viewers guide through the picturesque town and the contentious issues it faces. On some levels, he sympathizes with the dolphins, but he can also see the human side of the story. Taiji residents are good people who do not deserve to have Sea Shepherd screaming “murderer” in their faces. At one point, we see an unfortunate man crouching down, covering his head with his arms, as the Sea Shepherd “activists” surround him, raining verbal abuse down on him.

Remember that image. It accurately reflects the extremism of the modern day “green” movement. It is not based on science, because none of the whales involved are at risk. Rather, it is based on a luddite hatred of commerce and a quasi-religious belief that man as a species is irredeemably wicked. Therefore, the utter contempt for the citizens of Taiji and their ancient traditions, isn’t just excusable. It is what their crusade is all about.

The thing is, Sasaki did her level best not to make a Sea Shepherd expose. She gives them more than equal time to make their case. She also talks to veteran Japanese anti-whaling activists, who ruefully suggest there would be less demand for whale meat without the mob scene at Taiji.

Nevertheless, Sasaki faithfully records the reality at Taiji and her honesty is damning. As an American, I now feel the need to personally apologize to the people of Taiji for the abuse they have had to endure. Our country is better than what you’ve seen from those fanatics. Moushi wake arimasen.

This is a documentary that urgently needs to be seen, but distributors are unlikely to touch it, because it challenges accepted narratives and biases. It probably does not help that the scattershot, not-ready-for-prime-time rebuttal doc Behind “The Cove” had a small but poorly-reviewed theatrical run last year. The Taiji controversy deserved a much better documentary. This is that film. Very highly recommended, A Whale of a Tale screens Saturday (7/15) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.