The touchy film's finally playing in Japan. But does the media actually have an opinion on it?
Controversial documentary The Cove is again causing an international stir after finally being made available to the mainstream Japanese public in a (so far) handful of movie theatres in the country. I’ve mentioned this film several times in the past, after last year being blown away by its surprisingly un-documentary-like plot and important message. The story is definitely more edge-of-your-seat spy-caper than you’d expect, and also manages to expose the truth behind a cruel and potentially life-harming (for humans) ‘national tradition.’
The movie has nowhere been more controversial than in Japan, where it was filmed—in the small coastal town of Taiji where the group of American filmmakers behind The Cove secretly filmed the local annual dolphin cull.
Since most reports on this issue have stayed true to journalistic objectivity, showing the viewpoints of both supporters and (strong) opponents of the film in Japan, I’ve personally been craving some good published opinion that doesn’t necessarily play it safe for the public.
So I was excited to come across some colourful and eloquently expressed commentary lately in The Japan Times, by both an esteemed long-time expat in the country and a Japanese native.
C.W. Nicol wrote a piece in the Times this Sunday that, not unlike the plot of The Cove, actually ended up surprising me. Nicol, a writer and long-time resident of Japan, starts off his piece by talking about his experiences in the 1960s and ‘70s, when he hunted seals in the Canadian Arctic and sailed on a whaling boat with Canadian and Japanese hunters looking for Sei and Sperm whales.
He goes onto describe things like his affinity for the taste of whale meat, his ‘enormous respect for the courage, skill and seamanship of those who take food from the sea,’ and his novel, Harpoon, written partly in hopes to gain some understanding from the outside world for the Japanese tradition of whale hunting.
But then, Nichol changes tune when he begins to talk of a particular experience he had in 1968, when he was invited to witness his first Japanese dolphin hunt in none other than the town of Taiji. Of his shock and horror on seeing what he saw there, he explains:
‘What horrified me in Taiji was that the dolphins were not harpooned… Instead, the hunters were simply throwing spears into a melee of the animals swimming in a small inlet they had sealed off from the sea, hitting them here and there…This was a far cry from the efficiency—and respect for life, and death—of an Inuit hunter or a whaler at sea.’
Nicol further describes a painful and torturous scene in Taiji, where he witnessed a dolphin ‘thrashed and (bleeding) for a horrible 45 minutes before it succumbed to its wounds,’ and what’s worse, an ‘old grandmother laughing at a dolphin's death throes and pointing out the animal to the small child with her as if it was some kind of joke’ which for him ‘hurt and shook my belief in people.’
Nicol concludes by asserting that ‘For me, the old Japanese justifications citing tradition and culture don't cut much ice when the tradition involved is inhumane.’
I find it difficult to find any reason to disagree with his statement; especially coming from somebody who witnessed the manifestation of such tradition first-hand.
Meanwhile, late last month Kaori Shoji, a film reviewer for The Japan Times, seemed to go out on a limb when she wrote an engaging piece on the issue from a very personal point of view. One of my favourite of her statements in the article, for its practically poetic feel reads, ‘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.’
Shoji describes her experience seeingThe Cove as a Japanese person, ‘a rash-inducingly uncomfortable’ one, even though she’s never consumed ‘a cetacean’ in her life, and goes on to explain that while in her opinion the film is ‘not a diatribe against the Japanese,’ that it is ‘almost impossible, as a collective populace—not to take this personally.’
However, despite the jarring effect on her, Shoji calls on the people of her country to watch the movie: ‘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.’