September heralds the six-month dolphin-hunting season in Taiji, a small seaside town in Japan's southwestern Wakayama prefecture. And residents are sensing the attack on them has also begun. The Cove a U.S. documentary with the air of a spy thriller that has been called "advocacy filmmaking at its best" since its release on July 31 depicts Taiji's centuries-old tradition of killing dolphins with an unflinching eye on the sometimes gruesome process. The documentarians, led by photographer turned director Louie Psihoyos and dolphin trainer turned activist Richard O'Barry, have stirred both international outcry and acclaim at film festivals from Sundance to Seattle with their footage of the slaughter that takes place every year in a remote cove in Taiji.
Earlier this week, the town decided to release 70 of the roughly 100 dolphins from the previous week's catch. But Taiji fishermen aren't the only ones bowing to international pressure. Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) chairman Tom Yoda announced on Sept. 16 that the festival will screen the film, after previously rejecting it for TIFF's official selection (the festival starts next month). Having come under fire for initially rejecting the documentary, Yoda said the reasons for rejecting or accepting films aren't generally discussed, as the festival receives more than 700 entries each year. No film festival has a moral obligation to accept a film, but TIFF's slogan of "Action! For Earth" raised more than a few eyebrows when the widely lauded eco-documentary didn't make the cut. In the end, Yoda said, the festival "decided to take The Cove due to international attention worldwide."
For dramatic effect, The Cove casts Taiji's dolphin hunt as one town's dirty secret. The reality, however, is that Japan culls about 20,000 dolphins across the nation every year. To those in Taiji and other areas where dolphin hunting is permitted, the global reaction to The Cove has a whiff of the enduringly contentious whaling debate (Japan has hunted whales in the name of science for decades despite environmentalists' ire). The new wave of criticism of dolphin hunting that has been spurred by the film has many fishermen and local bureaucrats rolling their eyes over what they interpret as a another bout of foreign outrage at a practice that is legal, regulated and culturally acceptable in Japan, where dolphin meat like whale is eaten in the regions where it's hunted.
Meanwhile, the people of Taiji, pop. circa 3,400, believe they have been unfairly singled out. While Taiji has a 400-year history of whale and dolphin hunting, its fishermen catch less than 20% of Japan's yearly dolphin quota. Iwate prefecture catches the most of any area, bringing in a total of 11,070 dolphins in 2006 and 10,218 in 2007. But even those figures are well below the prefecture's legal limits, and Taiji fishermen also hunted about half their limit in 2006 and 2007, averaging about 1,430 dolphins a year. In response to The Cove, town-council chief Katsutoshi Mihara told the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, "I don't understand their way of pushing their own values."
Almost all the dolphins caught in Japan are sold for meat near the towns where they're caught, and only 1% a few dozen are sold live to aquariums. Masashi Nishimura, manager of the Japan Fisheries Association's international section, who also works with environmental issues, says most Japanese people don't know much about the dolphin hunts. "I don't think it's a big topic here," he says. "As long as [their killing] is humane, dolphins are like other animals to us." The most humane technique, according to Nishimura, would be to use high-tech machines to minimize the animals' suffering. The most common hunting methods, however, are oikomi, a process illustrated in the film in which fishermen chase dolphins into shallow water and surround them with a net, and tsukimbo, in which dolphins are killed individually by harpoon. Taiji is the only place in Japan to recently practice oikomi.
Killing dolphins for meat is a cultural issue on both sides of the debate. While cute and often anthropomorphized, dolphins, unlike some whale populations hunted by Japanese fishermen, are not endangered. The film editorializes that the statues and images of whales and dolphins in Taiji purposefully hide the town's dark secret of killing the animals. But the Japanese have a history of venerating and praying for animals that die for the well-being of humans and sometimes erect statues and hold festivals to comfort the animals' souls. What might be considered macabre or inappropriate by Western standards is a way of life and a perspective on nature for the Japanese people. Shigeki Takaya, who is in charge of the whaling section of the Far Seas Fisheries division at the Fisheries Agency, says dolphins are a "resource, just like fish. Killing animals in any way is bloody, unfortunately, just like slaughtering cows and pigs."
One of The Cove's central points, however, is not as open for cultural interpretation. Dolphin meat like whale contains high levels of mercury, and at its highest instances, the concentration of methyl mercury in bottlenose dolphin meat is 32 times the limit set by Japan's Health Ministry. School children in Taiji eat dolphin, like the rest of the town's population. Junichiro Yamashita, who years ago raised national awareness of dolphin meat's health risks as Taiji's local assemblyman, was interviewed for the film along with current assemblyman Hisato Ryono. But Ryono, who was touted as a hero on the mercury issue in the documentary, told a local television station that he was informed his interview would be used in a film on "international contamination of the oceans," not for the Cove project. He has requested that the filmmakers edit out the parts in which he appears.
As for the Japanese public, they will have the chance to make up their own minds about the film if The Cove is released in theaters after the festival. Whether the acclaim will be as great as it has been at other festivals remains to be seen. But for the filmmakers, a few dolphins freed and a screening at TIFF might just be reward enough.
With reporting by Yuki Oda