An Update from The Cove: ‘A Whale of a Tale’ Finds Little Changed in Taiji

Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki shows how neither the media craze nor the dolphin hunt has ceased.

It has been more than seven years since The Cove won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The film has aged strangely. Since its victory, no other issue film has been able to ride a movement all the way to an Oscar. Louie Psihoyos’s expose/heist movie has become the model for a sort of success that has not actually happened since. Blackfish didn’t even get nominated.

More importantly, the success of The Cove didn’t stop the dolphin hunt in Taiji. In a climate of documentary filmmaking still thrilled by the intangible word “impact,” it is fascinating that the legacy of this successful, narrowly focused “issue film” doesn’t include the accomplishment of its bluntest goal.

What happened? Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki answers this question in A Whale of a Tale, a follow-up of sorts that asks an entirely different set of questions. The film, which plays this weekend as part of the Japan Cuts festival in New York, is a broader and more complex portrait of the situation. It has none of the thrill of The Cove, of course, but in its place grows a nuanced portrait of activism gone awry.

Taiji, a tiny town of just over 3,400 people, is still flooded by Western activists. Most of them are there primarily to imitate The Cove and capture video evidence of the dolphin hunt. One gets the sense from A Whale of a Tale that shouting matches between fishermen and angry Westerners with cameras are daily occurrences.

The protesters are led by Sea Shepherd, an organization of environmental activists devoted to direct action. They protect the lives of animals by physically interrupting hunts. If that’s not possible, they live-stream the slaughter. They’ve dubbed their work in Taiji “Operation Infinite Patience,” presumably because their strategy of promoting Western outrage hasn’t actually made much progress. Their work does not seem to include collaborating with Japanese environmental activists, nor is there much evidence of any effort to engage with the government, legal system or people of Japan.

One particular flourish on Sasaki’s part underlines this intransigence. A local Sea Shepherd leader angrily explains what he sees as local hypocrisy. The people of Taiji claim to have a deep gratitude to the creatures they hunt, but he doesn’t buy it. “We see no reverence or respect for these animals,” he grumbles.

Sasaki follows this immediately with a montage of all of the public art in town that depicts dolphins and whales. She then visits the annual religious ceremony performed to thank the animals for their sacrifice. These moments of festival occur throughout the film, showing the centuries of connection between the people of Taiji and the dolphins that have been their food source in times of famine.

Granted, this is a fairly blunt filmmaking tactic. But it is interesting to note the differences in the way that Psihoyos, Sea Shepherd and Sasaki use images. There is little footage of the hunt in A Whale of a Tale, perhaps because Sasaki is aware how much of it is regularly sent out into the world.

One local fisherman suggests that Sea Shepherd has created a self-supporting, endlessly useless occupation of the town by pouring all of the money they raise by live-streaming into more live-streaming. Psihoyos also centers the elusive footage, constructing an elaborate heist-film structure around the capture of bloody images. This obsessive pursuit of disturbing material has become the primary goal of the activists, at the expense of other tactics.

In this context, it is no wonder that Sasaki’s eye is more drawn to the rest of the town. Her approach dovetails perfectly with that of Jay Alabaster, an American journalist who has settled in Taiji to write a book about the wider situation. They each work to construct a much fuller picture of the seemingly irresolvable debate. He’s an excellent narrative tool, as well as a calming presence amid the ever-present tensions of Taiji.

Gradually, facts build up. The fishermen of Taiji have government-mandated limits on the amount of animals they are allowed to slaughter per year. Very few people in Japan actually eat whale or dolphin meat, and the decline in their prices has become a real financial threat to the people of Taiji. None of the seven species which are hunted in Taiji are recognized as endangered.

The tragedy, as Alabaster sees it, is that so many deeply passionate environmental activists are choosing the wrong battle. The fight to save these dolphins is little more than a flea circus sideshow to the planet-threatening crises happening elsewhere. Moreover, Sea Shepherd is more of a thorn in the side of Japanese environmentalists than an ally.

Sasaki and Alabaster go to see some of these local activists, who have been advocating against the dolphin hunt since well before Western cameras arrived. Their testimony is fascinating. The Japanese public does not care much about Taiji, except that they are angry about The Cove. They barely eat whale, but the tone of the protests have rallied them around Taiji. Sea Shepherd, Rick O’Barry and others return time and again to an ugly language of cultural warfare. They call the Japanese “uncivilized” and “barbaric,” and then expect to be taken seriously.

But once again, as Sasaki gradually illuminates, this is perhaps more about image and rhetoric than compromise and understanding. The Sea Shepherds seem to believe that simply by exposing the most upsetting conceivable evidence of the hunt, international pressure will force Taiji to put away their harpoons forever. Their strategy is essentially the same as that of anti-abortion activists standing outside Planned Parenthood with blown-up photographs of fetuses. The only difference is that the Sea Shepherds are better at Twitter.

So we are left with an unresolvable conflict. The success of The Cove has only led to an endless war of images, a war in which the Western activists have a tiny rural town hopelessly outgunned. Its “impact” has become an endless loop of activists, camera in hand, attempting to mimic its tactics. The returns have been diminishing.

Meanwhile, Sasaki’s A Whale of a Tale does a remarkable job of illuminating the wake of The Cove. Almost certainly, it will be seen by fewer people. It will probably not win an Oscar. It has no call to action, only an invitation to more prosaic understanding. And, hopefully, it is an indication of an alternative to the older model of “issue film.”

A Whale of a Tale screens at Japan Society in New York City on July 15th

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.