By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Entertainment Editor
Oscars season, for the nominees at least, is usually a time for congratulating one another for jobs well done. It is cause for movie making’s elite to engage in toasts and celebration.
For Ric O’Barry, it is simply a moment of validation. The former dolphin trainer, who first came into the public awareness as the man who wrangled the stars of the 1960s TV series “Flipper,” is among the focal points in “The Cove,” which was nominated Tuesday for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary Feature category.
O’Barry has been working for decades for the release of dolphins from captivity in zoos and especially theme parks around the world. Ironically, it was his own skill that generated interest in the mammals’ abilities, which led to the industry of aquatic entertainment on the scale we now know.
“I’m not excited so much on a personal level, for myself,” O’Barry said Wednesday from Miami. “This is really a victory for getting information to the Japanese public, who really have know idea what’s going on.”
What’s going on, as depicted in “The Cove,” is the highly controversial slaughter of thousands of dolphins, porpoises and pilot whales each year in Japan. The film concentrates–at times, covertly–on the small fishing village of Taiji, in Wakayama Prefecture. The hamlet is widely regarded as a point of origin for whaling methods used across Japan.
Presented in alternately gorgeous photography and graphically bloody sequences, Taiji is also a place where the annual dolphin drive hunt takes place. It is a major source of revenue for the region, with dolphins being sold to aquariums and theme parks–they can fetch up to $150,000 apiece–as well as for pet food and human consumption.
The turning point for O’Barry came when one of the dolphins used in “Flipper” died, as a direct result of being in captivity. After years of research about mercury poisoning and observing the slaughter firsthand, he said his courses of action are constantly changing in response to what is happening at the moment.
“I never plan my career moves so carefully,” said O’Barry, who is approaching his 70s. “But when that level of cruelty is so absolute, we should all oppose it, absolutely.”
Predictably, the response to “The Cove” has been mixed in Japan, which has steadfastly defended its centuries-old whaling and fishing practices. Last October, the film was shown at the Tokyo International Film Festival, where some viewers expressed shock, but many defended the dolphin hunt as an integral part of the Japanese culture.
“The government tried to keep it out of the festival,” said Craig Tsuyumine, a Los Angeles-based actor who wasn’t involved with the film, but after seeing it became passionately involved with the Save Japan Dolphins Campaign at the Earth Island Institute in Berkeley. “They finally agreed to screen it, at the very beginning of the festival, at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday, the worst possible time slot. It sold out in minutes and got a standing ovation when it was finished.”
A key component of “The Cove” is the filmmakers’ infiltration of the Taiji wharf cove into which dolphins are shepherded, out of public view and behind barbed wire. The film’s director, Louie Psihoyos, was even apprehensive about attending the Tokyo festival, fearing he might be arrested.
The issue for most Japanese citizens, according to Tsuyumine and O’Barry, is not an East-versus-West cultural battle, nor is it an animal rights conflict. The problem is the embargoing of information on the part of the Japanese government to shroud the facts about dolphin hunting from the general public.
“I’ve stood on street corners in Tokyo, asking people about dolphin meat and the hunt, and out of 200 people or more, not one knew about it,” O’Barry said. “The government is really controlling the media, so a few hundred people in Japan have seen the film, but 130 million or so have never heard of it.”
Tsuyumine, who spent much of last year attending theatrical screenings of “The Cove” and leading discussions afterwards, said that Save Japan Dolphins research has shown that less than 1 percent of those living in Japan have ever tasted dolphin meat; it is not considered one of the tastier seafood choices, but many studies have shown it to be one of the more dangerous. A 2009 Japan Today study found levels of mercury in Taiji residents to be 10 times the national average.
Tsuyumine said he was told by one fisherman that a principal reason for the hunt, which runs yearly from September through March, is to eliminate competition in harvesting other, more conventional fish.
“They don’t realize the concept of balance,” Tsuyumine said. “If you take certain fish out of the chain, you upset the whole ecosystem.”
O’Barry said the documentary has succeed via the traditionally Japanese tactic of gayatsu–affecting change within by applying pressure from the outside. He plans to try to get as many people as possible to demonstrate in Taiji this fall on Sept. 1, the beginning of the hunting season.
“I don’t know if it will be a protest or a celebration,” O’Barry said. “I know we can’t stop the current hunt season, but if enough information gets out there, maybe we can have an impact on next season.”
An Oscar should certainly help move the information along, he acknowledged.