Megumi Sasaki’s Documentary Revisits Whaling Town

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In 2010, Taiji, a sleepy fishing town in Japan, suddenly found itself in the worldwide media spotlight.

“The Cove,” a documentary denouncing the town’s long-standing whale and dolphin hunting traditions, won an Academy Award and almost overnight, Taiji became the go-to destination and battleground for activists from around the world.

Can a proud 400-year-old whaling tradition survive a tsunami of modern animal-rights activism and colliding forces of globalism vs. localism?

“A Whale of a Tale” from director Megumi Sasaki reveals the complex story behind the ongoing debate. Told through a wide range of characters, including local fishermen, international activists and an American journalist (and long-time resident of Japan), this powerful documentary unearths a deep divide in Eastern and Western thought about nature and wildlife and cultural sensitivity in the face of global activism.

“A Whale of a Tale” will open theatrically in Los Angeles on Friday, Aug. 24, at Laemmle’s Music Hall with a nationwide release to follow. The film premiered at the Japan Society in New York on July 15.

In 2008, Sasaki directed and produced her first documentary, “Herb & Dorothy,” about legendary New York art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel. The film went on to win top honors at film festivals and was released theatrically and as a part of PBS’ “Independent Lens” series.

In 2013, Sasaki completed the follow-up,” Herb & Dorothy 50×50,” focusing on the next (and final) chapter in the lives of the couple.

Director’s Statement

When I was growing up in Japan, fried whale meat shows up regularly on the school lunch menu. It was not my favorite dish, and I’d neither missed nor thought about it until I moved to New York. Once in New York, I began to wonder why U.S. media coverage regarding Japan’s whaling practice was unanimously critical as if Japanese whalers were committing a serious crime.

In the U.S., it is the norm to hear both sides of the argument regarding such controversial topics as gun control, abortion, or President Donald Trump. But when it comes to whales and dolphins, we hear only one side of the story. Why?

Whaling was the first global business in human history. The U.S. and many European countries participated in competitive whaling in the past, hunting nearly all of the large whale species to the brink of extinction. Whales were simply a resource for oil. Was all of this forgotten when in the 1970s, the whale suddenly became a “majestic animal” and the symbol of the environmental movement?

In 2009, I was shocked to see the documentary film “The Cove.” The storytelling was powerful, yet, I sensed that something in the depiction was not right. Although dolphin hunting is legal in Japan and Taiji hunts only 10% of the country’s total catch, none of the species hunted are endangered, the film selected a handful of Taiji fishermen and portrayed them as “notorious villains.”

Documentary is a powerful tool in revealing wrongdoings and abuses of power. But in this case, a Hollywood film crew with a multimillion-dollar budget pounced on a sleepy village in Japan, thrusting cameras in the fishermen’s faces. This was not about “serving justice.” It was bullying, pure and simple.

When the film won an Academy Award, I wondered how the little town would be affected. “A Whale of a Tale” is the answer. I felt a sense of urgency to give voices to those who did not have them. I was tired of the hate and division that had continued for over half a century between my two beloved countries, caused by the whale and dolphin controversy.

What is happening in Taiji is a microcosm of the world. The colliding forces here are not Japan vs. the West, but globalism vs. localism. Taiji’s practices of hunting whales and dolphins are not compatible with today’s global standard. At the same time, forcing the town to cease their long-standing practices means they are being stripped not of their jobs or food culture, but of an identity and pride that has been inherited over centuries.

As American journalist Jay Alabaster acknowledges in the film, “The truly endangered are not the dolphins or whales, but small towns like Taiji.” If the global community continues to impose its standards on local regions, promoting intolerance of differing cultures, values, and opinions, how are we to sustain diversity?

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2 Comments

  1. I’m afraid I see a number of inaccuracies in this article about Taiji.
    First. The actual cultural practise of Taiji whaling died out over 130 years ago–because all the coastal species of humpback and right whales (which to this day remain an endangered and rare species in Japan’s waters) were killed off. Today’s hunts focus only on members of the dolphin family, including pilot whales. Because of lack of demand, profit and interest, these small species were only hunted sporadically until 1969, when the Taiji town mayor requested that pilot whales be targeted for collection to be captive in the brand new aquarium. This attraction of LIVE cetaceans became very popular and directly led to the formation of today’s cabal of dolphin hunters. Before these 1969 collections, no one in Taiji made a full time living from hunting dolphins. Collecting live dolphins for shipment all around the world, including (in the past) the USA, is what made these hunts possible to sustain, for there is little money or demand for dolphin meat in Japan. No, the big bucks come from live sales to aquariums and dolphinariums. But this cynical and incriminating aspect of Taiji is purposely side stepped in Megumi’s film. In fact she avoids discussing the cruel killing and suffering of the actual dolphins as much as possible. Also avoided is the fact that increasingly, regular Japanese citizens are speaking out against Taiji’s cruel practices. So this is more and more a domestic issue. And as for globalism vs localism? Shipping dolphins around the world for big bucks IS GLOBALISM. Without support from a global market for live dolphins, Taiji’s local dolphin meat trade would have died out years ago, just as it has nearly everywhere else in Japan because of lack of profit and demand.

  2. It’s a simple argument. Is us morally acceptable to torture and kill a sentient animal? ….Any normal human would say no regardless of ANY other factors. The holocaust was wrong, murder is wrong and so is this. Tradition is not ‘right’

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