Documentary Review: “A Whale of a Tale” takes us back to Taiji, to see what “The Cove” accomplished

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“There’s nothing worse than being in a scene in an Academy Award winning film.”

That sentiment comes from a Japanese fisherman in the documentary “A Whale of a Tale.”

He’s still hunting whales and rounding up dolphins for slaughter years after “The Cove,” the Academy Award-winning documentary that focused the world’s attention on Taiji, Japan, a small town (3000 people) with a big part in the unregulated corner of the captive dolphin trade and more infamous for its slaughter of the smartest creatures in the sea for meat.

But he, the movie and an American in Japan eager to “re-align” America and Japan on this subject, seem most bummed at the perception that protesters like Rick O’Barry and organizations like Sea Shepherd have created about this backward corner of the Land of the Rising Sun.

Japanese filmmaker Megumi Sasaki (“Herb & Dorothy”) turns her camera on the protests and counter-protests, the culture clash, the “manners” of the Westerners protesting in Taiji and the warm and fuzzy history of “Save the Whales” in an attempt to present a more balanced portrait of this town and the issue that made it infamous.

The result is a film that lacks fury and outrage, that straddles a morally murky fence. It’s not that “Whale of a Tale” lacks a point of view, it’s that it lacks conviction about any point of view.

Sasaki lets the fishermen and local officials have their say, notes that the current mayor and his relative, a mayor from 50 years ago, both were trying to move the town towards a future that does not include whale and dolphin hunting.

She not only shows us the worldwide protests that have continued since “The Cove,” but ones that have popped up in Japan.

She gives more screen time to the reformed dolphin captor and “Flipper” trainer Rick O’Barry, a stunningly articulate and effective organizer who has made inroads on this cause everywhere but Japan. We see him arrested and deported, late in the film. But not before he’s had his say.

“The dolphins don’t carry a Japanese passport. They don’t belong to the Japanese people.”

We visit Taiji’s colorful “Whale Festival” where cooks hustle their “whale stew with miso,” whale meatballs and the like as they and their dolphin-costumed mascot celebrate the animals they have hunted for 400 years.

“You should serve striped dolphin at an occasion like this,” one older gent says to a cook. It would go over with this crowd.

Taiji, with its defiant fishermen and right wing “fight the white foreigners” backers of their “cultural” defense of the practice, comes off as a hardscrabble working class town — too little fresh water, soil too poor to produce food — out of step, a little redneck and scared.

And as the fleet heads out to sea to herd dolphins for slaughter, activists videotape it, pointlessly, in our post-shame world. “Shame” isn’t going to stop this, you think.

Former AP journalist Jay Alabaster is the main character in this “Tale.” He’s a veteran correspondent who first dipped into this story as “The Cove” was becoming an international sensation. He ended up moving to Taiji to work on a book, “sitting between two cultures,” befriending the locals and hearing out their side of this culture clash.

Alabaster calls Scott West and the Sea Shepherd protesters who follow him to Taiji to “show the world” what the locals are still doing “the Marines of the environmental movement.” To Alabaster, they’re unnecessary.

“This is a battle that doesn’t need to be fought.”

Dolphins aren’t an endangered species, they’re meat to the Japanese the way pigs are to us. So what’s the problem here, Alabaster asks?

Experts note the much higher concentration of mercury in the residents there, poisoning coming from eating large sea animals which are exposed to it from birth. But when local experts sign off on this as benign, Alabaster agrees.

“I don’t think mercury is an issue.

He criticizes the media-savvy of the protesters and and suggests the unsophisticated locals are being maligned simply because they don’t have the know how to get their spin out there for the world to see.

Sasaki even shows Alabaster coaching the locals about how to fight back in this media-driven war. His suggestion, sort of an “if the pressure from foreigners goes away,” so will whale hunting and dolphin eating, is the most nonsensical thing Sasaki, who uses him like a kapo or Fox News uses token African Americans, has him say.

Yes, slavery would have ended “on its own,” and so on. Specious arguments like that weaken the film and water down its many legitimate points.

For instance, the larger argument, that this practice is fading, is indisputable. A country that is aging and losing population has lowered dolphin/whalemeat demand, children of Taiji are far less connected to the local “tradition” of hunting and eating whale and dolphin meat, their principal claims.

And in the stores, while you can still find the meat, the bottom has fallen out of the market for whale and dolphin in Japan. Demand is down, but why?

Thank “The Cove” and Rick O’Barry for that, the locals imply. Even in Japan, where pressure to stop the practices isn’t considered patriotic or good manners, consumers are turning up their nose at what’s going on and what comes out of Taiji and towns like it.

The world live animal amusement park association condemns Japan and Taiji, and that wins concessions. The world glowers and eventually, Japan blinks.

Alabaster is most useful in the film articulating how Taiji took on the look and feel of a town under siege, how that contrasts with his experience of other small towns in the country.

The film’s early scenes, capturing name-calling and harassment from protesters — “You’re ASHAMED of what you do!” — and locals show a conflict that has cooled off, perhaps, and lost some of the world’s attention. But the rift is still there.

As Scott West of Sea Shepherd says at the lone attempt at a forum to bring the two sides together to debate the “tradition” vs. “barbaric practice” conflict, “If Catalonia can abolish the bullfight, if Britain can end fox hunting, why can’t Japan” similarly grow up and accept that some “traditions” shouldn’t be preserved, if only to make peace with the rest of the world?

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As a Westerner, I got a kick out of the odd revealing moment that underlines Japan’s status as perhaps the world’s most insular, racist culture — “white foreigners” are the enemy.

And the hypocrisy pointed our way when a fisherman asks “Do you show people how you slaughter pigs and chickens and cows?” stings.

But the real argument here is all but buried in montages of global media coverage (and testy anti-foreigner Japanese coverage) of this conflict. A 30something fisherman notes that he doesn’t know how to catch fish, that he has no idea what he’d do if he wasn’t hunting and butchering sea mammals.

Welcome to the 21st century economy, yujin (“pal”). Sing that to factory workers, farmers and miners or members of any of the scores of other professions going by the boards all over the world. They’ll tell you “Adapt or die.” Just like everybody else.

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Atsushi Nakahira, Jay Alabaster, Rick Oliver, Atsuko Sakuma, Kazutaka Sangen

Credits:Directed by Megumi Sasaki. A Fine Line/Giant Pictures release.

Running time: 1:37

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