Residents of the village of Taiji carry a shrine during the annual Whale Festival, in the documentary “A Whale of a Tale,” opening Friday. (FINE LINE MEDIA)
By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS Rafu Arts & Entertainment
It is a scene more reminiscent of tabloid scandal-mongering than of informed discourse.
Some 10 minutes into “A Whale of a Tale,” a member of the local fishing community is surrounded by a group of foreign activists, holding cameras inches from his face as he cowers, asking questions like, “Why don’t you want to show your face?” and “You’re very ashamed of what you do, aren’t you?”
An American who appears to be among the leaders of the group says to a resident of this small town, “If you don’t like us, just go home.”
The man they’ve surrounded is indeed home, in his tiny seaside village in Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture.
All the local fisherman can say is “Kowai, kowai.”
This is precisely the kind of exchange that prompted filmmaker Megumi Sasaki to wade into the debate surrounding Taiji, the idyllic town that was thrust most involuntarily to the forefront of an international battle over animal rights, local sovereignty and the value of national identity and tradition.
Megumi Sasaki spent six years producing her documentary, with the goal of showing the impact of worldwide attention on the tiny town. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)
“Suddenly, they woke up in this spotlight, and overnight, everyone in the world knows about Taiji,” Sasaki said during a Rafu interview last week in Little Tokyo. “That’s why these activists started going there. That’s what happens when a Hollywood film descends on a small town and disrupts the culture, history and their quiet life.”
By the time “The Cove” won an Oscar for best documentary in 2010, the film had created a firestorm around Taiji, claiming to have exposed to the world the inhumane and dangerous practice of the annual dolphin hunts in the town of around 3,400 residents.
Since then, scores of foreign activists have traveled to the town, many holding vigil to photograph and document the activities of the local townspeople, or – at worst – provoke them.
In the early minutes of “A Whale of a Tale,” opening Friday at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills, a burly, bearded American wearing a shirt bearing the name of the U.S.-based conservation group Sea Shepherd is seen accosting a Taiji resident in a threatening and abusive manner.
“You little dumb-ass sh*t,” the American barks at the man who has taken a crouched, defensive position on the sidewalk.
“They’ve been bullied,” Sasaki said of the locals.
“I’m not an activist,” she explained. “A lot of documentary films, especially in the U.S., are used as an activism tool. But that’s not me, I’m just a storyteller. I wanted to show the world what is happening, that this issue is not simply black or white, and that there aren’t just good guys and bad guys. I didn’t want to point a finger at anyone, or portray anyone as a villain, to create yet another layer of division.
“The damage has already been done by ‘The Cove,’ so I didn’t want to simply talk back to that film.”
American activist Scott West points his camera at a fishing crew in Taiji. West is shown unabashedly accosting and swearing at local residents during one sequence in Sasaki’s film. (FINE LINE MEDIA)
Sasaki, who earned widespread praise for her debut film, 2008’s “Herb and Dorothy,” felt ‘The Cove’ failed to accurately show both sides of the debate, that it vilified a town that had been quietly steeped in its traditions and culture for centuries.
“Dolphin hunting is totally legal. They are not hunting any endangered species. It’s tightly controlled by the Japanese government, and in ‘The Cove,’ this isn’t how it is portrayed,” she said.
“I didn’t make the film to impose my idea of what’s right and what’s wrong. I wanted to present what’s happening in the world. The world is complicated and life is complicated.
“I also wanted to give voice to the fishermen, the people whose voices haven’t really been heard in this controversy.”
A native of Hokkaido, Sasaki emigrated to the U.S. more than 30 years ago. Growing up in Japan, She remembers how whale meat was a staple of school lunches and she never really gave it much thought.
After moving to New York, however, she wondered why American coverage of whaling practices was almost universally critical and negative, without showing any other points of view. Compelled to respond to what she saw as a one-sided view that was damaging a people who were largely defenseless, she traveled to Taiji for the first time in 2010.
“That was immediately after ‘The Cove,’ so they were frustrated. They were told not to say anything, don’t react, don’t allow yourself to be provoked,” she recalled. “But I told them it’s very important to raise your voices and let the world know what you’re facing, after this Hollywood film suddenly appeared in your community, and how it has disrupted your lives.”
Being Japanese most certainly had its advantages. “A Whale of a Tale” features an accomplished American journalist who has lived in Japan for years, yet was shunned by the people of Taiji. Sasaki said she was introduced to the mayor and local people by a friend who had produced a television documentary and she quickly earned their trust.
The residents were willing to participate in Sasaki’s project – a major accomplishment – despite her being adamant that she wasn’t interested in taking a side in the debate.
“I told them that [my film]is not going to be supporting of whaling or dolphin hunting. It’s not a pro-whaling film, and I was very clear about that. I wanted to show both sides, to show the whole picture.”
“A Whale of Tale” takes great pains to keep its filmmaker’s leanings at bay, to reaffirm its evenhandedness throughout. In at least one scene, Sasaki finds herself being drawn into confrontations unfolding in front of her camera, and she is considered as a bilingual buffer who can mediate. She does her best to resist, to remain a neutral observer.
“I’m sure the people of Taiji wish that this film was more supportive of their practices,” she said. “But my film is very sympathetic toward the town, and the fact that they’ve become a target of all this international criticism and attack.”
Sasaki sees what has happened in Taiji not as an East-versus-West issue, not a conflict between Japan and America.
“What’s important here is about global versus local,” she insists. “When you look at the whole world in this light, it’s not just Taiji. In many parts of the world, this is happening, small towns are really struggling.”
Sasaki believes that in small towns, people can often be overwhelmed, and that the residents of Taiji had no experience in responding to such international scrutiny, simply because they never needed to do so. Isolation can often lead a community to reject any perceived moves toward globalization, giving rise to ideas like Brexit, or to political figures like Donald Trump, she added.
“Taiji is a microcosm of what’s going on in the world,” she explained. “Why can’t we communicate with each other, despite differences in our backgrounds, ideas or values? We are so divided, so polarized on so many issues, so we end up just screaming in each others’ faces, not listening to another voice.”
“A Whale of a Tale” opens Friday at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills (www.laemmle.com), with plans for a nationwide release in the works. 93 minutes, unrated.