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 longstanding 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 reveals the complex story behind the ongoing debate. Through the point-of-view of a wide range of characters including fishermen, international activists and American journalist (and longtime Japanese resident), this powerful documentary unearths a deep divide in eastern and western thought about nature and wildlife, raising questions about cultural sensitivity in the face of global activism.
In 2008, Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki directed and produced her first feature-length documentary HERB & DOROTHY, about legendary New York art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel. The film went on to win top honors at many international film festivals and was released theatrically nationwide and as a part of PBS’s Independent Lens series. In 2013, Megumi completed the highly anticipated follow-up HERB & DOROTHY 50X50, focusing on the next (and final) chapter in the lives of the beloved couple. The film had a nationwide theatrical release and continues to screen in theaters, museums and art fairs around the globe.
A WHALE OF A TALE is her third feature length and had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea and has won awards in many other festivals worldwide. In August 2017, Sasaki published her first book with the same title of the film in Japanese, OKUJIRASAMA depicting behind the scenes of the film’s production and the in-depth historical and religious background information of the whaling controversy that won the Science Journalist Award in 2018.
When I was growing up in Japan, fried whale meat made regular appearances 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 US media coverage regarding Japan’s whaling practice was unanimously critical, as if Japanese whalers were committing a serious crime. In the US, 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 US and many European countries participated in competitive whaling in the past, hunting nearly all of the whale species to the brink of extinction. Whale was 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 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, the film selected a handful of Taiji fishermen and portrayed them as “notorious villains”.
The 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.
An emotional battle exists at the core of the whale and dolphin issue. The Japanese carry an emotional burden that is known by very few around the world. Shortly after World War II, during a time of severe food shortage, whale meat was the only animal protein available to the Japanese people. It was General Douglas MacArthur who encouraged Japan to hunt whales in the South Pacific, despite opposition by European countries. For older generations that survived the war’s aftermath, whale meat still triggers a sense of childhood nostalgia and gratitude for having saved their lives.
The irony in Japan is that whale meat is now a delicacy, and citizens consume the equivalent of less than a few slices of ham per person, per year. Yet the whaling issue is often cited as a ‘Japanese tradition’ or ‘Japanese food culture’ and attacked by foreign countries. It has become a convenient tool for nationalists.
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?
A WHALE OF A TALE does not offer a yes-or-no answer, nor is it interested in pointing fingers. Its goal is to offer new information and ideas, and my hope as director and producer is to expand the dialogue beyond whales and dolphins to issues that polarize us in the world today.