Viewers expressed mixed reactions Wednesday to The Cove, a covertly filmed movie about a Japanese dolphin-hunting village that was shown to the Japanese public for the first time at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Some were shocked but also defended the hunt as part of the country’s culture.
The film, added to the festival at the last minute partly because of international pressure, shows the annual hunt in the seaside town of Taiji, where about 2,000 dolphins are killed every year for their meat. Some are captured and sold to aquariums.
American director Louie Psihoyos, a National Geographic photographer, said he is in talks with Japanese distributors about nationwide screenings in Japan, where most people don’t know about the hunt and have never eaten dolphin meat.
Junko Inoue, a resident of Saitama, north of Tokyo, said she found the final scene, where dozens of dolphins trapped in a hidden cove are speared by fishermen, turning the water blood red, “shocking.”
But she didn’t think the hunt should be stopped entirely. “There are a lot of cultural differences in people’s eating habits,” she said.
“Westerners say it’s OK to kill and eat cows, but not dolphins,” said Hiroshi Hatajima, a 42-year-old office worker from Tokyo. “That kind of special treatment isn’t going to register with a lot of Japanese. We have to eat animals to survive. It’s a cultural clash.”
The film, while well-made, “comes across as somewhat propaganda-like,” he said.
The Cove mixes stunning underwater shots of gliding dolphins with grisly footage of their slaughter. The movie’s star is Ric O’Barry, the dolphin trainer for the 1960s Flipper TV show, who over the last decades has been campaigning for the release of dolphins around the world from captivity.
Organizers at the Tokyo film festival clearly wanted to distance themselves from the film. A disclaimer stating that the festival had nothing to do with the production of The Cove ran at the start of the screening, and festival officials prevented journalists from interviewing viewers, herding them off the premises of the event, held in the trendy Roppongi Hills area of Tokyo.
The film also argues that dolphin meat is laden with toxic mercury.
“It’s the tragic irony of this movie that the only way to save the dolphin now is to prove that we’ve made its environment so toxic that we can’t eat them,” Psihoyos said.
The Japanese government, which allows about 20,000 dolphins to be killed each year, acknowledges that dolphin meat is contaminated with mercury, but denies it’s dangerous unless consumed in huge quantities.
Psihoyos flew into Tokyo for the festival despite worries that he might be arrested on trespassing charges from making The Cove. Police have repeatedly questioned the secret shooting of key footage in the documentary.
The fishermen have blocked access to the cove with barbed wire and fences, and Psihoyos was unable to get permission to access it. So he and his film team secretly broke into the restricted area — which is in a national park — at night to set up cameras that capture the slaughter.
“It’s very courageous of the Tokyo film festival to show this film,” said Psihoyos. “I’d also like to thank the Japanese government for not arresting me when I came in. I was pretty nervous yesterday, and I’m still a little nervous about getting out.”
Psihoyos said he felt it was important to come to Japan for the screening and “not to stay safe in America.”
“I really feel like if this movie is shown in Japan, it will be a huge win for the Japanese people, it’ll be a huge win for the dolphins and the environmental movement,” he said.
The movie may already have had some impact. Last month, 70 dolphins from this year’s first catch in Taiji were set free, but 50 pilot whales — a related species — were killed, according to the Save Japan Dolphins Coalition, a conservation group led by O’Barry.
Kenkichi Kakizawa, a 23-year-old part-time laborer from Kamakura, south of Tokyo, who watched the film said he couldn’t support the hunt, but hoped that the film is shown in Japanese theaters.
“I hope they show this in Japan,” he said. “People need to see it.”