Everyone knows about Japan’s whaling activities, but until this Oscar-winning documentary was made few people (including most Japanese) knew of the dolphin hunt that takes place annually in a small cove off Taiji. The film focuses on activist Ric O’Barry’s quest to film the secretive culling of more than 23,000 dolphins each year. It exposes the cruelty of the slaughter and the danger of mercury poisoning from the often mislabeled dolphin meat, which had been introduced in Taiji school lunches. Sadly the dolphins are only worth a paltry $600 apiece yet the fishermen refuse to stop the hunt even when offered restitution. The small town of Taiji is not exactly happy about Ric’s activism and his activities are closely monitored by the local police and fishermen, with access to the cove barred and blockaded.
Unfortunately this means the first half of the film is presented as a kind of espionage adventure. We meet the various team members (from elite free divers to activist surfers) and get acquainted with their high-tech military equipment. An effects studio previously associated with Industrial Light & Magic created camouflage for hidden cameras so they could blend into the surrounding rocks, for example. With such tight security in the area the risk of arrest or deportation was always on the minds of the film makers and this eats up valuable time blaming the locals rather than focusing on the real issue. Of course in many cases hidden camera work is needed to show what goes on and laws will be broken, as has often been the case in factory farms in the U.S.A.. However, the team’s illegal activities engenders the locals’ rightful indignation of foreigners coming to their country and flagrantly breaking their laws.
Another unfortunate element is the film’s focus on the politics of the International Whaling Commission. It gives the film an anti-Japanese sentiment which probably won’t dissuade the arguments from within Japan that this is an attack on Japanese culture by foreigners. Misplaced nationalism aside, had the film also mentioned the extinction of the Yangtze River Dolphin or the lessons learned from the West’s historical whaling, it would have felt more even-handed. A more diverse range of Japanese opinions also would have also helped. A professor from the University of Tokyo (Japan’s most prestigious institution of higher learning), wrote a convincing article for one of the nation’s largest newspapers that Japan’s whaling be abolished (EN) and researchers (only shown in the dvd’s special features) talk about the mercury levels in tuna.
When the dolphin slaughter is finally shown the footage is quite damning. Unfortunately the Japanese government has stated as recently as March 2010 that the hunt at Taiji is lawful. While many have said, “Westerners kill and eat cows, what is the difference?” The key difference is in the way the animals are slaughtered. Cows are killed as humanely as possible with a swift bolt to the brain. The dolphins cannot be killed swiftly, as seen in the footage of them lashing around in agony for several minutes before their final release. The cruelty is magnified given their unusually high intelligence, their gentle nature, and that they are much more social than cows, having evolved from wolf-like animals to live in familial pods.
However, regardless of your position on the animal rights issue (which is often dismissed as misplaced emotion by the hunt’s supporters), the fact that dolphins contain such high levels of mercury means their meat should be prevented from finding its way into the human food chain, either through direct consumption or as livestock feed. Even if everyone agreed that it is the inherent right of the local people to hunt dolphin, the mercury poisoning issue alone should easily outweigh it. Personally I’m a vegetarian and apart from small tribal communities in the arctic that take insignificant numbers (subsistence hunting), I don’t see the need for people to consume dolphin or whale meat, and certainly not the numbers being taken at the cove.
It seems to me that it will take Japanese citizens who love dolphins or disagree with the practice to really change things, but anyone can get involved in the cause through the official website (see below).
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