First published in the Village Voice on Aug 15, 2018
At one point in Megumi Sasaki’s A Whale of a Tale, an American activist protesting the whale-hunting traditions of the people of Taiji, Japan, fumes, “They tell us they have respect and reverence for the animals. But we see none here.” Sasaki immediately cuts to a montage of the whale-themed public art that pervades Taiji, including the many festivals and rituals through which its people constantly honor their source of sustenance.
It’s a telling juxtaposition, indicative of the ethnocentrism that often makes such conflicts intractable — and that made The Cove, the Oscar-winning doc that birthed the global outrage against Taiji, somewhat ethically suspect. A Whale of a Tale is a corrective, countering The Cove’s agitprop sensationalism with a measured and nuanced curiosity.
Sasaki assembles a well-rounded cast of characters: local fishermen who insist that whaling is their ancestral way of life; historians who highlight America’s role in over-hunting whales in the twentieth century and remind us that no endangered species are hunted in Taiji; foreign activists who decry the cruelty of drive-in hunting; even Japanese environmentalists, who argue that the foreign pressure has fueled a nationalistic response in the country, making it harder for them to speak up. This is all easy to understand when you see Americans shoving their cameras into the faces of the fishermen, calling them “barbaric” and “dumb little shits.”
Together, these voices paint a complex picture of the clash between globalism and a fast-disappearing localism. As Jay Alabaster, a Japan-based AP reporter, says toward the end of the film, it’s not just the plight of whales and dolphins that’s at stake in Taiji: “I think little communities like these are far more endangered.”