“There’s nothing worse than [appearing in] a scene in an Academy Award-winning film,” laments one of the whalers in Megumi Sasaki’s new film “A Whale of a Tale,” pacing the shore of Taiji at night. Until 2009, his fishing village in a remote area in Japan had been mostly sleepy and largely centered around the work he does, catching whales and dolphins to be used for meat since the community was geographically ill-suited for agriculture. However, that all changed when “The Cove” gained international notoriety for casting a critical eye on the practice of whaling, showing in vivid detail how the animals are slaughtered and bringing environmental protestors from the world over to Taiji to stand watch over the bay to protect further marine life.
It would also pique the interest of Sasaki, the Sapporo-born filmmaker who sensed something was amiss in American director Louis Psihoyos’ portrayal of the community in Taiji, and decided to head there to see the situation for herself. She knew appearances could be deceiving, having previously profiled the art collectors Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, who quietly amassed a remarkable collection of art that was hardly in line with the salaries they had as civil servants, in the lovely documentaries “Herb and Dorothy” and its followup “Herb and Dorothy50x50,” and when she went to Taiji, she found that her own upbringing in Japan brought considerable cultural perspective that had been lost amidst the outrage that fueled the making of “The Cove.”
Though vegetarians may not be convinced of any argument of cultural attachment, Sasaki shows how in Japan, whale and dolphin meat is depended upon as much as cows and chickens in the United States, opening “A Whale of a Tale” at a Whale Festival in Taiji where whale meatballs and stew with miso is handed out with the same enthusiasm as a BBQ in the West. A staple of school lunches, the meat has nourished the country over four centuries, from the early days of civilization when other natural sources of protein were sparse and again after the devastation of World War II, when the nation’s economy had to be rebuilt, and while the West has been cultivated to appreciate whales and dolphins as entertainment, the East has relied upon it for survival, no different than fish.
Yet as Sasaki’s film unfolds, you realize this dependence hasn’t come without consequences, even without bringing in the protestors who disrupt the Taiji fishermen, as high levels of mercury in pilot whales cause health concerns and the price for the meat has been steadily dropping, and the director finds a compelling story in observing a community steeped in tradition and resistant to change grappling with the possibility of a new way of life. Recently, Sasaki was in Los Angeles where “A Whale of a Tale” is continuing its theatrical run this week and she spoke about making a documentary in the shadow of another and how the culture clash in Taiji became reflective of the world at large.
How did this come about?
After “The Cove” – that was a shocker. And I knew that whaling has been such a controversy and nobody really supported it here in this country, but any issue in the U.S., whether it’s gun control or abortion or President Trump, there’s always pro and con and you hear both sides of the argument. But when it comes to whaling, you only hear one side, so I wondered about that. When I saw “The Cove,” I was really shocked and then more shockingly, nobody from Japan said anything. [“The Cove”] was so one-sided, full of prejudice, misunderstanding and misleading information in there and I thought why has nobody complained or criticized this? It really bothered me for a long time and there’s a saying in Japanese [about] a little fishbone stuck in your throat – it’s there, but you can’t really reach it, so this issue of whaling has been stuck in my throat, and when “The Cove” win the Academy Award, I just thought, “Wow, I’ve got to do this.”
What was it like for you to go to Taiji for the first time?
It’s such a remote town – it’s so far to get there from Tokyo or from anywhere and even if you take a plane, it’s not easy. You have a three-hour drive from the airport, so it was a long trip, but I was struck first by the beauty of the town. In “The Cove,” it’s portrayed as a really dark, grainy, spooky kind of town, [like] something wrong is going on there, but then people are friendly. I went there with my friend who’s done some television programs [in the area] and the townspeople have the full support and trust in him, so when he brought me there and introduced me to the mayor and the community leaders, they just accepted me immediately.
I may misinterpreted the scene, but there was a moment where one of the fishermen says, “We don’t need you to be a mediator for us.” Did you find yourself occupying that role at certain points?
Yeah, because I was the only one who could speak both Japanese and English, so I got caught up in the middle. Both sides expected me to translate whatever they say, so at first, I was so reluctant to do that, but I can’t pretend like I don’t understand anything, so I was dragged into the situation.
I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen [when I got there]. I didn’t go in expecting to do anything, and most of those scenes [of confrontation early in the film were] shot in 2010, basically in 24 hours. We were just holding a camera and everything started [happening] There were all these characters are very strong, interesting characters. Even the policeman – at first, he was saying like “No, no, no, don’t take any pictures. Don’t take my picture.” But at the end, he gave up. [laughs] Everybody was in the frame and that was interesting.
What was it like figuring out how to portray the culture in Taiji?
First of all, I wanted to make sure people understand what it means for them to hunt whales and dolphins. There’s 400 years of history, and they’re actually the very first people who made whaling into a business, because up until then there was no technology to catch such a huge animal, [but] with a little boat and just little spears. It wasn’t easy, but for Taiji ancestors, there is no other way for survival. They could not grow vegetables, they could not grow rice, so they bravely kept trying and trying and they invented the right tools like a huge net. They throw them to cover the whale and then spear it, so that would limit the action of the whales and then they [could] organize a team really well.
The whole town engaged in the whaling, so if you look up family names, you can still tell which part of the whaling business they were involved in, like “Seko” means a boat, so the Seko family must’ve been involved in building the boat or when you say Yutani, [which] means oil, that means the Yutani family used to process the whale oil. They have those families living in Taiji, so it’s amazing.
I could’ve very easily made a film criticizing “The Cove,” but I don’t think that was my purpose. That would just create another layer of hate and division. I just wanted to show the other side of the story, which is not available here in this part of the world, so I’m not pushing my thinking of what’s right or wrong. I just wanted to present what it is.
You do have a Westerner in the film – Jay, who can express the intersection of those perspectives. How does he come into this?
Jay came in towards the end of the production. I was looking for foreigners, [either] from U.S. or Europe, who understood the culture of the town and [had a] more balanced view. [Jay] was quietly living [in Taiji] and he’s very smart and very considerate, so he doesn’t really show up in the media. The curator of the museum introduced me to him and when I met him, we just talked for a little bit and I thought, he’s the guy. But I was very careful to approach him. [Remarkably] he happened to be in the [footage] we shot in 2010, when the dialogue event happened – he was working for the AP as a reporter at that time, so it was just a total coincidence he was in the footage.
It also seemed telling that the one time you hear your voice in the film, it’s to ask Ric O’Barry, the star of “The Cove,” whether there can be a middle ground. Was that much of a decision on your part?
They were very difficult to compromise. They believed their middle ground is their ground, but on the other hand, I think Taiji people are trying to accommodate whatever the world expects them to do, which is probably to stop dolphin hunting all together. But [in the mean time] if they are not going to stop it, how can they do it better? How can they do it in a less cruel way and more considerate? And I think that’s what they’re trying to comply.
What’s it been like traveling with the film and seeing the reaction to it?
As far as the reactions I see, it’s very positive, surprisingly. I thought I would get more negative reactions, but people seem to be very understanding and accepting. Even though they’re still against whaling, now they have much deeper sense of what it’s about and a better understanding of the culture, so that’s a really good thing. And at first, I thought this story was about the whale and dolphin hunting, but as I made this movie, I realized that what happened in Taiji is a microcosm of the world. Really, it’s more about how we can communicate and why can’t we understand each other with different opinions and different thinking and different values instead of just screaming at each other, so what’s happening in Taiji is a very good example of what’s happening in the world.
“A Whale of a Tale” opens on August 24th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall, September 7th in San Francisco at the Alamo Mission and September 14th at the SIFF Film Center in Seattle.