Film Review: A Whale of a Tale

A more objective look at the Japanese practice of dolphin hunting first seen in 2009’s Oscar-winning 'The Cove.'
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Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove brought international attention to the hunting of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, a small community with a whaling tradition that dates back more than 400 years—and, for its acclaimed efforts, it won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary. Arriving nine years later, A Whale of a Tale plays like a rebuttal (if not an outright corrective) to that film, striving to provide a more even-handed view of its controversial subject. Despite one critical blind spot, director Megumi Sasaki’s follow-up is an illuminating examination of the still-ongoing conflict, albeit one unlikely to sway those who’ve already chosen a side in this polarizing debate.

In the years following the release of The Cove, activists—such as Scott West and his daughter Elora, from Sea Shepherd—have descended on Taiji, protesting loudly and, at times, menacingly those men who make their living hunting whales and dolphins for profit. West and company believe that whaling is unnecessary and “barbaric” animal cruelty that also poisons consumers (via elevated mercury levels). Whalers, on the other hand, contend that dolphins are merely fish, and that hunting them is part of a centuries-old custom that defines and economically sustains their town (and nation).

Director Sasaki allows both of these groups equal opportunity to espouse their polar-opposite beliefs. In the middle of this dispute is former AP reporter (and Arizona native) Jay Alabaster, who’s long worked and lived in Japan and who opts to move to Taiji, where he’s warily accepted by suspicious citizens. Distrust runs rampant when it comes to this hot-button topic, and so too does obstinacy, as illustrated by a meeting between the mayor and activists that leads to plenty of quarreling but no real progress. Through it all, A Whale of a Tale differentiates itself from The Cove simply by remaining neutral, avoiding any overt signs of bias as famed Flipper trainer Ric O’Barry rails against Taiji’s hunting practices, and locals discuss the great reverence they have for whales (proof of which can be found in their modern whaling museum and many cultural and religious celebrations and rituals).

Sasaki’s attempts to stay impartial are welcome and, by and large, successful. What’s missing from A Whale of a Tale, however, is a more direct confrontation with this disagreement’s central issue: namely, whether dolphins deserve special protection (because, as West says, they’re “more human than not human”) or are merely animals on the level of cows and pigs (as claimed by a Taiji fishermen’s union rep). Since virtually every other dolphin-hunting argument hinges on that question, the film’s refusal to comprehensively address it proves a glaring misstep.

Instead, its main focus is the intransigence of everyone involved. That, as it turns out, is considerable, since neither side seems the least bit interested in investigating their own perspectives in any clear-headed way, much less budging from their bedrock positions. A Whale of a Tale only skims the surface of the many matters it raises, be it cultural imperialism, tradition, animal rights and socioeconomic necessities. Still, its objective approach, and subtle plea for middle-ground compromise, makes it a worthwhile addendum to Psihoyos’ celebrated predecessor.