'A Whale of a Tale': Film Review

This thoughtful doc presents another side of the story.

Megumi Sasaki's documentary explores the aftermath of the documentary 'The Cove' in the Japanese town of Taiji from the fishermen's point of view.

The opening minutes of the new documentary by Megumi Sasaki (Herb & Dorothy) depicts a Japanese festival where patrons are served heaping amounts of whale stew and whale meatballs. It certainly sets the scene for A Whale of a Tale, which serves as a sort of de facto sequel to 2010's Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, about the traditional practice of hunting and killing dolphins in the small Japanese town of Taiji. Sasaki's documentary explores the aftermath of that earlier film's seismic impact, as well as providing the townspeople's point of view about the condemnation, bordering on demonization, they've endured.

Since the release of The Cove, animal rights activists have flocked to the seaside town to confront the fisherman attempting to ply their trade. Whatever one thinks of the ethics of killing these creatures (the terms dolphins and whales are used interchangeably) known for their high level of intelligence, it's discomfiting to witness the activists harassing, insulting and threatening the locals in the most vicious of terms.

"It's eco-business," one town official comments disparagingly about the activists' motives. Several fishermen point out the hypocrisy of attacking their culture for eating whales and dolphins when the mass slaughter of other animals for food and clothing is considered morally acceptable. They also remind us that neither species is considered endangered.

The film vividly illustrates the pervasiveness of the town's 400-year-old practices which provide many of the residents' incomes. We see a family sitting down to a meal of whale and dolphin, the elderly patriarch proclaiming, "This will help you live 10 years longer!" An elementary school serves a heaping portion of whale meat at lunchtime to its young students.

Many of the residents take umbrage at the criticism of their traditions coming from foreigners. When asked by an animal rights activist at a press conference what would make the town change its ways, the mayor brusquely tells her, "You can register as a resident and then offer your ideas."

Jay Alabaster, a Japanese-speaking American journalist who has moved to Taiji, is sympathetic to the residents' point of view. He's seen offering advice to a non-media-savvy town official, telling him that the fisherman have to make themselves heard via social media and press coverage if they expect to survive. Meanwhile, many of the foreign activists have been barred from entering the country.

Ironically, sales of whale and dolphin meat have dropped precipitously, not so much from outside pressure but rather because consumption is very low. There is also concern about the high levels of mercury found in the animals, although it's not a safety hazard. As a result, many of the dolphins are captured live, to be sold to theme parks and aquariums throughout the world.

Recognizing that tourism could provide a future path to prosperity, the town opened a lavish whale museum. But the controversial whaling practices resulted in the institution being expelled from WAZA, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 

A Whale of a Tale delivers a thoughtful riposte to The Cove even while providing plenty of opportunity for those opposed to the practice of killing or capturing whales and dolphins to make their case.

The film is certainly unlikely to change anyone's minds, but it at least provides some complexity to a story that was previously presented from one side only.

Production/distributor: Fine Line Media
Director/producer: Megumi Sasaki
Executive producer: Taro Maki
Directors of photography: Takashi Orikasa, Taiki Sugioka
Editor: Bernadine Colish
Composer: David Majzlin

97 minutes