The new doc, ‘Behind THE COVE,’ presents a counterargument to the 2009 doc, ‘The Cove’

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Behind THE COVE, the 105-minute Japanese film by first time director Keiko Yagi, includes interviews with people on both sides of the international whaling dispute, including the director and antagonist from 2009’s The Cove, the Academy Award-winning film which negatively portrays the practices of fishermen in the small, remote town of Taiji in Japan.

This is the first film to respond to anti-whaling The Cove from the Japanese perspective. While generally highly regarded, The Cove has also been lambasted by some critics for being one-sided propaganda, Japan-bashing, for lacking a basic understanding of related cultural issues, and for using deceptive filmmaking strategies. The depiction of Japanese people in the film has also been controversial.

What started out as a personal investigation, triggered by childhood memories of whale dishes, led first-time Japanese documentary filmmaker Keiko Yagi to the town of Taiji, the center of the whaling debate and the stage of The Cove. With no budget, limited experience in filmmaking, no fluency in English, but armed with a video camera and a strong desire to find out the truth of the matter on whaling, Yagi discovered a much bigger story than she had initially imagined.

“I didn’t go there to make an answer film to The Cove. I wanted ask questions of the people of Taiji and ended up making the film as a result of those questions. The locals were saying bad things about The Cove. That’s when I got a copy and watched it. In the film, the Japanese fishermen were almost vilified like mobsters. Contrary to how they were depicted in The Cove, they are a peaceful people. In The Cove, everything was shot in black in white – sort of sinister. Since people have seen my film, they tell me, ‘I didn’t know Taiji was such a beautiful town.’”

In Behind THE COVE, Yagi attempts to present a comprehensive picture of the dolphin and whale hunting issues in Japan, which includes interviews with people on both sides of the whaling dispute, its sinister political side, what The Cove did not offer, and a unique take on the topic. Throughout filming, Yagi got to know the anti-whaling activists, who set-up camp in Taiji every year during the dolphin-hunting season. In her film, Yagi also presents the ‘voices’ of the Japanese, who usually consider silence to be a virtue. To get a balanced and greater understanding of the story, she also interviewed experts in the whaling world from Japan and overseas, including representatives from the International Whaling Commission (IWC), scientists and researchers. As Yagi delved into the topic, specific issues with The Cove became apparent.

“Before Western environmental and animal activist concerns persecuted the animal agriculture and fishing practices of the East in such a highly publicized and critical way, you’d think they’d first take a serious look at the situation at home prior to using Japan, a quiet country, as a scapegoat,” says Yagi. “In the U.S. alone, billions and billions of land and marine animals are subjected to deplorable conditions before they are brutally killed for food each year to satisfy the heavy meat-eating habits of Americans…. the relatively small fishing village of Taiji, in rural Japan, accounts for marine animal deaths in the thousands, not billions. To demonize such a relatively small industry abroad, when compared to the magnitude of what’s happening in – and is relatively ignored in – the U.S., seems a bit misguided and, perhaps, even racist.”

Yagi is not alone in these sentiments. David Cox of The Guardian Film Blog called The Cove a “piece of evangelism,” and subsumed that from a neutral point of view “Westerners…. kill and eat cows. Easterners eat dolphins. What’s the difference?” Academic Ilan Kapoor, echoing the famous phrase by Gayatri Spivak, argues that “it’s a case of (mostly) ‘white men saving cute dolphins from yellow men.’”

Hirotaka Akamatsu, Japanese Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, said “It is regrettable that this movie is made as a message that brutal Japanese are killing cute dolphins.” According to Michelle Orange, of Movieline, “as a piece of propaganda, The Cove is brilliant; as a story of ingenuity and triumph over what seems like senseless brutality, it is exceptionally well-told; but as a conscientious overview of a complex and deeply fraught, layered issue, it invokes the same phrase as even the most well-intentioned, impassioned activist docs: Buyer beware.”

Yagi further explains, “In Japan, some fishermen, particularly in remote rural areas, see dolphins and whales as just fish, consumed for centuries as part of local cultural traditions…. in China, dog meat from man’s best friend is acceptable to some as a food source…. in the bacon-loving U.S., highly intelligent and social pigs are widely considered suitable for cruel slaughterhouse practices and the dinner table. There are cultural differences as to which animals are deemed acceptable as food sources and which are not. One of the key questions our film poses is: Who gets to choose which animals are okay to eat?”

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Frederick Mintchell

Frederick is a featured writer for Morning Ticker, where this post originally appeared.

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