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As whaling documentary opens in US, controversy overlaps with social polarization

"A Whale of a Tale" director Megumi Sasaki poses for a picture in Los Angeles on Aug. 14, 2018. (Mainichi)

"A Whale of a Tale," a documentary about the controversy over dolphin hunting and whaling in the Japanese town of Taiji in the western Japan prefecture of Wakayama, opened on Aug. 17 in the United States, a country that takes a harsh view of these practices.

The film does not focus on the pro or cons of dolphin hunting and whaling, but rather how people on each side can come to understand each other. The documentary stands in stark contrast to the 2010 Academy Award-winning U.S. film "The Cove," a sensationalist documentary about Taiji's dolphin hunting told from the point of view of anti-whaling activists.

"The Cove" was a tale of right and wrong, in which heroic activists struggled against the "evil" done by the fishermen of Taiji. It would likely make filmgoers lacking understanding about Japan want to shout, "Stop dolphin hunting and whaling immediately!"

"A Whale of a Tale," however, shows the points of view of both the whalers and the anti-whaling advocates, offering a perspective completely different from that of "The Cove."

"The collision of polarized opinions on the whaling industry, with deep feelings of animosity, resembles the current condition of the United States under the Trump administration," noted the film's 56-year-old director Megumi Sasaki, who lives in New York. In an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun on Aug. 14 in Los Angeles where the film's sneak preview was conducted, Sasaki drew comparisons between the whaling issue and problems such as the collision of global and local points of view, as well as the growing polarization and segmentation of society under the Trump administration. Below are the director's answers.

Q: I understand that the U.S. documentary "The Cove" was your motivation for making "A Whale of a Tale"?

A: I saw "The Cove" in the summer of 2009. While I thought the film was well made, I also felt it was full of prejudice and a complete lack of understanding toward Japan. I was also surprised at the lack of an effective English language counterargument from Japan. I have lived in the United States for 30 years. Within American society, there are many discussions on the pros and cons regarding various situations, but I was concerned that there only seems to be one opinion when it comes to whaling and dolphin hunting. Perhaps, the problem is a lack of information. So, my motivation to make this movie was concern that under the status quo, the misunderstandings and hatred towards whaling would continue to grow. While I did feel that I was encouraged by "The Cove" to go ahead, I didn't make "Whale" in direct opposition to, or in criticism of, the film.

Q: Initially, you thought that the main issue was whaling, but after entering Taiji, you saw things in an entirely different light?

A: If you look at the events surrounding Taiji as a microcosm of the world at large, you can come to learn many things. The issue in Taiji is not a matter of "the West vs. Japan," but rather a "global vs. local" issue. People living in small communities are suffering due to the influence of globalism. In 2016, it became clear that those sorts of people exist throughout the world.

That was the year that England decided to leave the European Union, and Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. The individuals who supported both movements were "local" individuals -- people suffering under globalism whose ways of lives were being threatened, but whose voices were not often heard. So I think President Trump is not the problem, but rather what is happening to those who voted for him. The autumn of 2016 was also when "A Whale of a Tale" was completed and premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea. The suffering of the fishermen of Taiji is connected to the world in many ways. Small, distinct villages with long histories are facing a tough fight to survive.

One other issue is that of communication. The voices of people such as the fisherman in Taiji, many of whom do not access social media, struggle to reach us. And then there is also the problem of a lack of mutual understanding. Why do people exclude those who think differently from themselves, while advocating their own points of view as absolute? The issue is not just limited to the opposition between the fishermen of Taiji and anti-whaling advocates. The base issue is an opposition of values, which if left unaddressed can lead to all-out conflict.

Q: Some people say the whaling issue has become an issue of nationalism.

A: The amount of whale meat a Japanese person eats over an entire year is the equivalent of a few slices of ham. Why are people who don't eat whales worried about whaling? It's uncomfortable when foreigners come to Japan and say "whales are magnificent animals, so don't eat them." The mainstream opinion in Japan is that eating whale is part of traditional Japanese culture, and although not all Japanese eat whale, they are opposed to those foreign opinions because it is a Japanese tradition.

Q: Views on that tradition seem to vary.

A: That's how I felt when I spoke with people from (anti-whaling group) Sea Shepherd. When speaking with other Japanese people, I could say "this is a tradition, so we have to protect it," and they would understand. However, Europeans and Americans have a history of bad traditions such as slavery, and they want to eliminate other bad traditions. To speak in extremes, they think that traditions are meant to be broken, and by doing so, humanity evolves. When someone says that Japan needs to protect whaling, "because it is a Japanese tradition," that is not an effective method of persuasion.

-- Using the media skillfully to win the information war

Q: So it's a matter of relaying information in such a way that it can be understood?

A: It's an information war. And it's not just limited to the whaling issue; it can also be found surrounding the Trump administration, where truth and good or bad strategies are not the issue. If you look at the spread of "fake news," you can see that the issue is the skillful management of information. Those who can use the media skillfully will win the information war. The whaling issue is being monopolized by the U.S. and activists, and that information is being spread throughout the world. Japan is completely losing.

Q: What might be effective?

Director Sasaki, left, talks about her work, "A Whale of a Tale" at the film's sneak preview in Los Angeles on Aug. 14, 2018. (Mainichi)

A: I think emotions can move the world. Americans have keywords they like and dislike -- one of their favorites is "hero." In "The Cove," (the filmmakers) made themselves into heroes. Their position is this: They were absolutely correct, and the people of Taiji were bad, and so they had to be overcome evil. However, I think it may have been a mistake for the filmmakers to force their own perspective on filmgoers. To bring a large amount of equipment from Hollywood and turn the camera lens on a small fishing village is, in my opinion, violence and mere bullying. If you frame the argument from that perspective, people understand.

And because Americans strive to be tolerant, I think it would move them if you said, "Why can't you accept that other people have history and culture that they want to continue? Is it acceptable to you to be that intolerant? Don't you think the world is tired of America's attitude that America, and America alone, is correct?"

Q: How has American opinion been since the film's preview?

A: More positive than I thought. People have said things like, "I'm against whaling, but this film's neutral stance was interesting." Surprisingly, many people also said they were reconsidering their opinions.

Q: Did you also encounter any opinions that the situation resembled the one in America today, where the Trump administration's supporters and detractors seem to share a mutual hatred for each other and continue to distance themselves from each other?

A: Everyone says that. Under the Trump administration, viewpoints have become polarized, people believe their opinion alone is correct, and no one listens to the opinions of others. So the ditch separating people is getting deeper and hatred alone is growing stronger. What is happening in Taiji overlaps with what is happening in America. What's interesting is the reaction of anti-Trump liberals. Some have told me that when they saw the fisherman being accosted by the activists (in "A Whale of a Tale") they were able to relate it to their own attacks against pro-Trump supporters. They felt ashamed.

Q: Why do you think America has become so polarized?

A: I think President Trump has had a large influence. If he had not been elected, I do not think the division would have been this great. Trump has certainly done incredibly bold things, and there is no place of refuge for the anger of those who do not support his actions. However, when a Trump administration official goes to a restaurant, liberals will go as far as to drive that person away. Hatred has grown. It is a manifestation of the increased gap between individuals. There are also disparities in living standards and access to information. I feel that the amount of information has increased through the Internet, but when one does an Internet search, the system is constructed to prioritize results you would be most interested in. While it would appear that one's field of view is growing, it actually is becoming narrower.

Q: What is the significance of showing your film in America?

A: I made this movie because I wondered why only the anti-whaling activists' voices were being heard. It's not a matter of who is right, but rather, I wanted to provide information. In a place like America, where information from the whaling side is virtually nonexistent, I wanted to convey the thoughts and feelings of those engaged in whaling.

(Interviewed by Hiromi Nagano, Los Angeles Bureau)

-- Film Information

Following August screenings in New York and Los Angeles, "A Whale of a Tale" is due to screen in San Francisco from Sept. 7 at Alamo Mission. Screening information is set to be released on Sept. 3. (See https://drafthouse.com/sf). The film is also due to screen in Seattle from Sept. 14 at SIFF Film Center. Screening information is scheduled to be released on Sept. 10. (See https://www.siff.net/).

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