Those that claim art cannot affect change haven’t lived under the scrutiny resulting from a painting, a song, or a story. They are blind to the way a community shifts its stance or approach because of a strongly worded letter. They ignore the way an individual’s meteoric rise suddenly craters from something as simple as a meme. The number of individuals who can withstand such piercing public focus is few, so imagine what it must have felt like when the entire world placed their attention on a town of 3,000. That’s what happened to small whaling community Taiji, Japan, after 2009’s The Cove won Best Documentary at the Academy Awards. It’s a film that presented to the world a view of the town of Taiji hunting whales and dolphins, which, while true, failed to provide greater context. Through A Whale of a Tale, director Megumi Sasaki (Herb & Dorothy) explores the aftermath of this global exposure by chatting with the townspeople, activist group members seeking a halt to whaling, and a journalist living among them all in an effort to understand all sides of an increasingly complex issue.
Unlike director Louie Psihoyos’s The Cove, the lack of agenda from Sasaki with Whale is absolutely refreshing. Her film seems more interested in understanding the conflict which arose from The Cove, while also providing an opportunity for audiences to put a face on the town so many abhor. At the root of the conflict between activists and whalers, Whale suggests, is a difference in cultural view. The westerners protesting – lead in the film by Scott West, a now former member of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society – tend to make bold, aggressive statements toward the people of Taiji, trying to shame them out of whaling by appealing to their morality. From the other side, as explained by a Japanese police officer when a protester swims out to the herded dolphins to give them a ball, Japan is a country of manners, so even when no laws are being broken, treating people honorably is preferential. The mention of honor in this situation in reaction to behavior perceived as rude by the Taiji townspeople illustrates why the town reacts to the protestors’ aggressive taunts with seemingly stubborn claims of maintaining tradition. Rather than behaving in what the Japanese consider honorable behavior, something that might appear as a means of respecting the community the protesters are battling, the protesters instead only seem to see things from their worldview.
By observing how each set of people engages the others, the audience is able to understand why neither party is able to defuse the situation. For the Taiji, their town is small and not very tech-savvy. This translates to a community unable to respond in any meaningful and timely way in an effort to correct claims by the protesters. Through interviews conducted with the mayor and local historians of Taiji, it becomes rapidly clear that the protesters not once considered the why of whaling for the Taiji. For one, Taiji is a food desert – water is scarce, the land unable to support farming – so the community turned to the sea to take care of its residents. For two, of the 80 known species of whales, Taiji fisherman only hunt seven. Some are for food, others to be sent to aquariums around the world to promote oceanic exploration and discovery. By failing to try to understand why the Taiji hunt, the result is two passionate groups unable to see past themselves to make any form of advances. This, of course, is where Jay Alabaster, now ex-AP reporter, serves as the audience’s provider of facts, views, and other information that the protesters seem willfully ignorant to receive. Unlike the protesters, Jay demonstrates that by understanding the culture of the community he’s trying to research, he can better communicate with the people of Taiji and uncover who these people are and why they whale. It’s not because they’ve done it for 400 years and refuse to do anything else. The people of Taiji believe in holistic consumption of whales, as well as preservation. Their practice assists with keeping the oceanic ecosystem balanced and only specific animals are hunted: nothing endangered, nothing that would harm the balance of the ocean. The more the audience learns about the Taiji practice of whaling, the less like villains the townspeople appear, unlike how The Cove and other activists would have the world believe.
Audiences looking for an exposé from Sasaki will be severely disappointed. Instead, viewers can expect a film that focuses on the humanity of the people at the center of the whaling controversy. What’s likely to frustrate audiences is that Sasaki doesn’t take sides, yet that’s the very thing that makes A Whale of a Tale so interesting to watch. Whether the intent or not, there’re no solutions provided or conclusions presented, which may make Whale feel incomplete by its ending. There’s an argument to be made, however, that’s it’s the lack of closure that highlights just how frustrating the struggle between all parties feels. One way to view Whale is the meeting of an immoveable object against an unstoppable force – both so tied to their views that there’s no way to meet in the middle. Another way, perhaps the way Sasaki intends her audience to see it, is that Taiji is a town like any other trying to figure out how to take care of its people while maintaining traditions, that whaling isn’t as clear-cut as some argue, in either direction of opinion, and that by getting to know that town of Taiji maybe, just maybe, the world might stop vilifying a tiny town just trying to survive.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.