TOKYO — Megumi Sasaki has lived in New York for 30 years. Of all the issues she heard debated in that time, one issue stood out — an issue on which she says she only ever heard one side of the argument, never the other side.
The issue is the hunting of whales and dolphins.
“On all the issues in the U.S. — gun control, abortion, President Trump — you hear all kinds of opinions, but when it comes to whale and dolphin hunting, it is unanimously just negative,” she said in an interview. “I have always wondered about that.”
Her new film, “A Whale of a Tale,” is not so much an attempt to present Japan’s side of the argument as an attempt to bridge the deep cultural divide between the country she grew up in and the one where she has spent most of her adult life.
It is set in Taiji, the small fishing village made infamous in the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove,” where dolphins are seen being driven close to shore and slaughtered. That film, she said, was “fantastic storytelling” but “full of prejudice.”
“I’m not here to support whaling, or to question whether it is good or bad,” she said. “I grew up eating whale meat for school lunches, but it wasn’t my favorite food. First of all, I was inspired by ‘The Cove.’ My first motivation was to give a voice to the fishermen in the village who have no voice in the argument and controversy. I didn’t think that was fair at all.”
Sasakai said she spent six years making the film. In the end, she said, it was less about whale and dolphin hunting and more about communication.
“How can we understand each other, despite different backgrounds, different voices, different opinions?” she asked. “We just tend to impose our own righteousness on everyone. We don’t listen to the other side.
“The world we live in today, so many issues are so polarized, we scream at each other’s face. We lost the civility to communicate,” she said. “What’s happening in Taiji is such a microcosm of the world we live in today.”
Sasaki herself is not seen or really heard in the film. Instead the central character is an American, Jay Alabaster, who has spent half his life in Japan. He gives up his job with the Associated Press to live in Taiji as a “neutral” but ends up winning the trust of — and developing obvious affection for — the tightknit whaling community that is deeply suspicious of outsiders.
“He is like a reverse mirror image of me; he is an American living in Japan,” Sasaki said. “We both love Japan and the U.S. so much — but why do they hate each other like this?”
Alabaster describes how he has found himself straddling two cultures, two countries he loves very much, and has picked this one issue where he might be able to make a difference. “Maybe we can help them get back into alignment, and stop this misunderstanding, this hate, this darkness,” he says in the film.
The film shows schoolchildren proud of the fact that their fathers and grandfathers were whalers; it shows whale hunters keen to pass on their heritage to their children, determined not to be the generation that abandons the profession of their ancestors.
But it also shows the Western activists from Sea Shepherd and other groups who give up huge amounts of their time to come to a foreign country to try to protect animals they care deeply about.
Sadly, it also shows the deep divides between the two sides: with activists describing whalers and whale and dolphin hunting as “barbaric,” “uncivilized” and “shameful,” and townspeople who see the other side as “prejudiced,” “racist” and using dolphins and whales as a “business” to raise funds.
At one point, Ric O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer turned activist who founded the Dolphin Project, is asked if he could imagine some middle ground between the two sides.
“I hope so,” he said, before describing what that middle ground would look like: “Stop selling poisoned meat to Japanese people. Stop exporting dolphins to Russia and China and North Korea and Turkey. Leave the dolphins alone.”
O’Barry trained the five dolphins that were used in the popular television series Flipper — a show that helped give rise to the captive dolphin amusement park industry — but he later concluded that the practice was cruel. The dolphin hunt in Taiji captures many of the dolphins that are used in ocean parks around the world, and O’Barry says he will keep coming to Taiji “until they stop, or I drop.”
In the film, a Japanese journalist asks whether foreign pressure has actually been counterproductive and made Japanese people more defensive about what they see as their culture.
Sasaki said her film received a good reception from the Japanese public, even if some conservatives thought it was not strong enough in its defense of the whaling industry. In the United States, where she has been promoting it recently, it has encountered more opposition, including from Louie Psihoyos, who directed “The Cove.”
In a Facebook post, he said his team tried to get the mayor of Taiji and the dolphin hunting union to present their side of the story, but they refused to speak.
"But do you really need to hear both sides of a story when one of those sides is committing barbaric acts of violence?” he asked. “Is it necessary to hear Jeffrey Daumer’s side of the story to have an accurate picture? Serial killers and [pedophiles] have a point of view, but do you really need to hear both sides of a story when one of those sides is committing barbaric acts of violence and refuses to speak?”
Taiji’s annual whale and dolphin hunting season starts on Sept. 1 and is marked by protests around the world. It runs until the end of February. Activists say the number of dolphins killed or captured has been falling in recent years and numbered at least 720 last season. The townspeople say none of the species killed or captured are endangered.