Dir. Louie Psihoyos. USA. 2009.

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Serious and hard hitting documentaries about Japan are thin on the ground. For many it remains a fluffy country of Hello Kitty (a feminist icon without a mouth), Studio Ghibli and maid cafes. German pair Daniel Kremers and Tilman Koenig have produced Sour Strawberries, which documents the problems befalling immigrant workers in Japan, but the documentary to make the biggest splash (pun intended) is The Cove.

* Spoiler Alert * This movie will make break your heart, especially if you hate seeing cruelty to animals.

The documentary centres on the small town of Taiji at the far south of the Kii peninsula. Situated 100-150 miles south of Osaka, Taiji looks like any old fishing community in Asia. Small houses with overhead cables, red or blue tiled roofs. It is a town which appears to love fish, especially whales and dolphins. There are memorials to them, a museum for them, statues, artwork on the paths and more, so it might come as a surprise to learn that the town is home to the largest dolphin slaughter in the world.

A team assembles during the film to try and capture this slaughter on camera. This is far harder than most imagined as the slaughter takes place in a remove cove, protected by boats, mountains, barbed wire fences and secret tunnels. This does not deter the team of environmentalists and daredevils as they swim, hike and sneak their way into the cove to set up cameras and microphones to capture the slaughter for the first time.

The Cove is as much a documentary about Ric O’Barry and dolphins as it is about the dolphin slaughter itself. O’Barry caught, trained and cared for the dolphins who played eponymous dolphin Flipper in the TV show. He also starred in the series. Over time he learned about the effects of captivity on these extraordinary animals. One day, Cathy, his favourite, committed suicide by deciding not to breathe (dolphins, as the documentary tells us, are not automatic breathers).

This changed O’Barry’s life and he became an activist determined to free dolphins around the globe. His house is a true love poem to dolphins, from the wallpaper and hangings to sofas and loveseats. The pain he feels is plain for all to see and it is hard not to agree with him. Dolphins feel pain, are sensitive to all the music, the cheers and even the filtration unit motors in the aquariums. They develop ulcers through stress and often die much younger than they would in the wild.

As well as featuring real-life action sequences worthy of any James Bond movie, the documentary carefully explains the politics behind the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the attempts by Japan’s government to inculcate its own population and the fact that dolphins are one of the most poisonous meats to eat.

Dolphin hunting season lasts for six months in Taiji. In the morning a dozen boats slowly make their way from the deep sea towards the cove. On each boat is a long pole, which sticks into the sea and has a kind of flange on the bottom. A person bangs each pole creating a noise loud enough under the sea to make the dolphins panic and flee into the cove. The fishermen then seal the bay with nets and the next morning people come to buy bottlenose dolphins for aquariums across the globe. These dolphins could fetch a lot of money. The rest are then killed for their meat, although many fishermen refer to dolphins as pest, which are eating all of the fish around Japan.

This is a film not without consequences. Michael Moore’s documentaries have ended up with him being called a communist and an egoist. Morgan Spurlock nearly totalled his liver on a McDonald’s diet, but the makers of The Cove risked prison for filming a dolphin slaughter in Japan. They were not filming diamond wars, war crimes or extraordinary renditions. Some swimmers trying to cut the nets and release the dolphins and a group of surfers trying a peaceful protest were arrested and banned from Japan indefinitely.

These are just side shows, there are numerous arrest warrants out for the makers of The Cove, one of which is for the filming of undercover cops. With a conviction rate of 99%, they are all effectively banned from the country as well. At first, right-wing activists attempted to ban the documentary from cinemas, just as they had for the Yasukuni and Nanjing documentaries and films.

While Spurlock was attempting to warn people off fast food and Michael Moore wants a more equal society, or at least affordable healthcare, The Cove is attempting to save lives and to raise awareness. Soon enough a few cinemas opened the film in Japan and a small amount of pressure was place on the Taiji fishermen. For a short time, mere days or weeks, the slaughter was halted, but has since continued. The film continues to raise awareness on these issues and is a must see.

Imogen Gemmel
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