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'The Cove' hits big screen in Japan, defying threats

'The Cove,' an Oscar-winning documentary about a controversial dolphin slaughter in Japan, will be released in six theaters July 3. The movie caused a showdown between nationalist protesters and free-speech advocates.

By Correspondent / July 2, 2010

In this April 9 photo, Japanese nationalists demonstrate outside the Tokyo office of Unplugged Inc., a distributor of the Academy-award winning film 'The Cove' in Tokyo. After initial screenings of the film at three theaters were canceled following protests, Japanese theaters will start showing 'The Cove' next month despite pressure from groups who say the film is anti-Japanese.

Koji Sasahara/AP/File



Controversial Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove” is to finally get a release at six theaters from July 3 in Japan, the country where the anti-dolphin-hunting film was shot, after a tussle between nationalist protesters on one side and free speech advocates and movie theaters on the other. The police are working with theater operators to try to prevent trouble from demonstrators who have vowed to stop the film being shown.

The documentary, which features dolphin activist Rick O’Barry, the trainer on the 1960s TV series “Flipper,” has been branded anti-Japanese by right-wing protest groups for its harsh portrayal of fishermen in the small village of Taiji. An annual cull in the waters off Taiji kills thousands of dolphins, and also sees the mammals sold around the globe to shows and aquariums.

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Cultural heritage?

Director Louis Psihoyos denied the documentary was “Japan-bashing” while in Tokyo to promote “The Cove” last October. He went on to describe Taiji as, “Auschwitz for dolphins.”

IN PICTURES: Pink dolphins

The fishermen, who say the hunt goes back to the 1600s and is part of Japan's cultural heritage, resent being condemned for a practice they say is no different to the killings of cows and pigs in slaughterhouses. The locals are also angry because much of the footage was shot covertly – something the filmmakers say was unavoidable because they were denied access to the areas around the hunt, despite it being a national park.

Although the documentary repeatedly calls Taiji the “biggest dolphin-slaughter in the world,” greater numbers of the mammals are actually killed elsewhere in Japan. The hunt in Taiji attracts so much attention partly due to the methods used and the grisly visuals it provides. The dolphins are herded into the shallow waters of the cove that gives the documentary its title, and butchered there with harpoons and knives, turning the surrounding waters a vivid red.

The documentary also claims that dolphin meat contains toxic levels of mercury – something denied by locals who donate the meat to local schools for use in children's lunches. Tests carried out on residents by a quasi-governmental agency found mercury levels up to four times above the national average though the agency maintain they revealed no health risks to local people. The methodology and findings have been disputed by groups both inside and outside Japan.

Three public screenings – until now