'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.

Koji Sasahara/AP/File
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.

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.

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

Until now the documentary has only had three public screenings in Japan, the first at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in September last year, followed by one at the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) the following month.

TIFF initially rejected the film after it was submitted for official screening, but later bowed to international pressure including a threatened walk-out by festival jury president, Mexican filmmaker, Alejandro González Iňárritu. Festival organizers say they initially rejected “The Cove” on “artistic grounds,” describing it as “an activist film, not a documentary.”

The film attracted little attention in the Japanese media, even after its festival screening, until its Academy Award victory earlier this year. The furor around it then grew as it landed a distribution deal and its release date drew near.

The Japanese distributor, Unplugged, has been targeted by a fringe nationalist group who protested with loudspeakers outside both the company's offices and the house of its president. The same group is believed to be behind a campaign of threatening telephone calls that caused cinemas that had planned to show the documentary to cancel screenings.

Rally supports freedom of expression

The pulling of the documentary prompted a group of 60 Japanese writers, commentators, filmmakers, and manga comic artists to come out in support of freedom of expression. The group also organized a public screening followed by a debate about the documentary and free speech issues.

A spokesperson for Unplugged, Miyuki Takamatsu, described the backing of the group as, “very, very helpful” and explained that some of its members had also shown up at a press conference.

One of Japan’s biggest newspapers, the Mainichi Shimbun, also came out in support of showing the film, with an editorial that declared: `The content of such films may not be to some people's liking, but we must respect the freedom to make and watch them. We want to point out that this issue should be taken as one that shakes the foundations of freedom of speech and expression.`

Rare injunction against nationalist protesters

After a theater in Tokyo and one in nearby Yokohama had agreed to screenings of “The Cove,” the nationalists renewed their protests, this time outside the venues. This led to the distributor and the theaters applying for an injunction preventing the demonstrators coming within 100 meters (300 feet) of the cinemas.

On June 25, a Yokohama court granted the injunction against the nationalists – an unusual move as such groups are usually allowed to protest with impunity.

Unable to go near the cinemas, the nationalists have announced their intentions to resume protests outside the house of Unplugged's president, and have recently taken their bullhorns to the home of the elderly parents of the Yokohama theater owner.

The distributors are concerned that potential cinemagoers – used to Japan’s famously orderly and peaceful society – may be put off by merely the threat of demonstrations.

“We’re worried that younger people in particular, may not care so much about what the protesters say, but may stay away because they just won’t want to get caught up in any trouble,” says Ms. Takamatsu of Unplugged.

IN PICTURES: Pink dolphins

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