Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the new documentary, A Whale of a Tale, which looks at the people of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, who were profiled in the Oscar-winning documentary, The Cove. For the record, I liked The Cove, though perhaps more as a movie than as an exercise in persuasion. I didn’t need much persuasion to think that dolphins shouldn’t be hacked to death, even for food, but what I found interesting about the film was its atmosphere of intrigue, of a secret that was being kept from the world and the filmmakers’ dedication to getting it out there at any cost.
A Whale of a Tale doesn’t necessarily contradict that impression, but it does provide enough of a corrective response to make me think that the makers of The Cove edited their material in such a way as to demonize the people of Taiji. The director of Whale, Megumi Sasaki, thought it necessary to give them a chance to give their side of the story, and in a culturally-intensive controversy like this one they probably aren’t going to persuade anyone who’s already put off by the dolphin cull that what they’re doing is justifiable from any standpoint. But it does at least make them look like human beings.
However, Whale did bring up one aspect of the issue, albeit very briefly, that always bothered me about The Cove, namely it’s use of the mercury content of dolphin meat to make its case against the killing. To me, the power of The Cove‘s argument was inherent in its footage of the drive hunt, and the charge that Taiji was feeding its residents meat tainted with mercury seemed beside the point. Though it could have been used as a powerful footnote, instead it was relegated to its own debate point. It was as if the filmmakers were saying, “If you don’t think killing dolphins for any reason is immoral, then what about this poison thing? Isn’t that enough of a reason to ban drive hunts?” Mercury poisoning is a larger issue that deserves its own investigation, and making it a corollary to a thesis that is mostly moral/emotional in impact seemed a bit desperate.
Whale makes the case that while researchers have found above-normal levels of mercury in the meat of dolphins and whales sold as food in Taiji (and, presumably, elsewhere in Japan), there is absolutely no evidence that anyone in the town has suffered health problems because of it. In fact, as one researcher says (and, in order to point up his objectivity, the doc clearly states that he doesn’t eat whale or dolphin because he just doesn’t like it), life expectancy of residents of Taiji tends to be longer than that of Japanese people in general, and Japanese people are famous for having the longest life expectancy in the world. As with the issue of killing dolphins, this added information about mercury is not likely to convince people who already think any chemical contamination is bad for you, but it does put things in a clearer perspective.