Megumi Sasaki seeks nuance in ‘Whale of a Tale’

Almost 10 years ago, the documentary The Cove brought Taiji, Japan’s practice of hunting of dolphins and whales to light. While the issue was already on the radar of some environmentalists, the outrage the film causes brought a siege of activists to the fisherman of Taiji. As the community of Taiji claimed their hunting practice was part of their way of life and activists argued it was a brutal practice of animal abuse, leading to an outright culture war. Japanese born, US resident Megumi Sasaki (director of Herb & Dorothy) saw the growing debate as an opportunity to see the multiple sides of this controversial subject as well as address the universal need we have for rational conversation when confronted with such issues. Along with exclusive interviews from those on both sides, Sasaki attempts to tell her Whale of a Tale with nuance and balance.

Lesley Coffin: We you aware of Taiji and their fishing/hunting practices before the film The Cove was released?

Megumi Sasaki: I was, because I’d done work on a Japanese program before and knew that Taiji was a community known for Japanese whaling. And they are a community very proud of their history as whalers.

Lesley Coffin: When you started working on this documentary were they already seeing the impact of The Cove in terms of the activists coming into the town and disrupting their incomes, or was that something that was slow to occur?

Megumi Sasaki: By the time I started work on this film the environmental activists were already there. The organize Sea Shepherds were there before The Cove crew arrived. I think they were there almost 10 years prior to the film’s production.

Lesley Coffin: It was mentioned in the film that this community no longer is as open to journalists as they had been and are always suspicious of them now. Were you met with the same reaction and overall suspicion about your intentions?

Megumi Sasaki: I decided to go through different channels to get access, meeting with a community leader about what I was planning and allow him to introduce me to different leaders in the community and fishermen. I spoke with the leader of the fishers’ union and the mayor, so I had the community’s approval to come in and film. So when the leader said yes, the fishermen we more willing to talk to me. But even then, I could feel that apprehension from them. And it’s in general just a very enclosed community so they would have been a little uneasy with any outsider that came in, with or without a camera.

Lesley Coffin: Did that permission they gave come with any caveats regarding what you could depict or what the film would ultimately say?

Megumi Sasaki: When I first went into Taiji, I went with a friend who had made a television documentary before. They trusted my friend and my friend trusts me. So they really didn’t question me or my intentions. What they told me was, when The Cove crew first came to film there, they told them that they were making a documentary about the beauty of the nature in the area. And it turned out to be totally deceiving. And I’d actually heard that before from people who had participated in The Cove production, that they deceived the people who conducted interviews with the people in that town.

Lesley Coffin: You devote time to speaking with the activists and the fisherman and townspeople. Why did you feel it was so important to include the American journalist Jay Alabaster who was living there?


Megumi Sasaki: I think he was like my alter-ego. I don’t know if Jay likes that description. He’s an American who’s lived in Japan for years and speaks the language. He understands and has a real interest in understanding the local culture. I am Japanese but have lived in America for years. So we both come from one country but understand our adopted country. And we’re both thinking of the different sides of the argument. So we’re both foreigners looking at the wider perspectives. I thought he would be a great person to serve as a guide for the audience. And I also felt, because the other Americans in the film are the activists, it was important to show that no all Americans see Japan the same way.

Lesley Coffin: From my perspective, the chance to engage in a real discussion and debate are missing because of the negative feelings people in the community, especially leaders, had towards the idea of westerns telling them what they shouldn’t do. Do you feel there is some cultural ignorance fueling this fight?

Megumi Sasaki: Absolutely. I think, first of all, there is a huge difference between the way westerners and Japanese people think about humans and nature. The Christian world view I think believes that God is at the top of the hierarchy, followed by humans, and everything else comes after that. But in Shintoism, there is a belief that humans are just a part of nature and they aren’t better or worse than any other creatures. This includes insects and even the mountains. So that philosophical difference isn’t completely understood I think. A lot of activists will say that the Japanese people are hypocritical because they draw and paint dolphins and whales, and think they are pretending to care about that part of nature while they are killing it. But that is such a huge misunderstanding. The Japanese do this to be thankful for the animals, or any plants, giving life to them. They are expressing a sense of gratitude to nature. And one of the characters in the film mentions that difference but I don’t think that is understood at all.

Lesley Coffin: When you started working on the film were you met with a negative reaction for even making this film or feeling there is another side to the story?

Megumi Sasaki: Oh yes. Even before I finished the film I became a target of the attack, and was personally attacked. The Sea Sheppard leader Paul Watson, called me a propaganda filmmaker and said I knew nothing about this. I was told there’s no such thing as a balanced view and there’s no justification for murder. They talked about me justifying a holocaust, which I thought was pretty out there.

Lesley Coffin: You aren’t a news journalist, you’re a documentarian, so the rules of journalistic ethics are a little different. But what are your set of documentary ethics rules when tackling a subject like this which could lead to such heated debate?

Megumi Sasaki: When I interview people I always try to come in without any pre-conceptions and just try to listen and more importantly try to understand what they believe in. And as a documentarian I try not to present my ideas as the ultimate authority. I don’t want anyone to be portrayed as a villain, especially when dealing with controversial issues. I’m very careful not to make the issues black or white, because the reality is, things are extremely complicated.

Lesley Coffin: There is a scene where one of the fisherman’s shown the social media reaction to the town by Jay. And there’s so much outrage and anger that comes through on social media, and nuance is just about impossible. Do you think this is an era where people are even willing to expose themselves to a contrary point of view?

Megumi Sasaki: So far, I’ve had a mostly positive reaction and audiences have been really wiling to open their minds and think about what they didn’t know or didn’t understand before. I think, especially today, things are so polarized and there’s so much screaming at each other. But I also think there are a lot of people who hear about an issue and want to open themselves up to understand both sides. And I think what’s happening in Taiji is more of a microcosm of something happening globally and I want audiences to find that more universal theme.

Lesley Coffin: Have you had the opportunity to show the film in Taiji?

Megumi Sasaki: Before our premiere in 2016 I went back and show the film to the fishermen. They were the first people to see it.

Lesley Coffin: Did they feel you were accurate and fair?

Megumi Sasaki: I think they did, they were okay with it. I think they were expecting me to be more encouraging of their practices but we were critical of some elements. And we told them from the beginning that we weren’t going to be supportive, we were going to be showing a balanced view. And they thought it was pretty accurate.

© Lesley Coffin (8/18/18) FF2 Media

Photo Credits: FINE LINE MEDIA

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