Release Date: August 17, 2018
Director: Megumi Sasaki
MPAA Rating: NR
Run Time: 97 Minutes
It is an unenviable position to be the director of a film like A Whale of a Tale, a film made in a climate that has already seen both ends of a whaling debate represented cinematically and polemically. Concerning the ongoing controversy surrounding the whale- and dolphin-hunting industry in the quiet, seaside town of Taiji, the incendiary Academy-Award winner The Cove strongly put forth the conservationist side of the argument, expelling outrage and vitriol for the drive-hunting practice of the Taiji fisherman, while, conversely, the shoddily made rebuttal, Behind The Cove, presented the argument limply and ineffectively from the Japanese perspective.
One sided as this debate may be, director Megumi Sasaki volunteers to occupy a more centrist position between the outrage-baiting, foreign moralizing of Ric O’Barry and the tradition-scapegoating, isolationist local Taiji government and fishing industry with the third film into this triptych of whaling films. The result is an insightful but unconvincing film that shows, unlike the killer whales these groups fight over, the issue isn’t so black and white.
Unlike her contemporary in Louie Psihoyos, who kept a knowing distance from the Taiji residents and fisherman for framing purposes, Sasaki takes a bottom-up approach by ingratiating herself to the fishermen and locals who particularly cannot fathom the passion the foreigners of organizations like Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have for their whaling operation. Spending time with families of generational whalers, taking in the local culture reverence on display for the industry and the animals involved, she begins to deftly carve a portrait of a microcommunity misunderstood on the macro level once the world’s collective outrage washed upon its shores.
The film compiles the years that Sasaki and the film’s ostensible host, Jay Alabaster, a foreign journalist, have spent in the lead-up to, break and ongoing aftermath of The Cove‘s release and how the blue-collar locals have contended with becoming an epicenter for eco-activism and the biggest sticking point for ocean conservation activism. The reactions interestingly find themselves caught somewhere between nonplussed, indifferent, frustrated and infuriated at having their local custom disturbed.
Yet, taking the dangerous cinematic approach of bothsideism, Sasaki also gives unfettered access to the Sea Shepherd activists who have traditionally camped and protested the practice for the duration of the hunting season. Connecting with Sea Shepherd representatives, she takes the same amount of care and respect for their already known position and gives them an equal platform in her film to reiterate the fatalist and overly dramatic views of O’Barry that populated The Cove.
As if a direct challenge to The Cove‘s singular inquiry into Taiji’s dolphin hunt, Sasaki elucidates the conflict by having the passionate environmental charge juxtaposed with the disarming, level-headed response, particularly in a bizarre debate scene where a local centrist activist brings the Taiji government and Sea Shepherd to a town hall to attempt to hash things out in front of the media. The government looks stubborn and archaic but without any malicious intent, and Sea Shepherd looks righteous but utterly vain and needlessly, antagonistically insufferable.
But where does this leave Sasaki’s film caught in this nowhereland, intently listening to the two poles hurl insults at one another and nodding absentmindedly to every point brought up? In desperate need of a purpose, for one thing, because wanting to portray these two sides objectively and clear up any discrepancy that has been birthed out of their media war for the past eight years has left her film without a subjective leg to stand on or a dog in this fight to manipulate its audience around.
I respect the thoroughness with which A Whale of a Tale demonstrated in clearing up this continually complicated issue, but, in effect, it leaves her film unable to make waves out of pressing matter when agenda-laden experiences like The Cove and Behind The Cove are crashing into the water around her humble production. It is the soft voice calling for sanity and reevaluation betwixt one side out for global action and the other out for anonymity and privacy, but its good intentions get snuffed out by their utter ineffectiveness.
A Whale of a Tale is the intermediate approach writ large, and though it has its moments in dispelling The Cove‘s hypocrisy and misinformation and shattering the Taiji fishermen’s inaccurate cultural justification for their brutal practice, it is still the meager sucker fish clinging to another film for dear life while being inconsequential in its own terms. It is technically correct but too little and too late.