Sunday, April 18, 2010
The Last Whale
The award-winning documentary, The Cove, is a quite cleverly made peek at the secretive harvest in Japan of dolphins for their meat - a practice that has been carried out for centuries but is quite hard for Americans to watch, which explains most of the film's success. Of course, the large-scale slaughter of any land animal is just as unpleasant to witness, and documentaries of abattoirs, like Georges Franju's Les Sang des Bêtes (1949) are powerful examples of how completely removed we are from the consequences of our appetites. Roger Ebert called The Cove "heartbreaking."(1)
But Americans have what might be called a cultural taboo regarding the eating of certain animals like horses or dogs. And the '60s television series, Flipper, effectively domesticated the dolphin in people's minds almost into a domesticated pet. So the thought of eating an animal that has a name, just like Flicka or Lassie, is very disturbing to Americans.
The Cove uses narrative effects that are not usually found in documentaries, effects formerly reserved for thrillers and suspense films, to give the imagery - which is gory enough without all the flummery - a dramatic punch. The film explains that great care had to be taken to obtain the footage of the dolphin slaughter, that special cameras were used and the resulting "forbidden footage" smuggled out of the country. But The Cove raises a question that does not do the film or its makers much credit.
Why is the dolphin culling carried out in a "secret" cove? To hide it from the Japanese or from prying movie cameras from Europe and America? It is not illegal and, we are told, a time-honored tradition in Japan. Are the Japanese themselves getting squeamish about eating dolphin meat? Because the harvesting of whales for their meat has become so contentious, and therefore highly expensive, the consumption of dolphin meat has been advanced as a replacement in Japanese diets, rather as Alaska Pollock is used as imitation crab meat. Except for the health risk presented by its high mercury content, dolphin meat is lean and tastes, its consumers inform us, like venison or beef.
When a Japanese film distribution company announced their intention to release The Cove in Japan, a group of - you guessed it - right-wing protesters gathered outside the building in which the distributor's office was located. They were protesting against the release of the film because they viewed it as an insult to the Japanese people and Japanese culture. One protester brandished a can labelled whale meat for the reporters' camera, and Caucasian reporters were accosted and ordered by police to leave the area, supposedly to avoid possible violence. When the distribution company sent representatives outside to meet with the protesters, they were shouted at by the crowd for their lack of national loyalty.
Why shouldn't the Japanese eat dolphin meat, or whale meat for that matter, since they eat just about everything else that swims? A ban was recently sought by the US and the EU on Atlantic bluefin tuna fishing, but the Japanese fought the ban, and won, because the fish is a sushi mainstay. When a sushi house in California was found to be serving whale meat to customers last month, it was swiftly shut down. I have not the slightest doubt that, given their propensity for culinary adventurism, when the last whale is killed somewhere in the world's oceans, its meat will turn up on some connoisseur's plate in Japan, its price placed at an absolute premium because it would be the last time it would be tasted - ever.
During the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Seoul, Korean culinary enthusiasts attempted - unsuccessfully - to introduce other cultures who were present at the tournament to the Korean custom of eating dog meat. It was the cause of some cultural embarrassment, but did not turn any Koreans away from eating canines.(2) What if I were to go to South Korea and make a documentary called The Kennel?
(1) Ebert's review.
(2) Despite being illegal since 1984, the use of dog meat for food is still popular. "In March 2009, an article in the Korea Times reported that some 9,000 tons are being served at about 6,500 establishments across the country annually." (Wikipedia)