Although fast forward scenes are often used merely as filler, the Tsukiji Fish Market sequence in the Psihoyos’ The Cove manages to effectively use this technique to convey some key ideas in an engaging fashion. The sequence comes at a point in the documentary where the message takes a ecological activist turn, which is what makes this sequence so strong. Up until this point, the main message of the film is conveyed through moralization, which, while valid, gives this more analytical scene the contrast it needs.
The sequence comes in response to Japan’s IWC Representative’s comment that the decline in world fishing populations is due to dolphins and whale predation. The primary message being that this decline is in fact due to human over-consumption, a fact the Japanese apparently are not prepared to accept. We are then whisked off to the Tsukiji Fish market in Japan, where fish are piled up in an orderly grid at an incredibly fast pace. Background narration gives us with some key facts and statistics about the rates of fish consumption and stocks. Customers of the fish market mill about as quickly and haphazardly as ants from our top down view, mindlessly making fish disappear until nothing left. With this speed also comes a sense of urgency, the lack of which has prevented ecological activism from gaining momentum in the past. If the speed of erosion of resources were as fast as this sequence, (and it probably is) there is certainly a reason to be concerned.
We are then treated to a top down view of a tuna being divided and distributed until gradually the whole fish has been used up. A powerpoint of a pie chart might be more direct, but not by much. The narrator mentions human dependance on fish as a source of protein, but the food pictured in this case is not treated merely as nutrition, but a representative of the ocean ecosystem. Where regularly a tuna being sliced up might be seen as a study on how one prepares it for food; sped up, the scene has a conservationist undertone. The following sped up scene of a clock turning round and round further emphasizes the feeling of urgency and that “time is running out” not only for the fish on the floor, but also for the people on the floor. In the end, nothing is left but darkness and time, an ominous vision of a possible future.
Now, The Cove is not a ecological activist documentary, and this scene really just represents some fact checking when taken with the plot as a whole. This is evident when the sped up effect brings us full circle back to an IWC session. There are also short scenes which reinforce the animal cruelty message such when the fishermen are shown smashing gaffs into the large and somewhat dolphin looking fish or marking the fish with red ink that looks more like blood than anything. The sequence does not dwell on this, however, focusing more on real data which informs of direct risks posed to humans. While this break in continuity might seem to weaken the movie, this fresh scene just adds a little more complexity and variety which is vital to the otherwise single-track narrative.