Culture Wars

The Cove, released in 2009, is an Academy Award-winning documentary directed by Louie Psihoyos. The film examines the issues surrounding the dolphin-hunting culture in the small town of Taiji, Japan. Psihoyos’s film takes a clear stance against the activities in Taiji, and he teams up with activist Ric O’Berry to produce an exposé piece. O’Berry is an eminent global dolphin activist, who was formerly a dolphin trainer for the popular TV show, Flipper. It was O’Berry’s friendship with Kathy, a dolphin who played Flipper on the show, that caused him to reevaluate the ethics behind dolphin captivity and prompted his transformation. The film discusses a variety of concerns: the cruelty of killing cetaceans, problems of overfishing, the dangers of consuming dolphin meat, and the inefficacy of the current bureaucratic forms of intervention. The film takes form as a kind of investigative journalism, while using personal anecdotes to heighten the emotional stakes, and heist-like action sequences to create suspense and drama. The raw footage of the dolphin slaughters are extremely provocative, and at the end of the film one is left feeling as though something must be done. In this sense, the film is extremely well-produced, for it has entertainment value, is deeply thought-provoking, and is rather convincing. But upon further consideration, the film has issues that it does not address. The film tackles the problem as a simple matter of universal ethics, but there is cultural relativism at play. In the case of the dolphin lovers vs. the dolphin hunters, trying to make the two sides see eye-to-eye is a monumental task that requires a lot of cultural understanding. Perhaps in the fervor of their own mission, the filmmakers failed to see the root of the problem. And thus the war remains a stalemate.

From the beginning, the film establishes itself from two main perspectives. The narrator is Psihoyos himself, and he helps unfold the process of making the film. We are then introduced O’Berry, who is the cardinal expert on dolphins. In one of the opening scenes, we see the two driving around in a car showcasing the landscapes of Taiji, Japan. In the shot below, a paranoid O’Berry is certain that some entity is following his car.  He states, “I’ve gotta hunch over and change my shape so they think I’m just some old Japanese guy domo arigatou gozaimashita.”

“I’ve gotta hunch over and change my shape so they think I’m just some old Japanese guy domo arigatou gozaimashita.”

 This shot, filmed at close range within the confines of a sedan, shows O’Berry clutching the wheel–which, interestingly enough–is on the opposite side of the car compared to the American standard. O’Berry is hunched over with his face mask on, pretending to be ‘some old Japanese guy’, trying to be discreet so not to reveal his identity. The tone of his statement, along with his hyperbolic gesture of wearing a face mask (without explicating the rationality behind it) suggests a rather ignorant, perhaps even derisive attitude he has towards the local culture.

One of the main tenets of The Cove is that it is immoral to kill dolphins because of their superior intelligence via self-awareness.

“And when you become conscious of this non-human intelligence, you realize after a while that they don’t belong in captivity.”

In the shot above, we see Kathy, a dolphin who played the role of Flipper on the TV show. She appears to enjoy herself as she watches TV. O’Berry explains how on friday nights when Flipper would come on, he would drag out his TV to the end of the dock with a long extension cord, and Kathy would watch herself on the show. According to O’Berry, she could even distinguish herself from Susie, another dolphin who played Flipper. It seems that the life-changing moment for O’Berry was when Kathy died in his arms, for O’Berry believes that she intentionally committed suicide due to a depression caused by her captivity. Through these highly personal accounts as well as allusions to various scientific research, the film show how intelligent and relatable dolphins are. From their perspective, the dolphins’ intelligence raises their status in the animal kingdom to a level almost equal to humans. It is on this assumption that they make the ethical statement that killing dolphins is wrong. But is it fair to place more value on certain animals over others? In the West, livestock such as cows, pigs and chickens have been the primary providers of food protein throughout history. Are we to consider the horrible living conditions and the daily massacres of these animals in slaughterhouses as somehow more ethical than dolphin hunting? Can we somehow prove that these animals suffer less than dolphins? Or that they are less relatable or lovable because of their ‘lower intelligence’? To say that there is a hierarchy in the animal kingdom based on intelligence is inherently mired in issues of relativism. However disturbing the footage of the dolphin slaughter was, would you not feel equally disturbed if the subject were pigs? This is the root of the ethnocentricity that is so problematic in the film. The bottomline is that Japan is traditionally a fishing culture, while the West is traditionally a farming culture. Now, if we are to consider the ethics of killing animals for our consumption, both sides are guilty. The dispute over the killing of dolphins ought to illuminate a greater problem of rampant human consumption. The fact that The Cove fails to even mention this larger ecological problem shows their shortsightedness.

There is a segment in the film dedicated to the dangers of eating dolphin meat because of the high levels of mercury contained in them. The film claims that dolphin meat contains mercury levels that are 20 times higher than what the World Health Organization recommends to be safe. O’Berry argues that the dolphin hunters are not only poisoning themselves, but also poisoning all those who they are distributing the meat to, including children. This is a valid point. The film claims that because of the general low desirability of dolphin meat in Japan, the distributors of dolphin meat often mislabel them as whale meats or other more desirable types of fish meat. If this were true, a large population of Japanese citizens may be consuming dolphin meat without even knowing, putting them at risk mercury poisoning. The film refers to the Minamata disease as a potential outcome of the long-term effects of eating dolphin meat. But curiously enough, we do not hear of a single person suffering from mercury-related health problems caused by consuming dolphin meat.

Hideki Moronuki, the Japanese Deputy of Fisheries

 The shot above was taken from the closing moments of the film. In it, we see Hideki Moronuki, the Japanese Deputy of Fisheries having his hair sample taken to test his mercury level. There are two people whose arms we see, carefully taking a piece of hair from Moronuki’s head. Moronuki himself has a disdainful smirk on his face, though we cannot know for sure what he is thinking. And in the background we see a chart of cetaceans of various sizes. As the caption states, his hair sample tested positive for mercury poisoning. But one must wonder what this test result even means, since the film doesn’t explain to us at all. He doesn’t seem to be suffering from any visible ailments, so what conclusions are we suppose to reach by the fact that he tested positive? If the risk of a Minamata-esque mercury poisoning are real, when will we start seeing the effects? Moronuki states that the health risks of eating dolphin meat are over-exaggerated, but from the perspective of the filmmakers, that is a blatant denial. Regardless, this issue remains inconclusive until we start seeing the effects. Some may say, “Well, is it right to continue doing something that is potentially harmful until it is too late?”. That is a legitimate question. In this regard, we see plenty of parallels in the Western world. Our modern world is overflowing with chemicals. Inside of us. Inside of our foods. In the water. It seems almost inescapable. In America, where there is an abnormally high use of pharmaceutical drugs, the question arises often. Many drugs are put out on the market and distributed to the masses, even before their long-term effects are known. Some drugs prove truly beneficial, but others introduce a plethora of side effects that ultimately makes the drug more harmful than helpful. Every culture takes health risks as an inevitable part of life, and there is no way of judging what is worse. The problem with The Cove is that it singles out a specific health risk that exists for dolphin meat eaters, yet does not address similar kind of health risks that exists in every corner of the modern world. In their eagerness to condemn dolphin hunting, they end up taking an extremely narrow viewpoint. For a person embedded in the dolphin hunting culture of Taiji, The Cove’s assertions may be deemed irrelevant due to these reasons.

Cultural relativism is important to address in our increasingly globalized world. As seen in The Cove, there is cultural relativism at play even within a country as small as Japan (in the case of people in Tokyo not knowing about Taiji’s dolphin eating tradition). If only the film had greater reflexivity and was more conscious of its particular cultural perspective, it could have made for a richer analysis of the issues surrounding dolphin-hunting in Taiji, and even explored ways of resolving this ethical conflict between two cultures. Without this awareness, it appears as an imperceptive affront to a culture that simply has a different way of life.

In his suffering, O’Berry can only seek redemption

The Cove is at its greatest when it acknowledges its highly personal nature. We cannot help but empathize with the pain of Ric O’Berry, who in essence, is just someone trying to protect something he profoundly cares about. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers, for if we are to try to understand the root of the dolphin-hunting culture, we necessarily must consider the omnivore dilemma in its entirety.


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