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Outcry from Japanese nationalists over 'The Cove' leads to free-speech debate

June 11, 2010 |  3:27 pm

The Cove documentary

TOKYO — Controversy over "The Cove," an Oscar-winning documentary about the annual dolphin hunt in a Japanese village, has widened into a debate over free speech in the country.

Three theaters last week canceled showings of the movie after they were swamped with angry phone calls and threatened with noisy protests by nationalist groups. It was banned on a U.S. military base in Japan, and 23 other theaters are still deciding whether to show the film, according to Japanese distributor Unplugged.

After the cancellations, a group of Japanese journalists, academics and film directors signed a letter urging the theaters not to back down and saying the issue "underlines the weakness of freedom of speech in Japan."

Freedom of speech is guaranteed in Japan's constitution, but many Japanese are wary of unruly demonstrations.

Nationalist groups, known for blasting slogans from truck convoys and hand-held loudspeakers, often use the threat of protests as leverage. Two years ago, angry phone calls led several theaters to cancel showings of "Yasukuni," a movie about a Japanese war shrine that honors fallen soldiers, including executed military leaders convicted as war criminals.

On Wednesday, more than 600 people crammed into a civic hall in Tokyo for a rare chance to see "The Cove," with lines forming hours before the doors opened and viewers spilling out into the lobby to watch via a video feed. Other than small private showings, it was the first time the movie had been screened in Japan since October, when it was shown at the Tokyo International Film Festival.

The event had originally been planned to discuss the movie, which shows bloody scenes of a dolphin slaughter filmed by hidden cameras and portrays local fishermen as rough goons. But instead the event focused on the theater cancellations, reflecting the changing debate around the film.

"Protesters only threatened to do bad things, and then theaters got scared and pulled out," said Hiroyuki Shinoda, chief editor of Tsukuru magazine, which organized the showing.

Shinoda, who signed the protest letter last week, urged those present to contact theaters and ask that the movie be shown.

Ric O'Barry, a former trainer for the "Flipper" TV show who is the central character of "The Cove," made a surprise appearance at the screening. O'Barry is now a dolphin activist, but on Wednesday talked instead about freedom of speech and the large number of awards the movie has won.

"Those awards are given for entertainment value, and for that reason alone the Japanese people should be able to see it and make up their own mind," he said. The film won best documentary at the Academy Awards this year.

Outside the hall, about two dozen police and plainclothes officers were on duty, but no protests took place, although a few people quietly handed out fliers calling for the movie to be banned. One flier linked the movie with Sea Shepherd, an anti-whaling group that clashes with Japan's whaling fleet each year.

"Freedom of expression doesn't need to be recognized for a movie made by terrorists," it read.

"The Cove" includes an interview with Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson. It is presented as the first documentary from the Oceanic Preservation Society, a group headed by director Louie Psihoyos that lists Sea Shepherd as a partner.

Various right-wing groups consider the movie to be anti-Japanese, saying that dolphin hunts occur in other parts of the world and that any portrayal of animals being slaughtered for food would be bloody and unpleasant to watch.

The groups have led noisy protests outside of Unplugged's headquarters and the home of its president.

In Taiji, the small village where the hunt occurs, the local government and fishing cooperative defend dolphin hunting as a local custom with a long history. The mostly bottlenose dolphins killed in the hunt are not endangered, and hunts are also carried out in other parts of Japan -- although very few Japanese have ever eaten dolphin meat.

A Japanese scientist and Taiji lawmaker who appear in the film say they agreed to do so without knowing it would be about the dolphin hunt, which Psihoyos has said is not true.

In the version of "The Cove" shown Tuesday and intended for release in Japan, disclaimers have been added saying those interviewed in the movie are not protesting or supporting dolphin issues. Unlike the U.S. version, the faces of most Japanese are blurred out.

A Japanese message states that data presented in the movie were gathered by and are the responsibility of the film's creators. The movie cites information about mercury levels in dolphins and falsely labeled dolphin meat that has been challenged by government officials.

RELATED DOLPHIN NEWS:
Tests show residents in dolphin-hunting village in 'The Cove' have elevated mercury levels
In Taiji, Japan, fishermen in the Cove are still killing dolphins (guest post by Ric O'Barry)

-- Jay Alabaster, Associated Press

Photo: Viewers read a pamphlet about "The Cove" during a preview of the film in Tokyo on Wednesday. Credit: Shizuo Kambayashi / Associated Press

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