Japanese theaters screen dolphin-hunting documentary 'The Cove' despite protests
TOKYO — "The Cove," an Oscar-winning film about a Japanese dolphin-hunting village, opened Saturday around Japan after protests by angry nationalists pressured theaters to cancel earlier showings.
Some of the six small cinemas sold out their initial shows and others were mostly empty. An additional 18 theaters are due to begin screening the film at later dates.
At Image Forum, an art theater in Tokyo, about 30 protesters waved Japanese flags and blasted slogans against the film. Police stopped shoving matches between the protesters and a handful of supporters of the showing.
Viewers were undeterred, and the first two showings at the theater were sold out.
"I didn't know about dolphin hunting. Whether it's TV or movies, Japanese have a right to know these things," Tomokazu Toshinai, 32, said as he entered the theater.
Last month, three other theaters canceled planned screenings of the film after noisy protests and a telephone campaign against the movie. Nationalist groups say the U.S.-produced film is anti-Japanese, distorts the truth and has deep connections with a militant anti-whaling organization.
The issue erupted into a broad debate on freedom of speech. Major newspapers condemned the cancellations in editorials, and prominent filmmakers, journalists and lawyers urged the theaters not to back down.
Some cinemas are trying to show both sides. A theater in the central city of Nagoya plans to screen "The Cove" along with "Whalers and the Sea," a 1998 documentary that presents a favorable view of Japanese whaling.
Japanese nationalist groups, known for blasting slogans from truck convoys and hand-held loudspeakers, often use noisy protests as an intimidation tactic. The movie's Japanese distributor, Unplugged Inc., and Yokohama New Theater, a small cinema near Tokyo, obtained court orders to keep protesters away after repeated demonstrations outside their offices.
"The Cove," which won a 2010 Oscar for best documentary, stars Ric O'Barry, a former trainer for the "Flipper" TV show who is now a dolphin activist. It documents how a group of filmmakers used hidden cameras to capture scenes of a dolphin slaughter in Taiji, a small fishing village.
Taiji's government and fishing cooperative defend dolphin hunting as a local custom with a long history. Bottlenose dolphins killed in the hunt are not endangered, and hunts are also carried out in other parts of Japan, although few Japanese have ever eaten dolphin meat.
Fishermen in the village have objected to being shown in the film without their permission. Nationalists say the film has connections to Sea Shepherd, an anti-whaling group that has been labeled a terrorist organization by Japan's government for its militant actions against Japanese whalers.
The movie includes a sympathetic interview with Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson, who is now on Interpol's wanted list at Japan's request for allegedly masterminding the group's disruption of Japanese whale hunts in the Antarctic Ocean.
Some information in the movie has been challenged by government officials, and the Japanese version includes a disclaimer saying the data were gathered by and are the responsibility of the film's creators. The faces of most Japanese in the film have been blurred out.
On Saturday at Image Forum in Tokyo, protesters waved nationalistic flags from World War II and placards saying the film is one-sided and unfairly singles out Japanese while ignoring animal hunts in the West.
"I agree with the protesters here who are saying the way the movie portrayed the theme is rather problematic," said Yasutomo Maki, 51, a company executive who saw it in Tokyo.
"I think we need to approve freedom of expression. But the question is how far we should stretch it."
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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: Japanese riot policemen stand guard in front of a movie theater screening "The Cove" on July 3. Credit: Kimimasa Mayama / European Pressphoto Agency