The Cove Movie Essay Questions

The Cove

So I finally watched The Cove, the Academy Award winning documentary about the slaughtering of dolphins in Japan. It was certainly painful for me to watch it. Even though I don’t think of myself as Japanese (nor American), other people certainly do, so there is no escaping of the impact this film has on my identity and how people perceive me. Because Japan is essentially the only nation that kills and consumes dolphins, this issue is clearly seen as a national issue, and the film certainly angles it as such also. When I saw the faces of the angry Japanese fishermen in the film, I could see how the Westerners see those faces and how the Japanese see them. Unfamiliar faces are easy to project negative feelings to, and the opposite is true of familiar faces. I can see both ways. The divide is so huge that I don’t have much hope for reconciliation. It’s like getting involved in a war where the people on both sides are actually your friends. A no-win situation.

I also watched some Japanese news clips about the reactions to the film in Japan, and also read some Japanese blogs. It appears that the Japanese are quite defiant about this. The issue that keeps coming up among the Japanese is this: Why is it OK for the Americans to slaughter thousands of cows and pigs, but it’s not OK for the Japanese to slaughter dolphins? What exactly is the criteria? After all, the number of dolphins they kill is a drop in a bucket compared to how many cows and pigs the Americans kill. The Japanese feel that the Westerners are imposing their own standards and values on the Japanese. One vocal intellectual in Japan calls it ethnocentrism. This is the question that the Japanese have been asking for decades, since the Westerners started complaining about the whaling in Japan. So, anyone who is familiar with the issue should know that this is the central question in the minds of the Japanese. I would therefore expect that this film would try to address it out of the respect for the Japanese, but it didn’t. This was a big disappointment.

The film does touch on it vaguely. It appears that the criteria for Ric O’Barry (the main activist in the film) is “self-awareness”. But this is a very human-centric way of looking at life. The only reason why we humans would value “self-awareness” is because we too are a self-aware creature. This view conveniently assumes that our own lives are the most precious and valuable form of life on this earth, and from that criteria, we conveniently put price tags on all the other forms of life in a hierarchical manner. But let’s think for a moment: how could we assume that we are in a position to determine the value of all the life forms on earth?

In the Japanese culture, there is a common belief that all forms of life are equally precious. So, by eating anything, we become guilty. That is, the Japanese starts from the assumption that we are all guilty. It’s quite different from the typical Western, particularly Christian, view where guilt is not something you accept as a norm. From this perspective, anyone pointing out the guilt of anyone eating anything is hypocritical. And, the defiant position that the Japanese is taking towards the anti-whaling activists is driven by this principal. Yes, believe it or not, they are acting defiantly out of principal, not out of their financial interest or their desire to eat dolphin. Many Japanese people are actually pissed about it, not ashamed. Most people have never even eaten dolphin meat. I certainly haven’t. Yet they are not coming out to support the activists. Many of them are angry because they see the situation as unfair and hypocritical, and they do not want to give into it.

Now, I would expect that some Americans would tell me, “Forget the reason; can’t you see the suffering of these dolphins?” That is, many people believe that this is not an issue open to a logical debate. Our heart should know immediately what is right and wrong by looking at the footage of the slaughter. The whole cove turning red from the blood of the dolphins. The assumption here is that these emotions are universal, not cultural. For those who have never grasped the huge cultural divide between the East and the West, it is inconceivable that such ground-shaking emotions are cultural. Yet it is.

After all, how is it possible for the Americans to slaughter so many cows and pigs? Would the average Americans have no emotional reactions to a video footage of the live cows getting slaughtered into pieces? The Japanese for a long period of their history ate just vegetables, rice, and fish. No animal meat until the West reintroduced the custom. During that period, the Japanese considered the Westerners to be savages for eating meat. If the Japanese had seen a slaughter house in the West then, they would have been horrified. If those dolphins could be captured without bleeding, they could freeze them before cutting them apart. If that was possible, the cove wouldn’t turn red at all, and it wouldn’t look any different from the slaughter houses in the US. How we react emotionally to these visual signs is indeed cultural. The Inuit people get covered in blood as they eat seals, but think nothing of it. Even their kids do it.

The film repeatedly makes fun of the fact that the town in which the dolphins are slaughtered have iconic images and sculptures of dolphins everywhere. That may be strange and surreal to an outsider, but just think of how American steakhouses might look to a complete stranger whose culture does not consume cows. Many steakhouses and fried chicken restaurants use iconic images of cows and chickens too. The only reason why this does not appear surreal to us is because we are used to it. It’s easy to point our fingers to someone foreign and make fun of these things because we are numb and blind to what we see every day.

O’Barry also paints the picture of the Japanese prison system as something uncivilized and unjust because they can detain people for no apparent reason. Let’s put this in a proper perspective: The Japanese incarceration rate is 48 prisoners per 100,000 people. In comparison, the US is 754 prisoners per 100,000. That’s over 1,500% of Japan. Is any American in a position to criticize Japan’s legal system?

This is not to say that the Japanese are blameless. Their politicians are just as corrupt as those of the Western world. How the Japanese essentially bought the votes from those poor countries to support whaling is the same political tactics the Americans used to form the “Coalition of Willing” to invade Iraq. I do not see Japan as any more corrupt than any other countries. And, it’s terrible that they were feeding dolphin meat contaminated with mercury to children, but that is not anything that any Americans should complain about. That is Japan’s own problem. There is much pollution in the US that can potentially harm American children (particularly junk food contaminated with chemicals which are served in school cafeterias), and imagine if some Japanese people came here to protest about that. I’m sure most people would say, “Hey, mind your own business.”

And also, it’s true that they could slaughter the dolphins more humanely. I think there is much room for criticism there too. But, the American cattle industry was not always humane either. In fact, I see an interesting parallel between this film and the film I saw about Temple Grandin. She is a Doctor of Animal Science who consults the cattle industry to implement more humane ways of slaughtering cows. She is autistic and has uncanny understanding of how animals feel, much like how Ric O’Barry understands dolphins well. The difference however is that Grandin does not stand on a moral high ground. She is just committed to treating animals humanely and does not make moral judgment about the slaughtering. Because of her modest attitude, she was able to make a significant impact on the whole industry and transformed the way cows are slaughtered in the US.

The secrecy of the Japanese fishermen were disappointing too. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, I would hope that they would stop hiding the slaughter. And, if they truly believe that they are not doing anything wrong (or no worse than what other cultures are doing), then there is no reason why they should hide. (Well, but the slaughter houses in the US aren’t exactly open to tourists either.) But unfortunately, that’s cultural too. The Japanese tends to reserve confrontation as a last resort. They prefer to smooth things out any way possible. So, I would not expect any public figures to come out and speak up about this to the West.

The irony of all this is that what the filmmakers are doing is ultimately prolonging this problem. They are trying to force Japan to shut it down. This is not about negotiation. They want to shut it down with the brute force of PR which relies heavily on the audience’s cultural ignorance and appeals only to knee-jerk reactions. This is what the Japanese are objecting to. They do not want to give them the satisfaction of winning. At the end of the day, they could careless about eating dolphins. Very few people are going to miss it, and the vast majority of them had never even had it in the first place. This is not about that.

When some of the Japanese in the film explained that this is a tradition to be respected, their point wasn’t that it is a nation-wide tradition. Their point is that any tradition, regardless of whose it is, deserves a certain degree of respect. It’s not something we should reject based on our knee-jerk response. It should require more careful consideration. O’Barry misunderstood that and called it a lie just because many Japanese people did not know about it. There are plenty of local American traditions that many Americans are not aware of. These filmmakers went to Japan and acted like cowboys (“Oceans Eleven” they called themselves), blinded by their own self-righteousness, wielding their cameras like they are guns, and showing no real desire to understand the Japanese culture.

As I said in my post about whaling, when you let the situation escalate to the point of emotionally wounding one another, all you are doing is guaranteeing the conflict to last forever. In this sense, I see this film to be quite unfortunate. As one Japanese said in the film, eating of dolphin is declining in popularity anyway. But if we wound one another in this fashion, it could go on forever. Some people might start eating dolphin meat for the first time in protest. The only real benefit of this film would be to boost the careers of these filmmakers. It is a perfect strategy for that purpose. If their objective was to convince Japan to stop slaughtering dolphins, they picked the worst strategy.

Indeed I often wonder if the filmmakers of this type of moralized documentary films are actually interested in resolving the conflicts they choose as their topic. Conflict resolution and winning (and becoming heros) are not one and the same; they require different strategies. This goes beyond the filmmakers; even the audience who advocates this type of film may not be interested in resolutions. Some may simply consume it as an exciting piece of entertainment, while others may use it to project their own guilt onto others in order to feel better about themselves (like a form of exorcism.). An effective conflict resolution requires respecting and understanding of both sides especially when it involves two different cultures. To use such a situation as an opportunity to be a hero is a form of exploitation, and it can escalate the conflict further. Given how angry many Japanese are about this, I would say the filmmakers of The Cove are guilty of this. I feel this is a very unfortunately situation.


A few issues/questions came up after I wrote the post above, so I’m going to address them below:

Regarding extinction: The whales and dolphins that the Japanese are slaughtering are not the species in danger of extinction. This is often ignored. However, even if the Japanese were slaughtering whales and dolphins in danger of extinction, addressing this particular concern, which is a practical problem (biodiversity), is different from the film’s main point which is moral. Practical problems are easier to resolve than moral problems because there are objective standards that we can agree to. Standing on a moral high ground and taking on a self-righteous attitude is not the appropriate way to address them. Such a tactics can only damage the very cause they are trying to support.

Depletion of marine life: If the argument of the film is an environmental concern, then let’s look at the whole picture, not just this small instance of dolphins. When we consider the amount of damage that each nation is causing and has caused in the past to the environment, the US is one of the worst (see the charts on this page). The Americans are in no position to point their moral fingers at any other nations. If they want other countries to conform to their own values and standards, they need to work on fixing their own problems. (Also, keep in mind Japan’s human population is rapidly declining.) The Japanese are certainly not ignorant of environmental concerns and have been better about it than the Americans. So, picking just a specific instance and standing on a moral high ground is not a fair way to negotiate and work together to resolve the environmental issues. I suspect that their tactics will someday backfire on them, and their cause would be severely damaged. Appealing to people’s knee-jerk reactions and exploiting shock-values never have a lasting effect. As soon as their effects wear off, people start to reconsider. At that point, it will backfire because people begin to realize that their emotions have been manipulated.

Seafood has always been a major part of the Japanese culture, so any change would not come quickly. The Americans face a similar problem with air pollution because automobile has been a major part of their culture, so the changes cannot come so quickly either. These problems should be negotiated and compromised. It’s not something we should pick on as an isolated problem and use a guerilla tactics for.

Tradition as an excuse: I agree that something being a “tradition” cannot be used as a justification to do anything you want. However, the point of bringing up “tradition” is to ask people to learn more about it, and not to rush to judgment based on the facade, because it has a long history and is not a simple matter to explain. The filmmakers of The Cove are clearly ignorant of the Japanese culture and show no real desire to learn anything about it. If they demonstrated their deep understanding of the Japanese culture, the film could actually be effective in achieving their goal.

I agree that it is sad to see these dolphins get slaughtered but this sadness does not give you the right to turn it into anger and point your finger at Japan when your own country is slaughtering cows and pigs every day in far greater number and causing much greater damage to the environment. Death of anything is sad but we should not use anyone else as a scapegoat to absolve ourselves of our own guilt. Hypocrisy and double standard are not effective ways to resolve any conflict.

Further Reading for the Open-minded

Response to this post from

And, my response to that response.

Here is another Japanese perspective. Beautifully written and argued.

Here is another Japanese perspective by someone who is familiar with the town of Taiji.

Excellent analysis of this topic by Christopher Carr.

For a little comic relief, check out a South Park episode on this topic.

Flipper was smiling on the outside but crying on the inside. That's what Richard O'Barry thinks. He's the man who trained five dolphins for use on the "Flipper" TV show, and then began to question the way dolphins were used in captivity. In the years since, he has become an activist in the defense of captive dolphins exploited in places like Sea World.

The dolphins who are captured are luckier than the thousands harpooned to death. In a hidden cove near the Japanese coastal village of Taiji, sonar is used to confuse dolphins and lead them into a cul-de-sac where they're trapped and killed. Since their flesh has such a high concentration of mercury that it's dangerous to eat, why slaughter them? To mislabel them as whale meat, that's why. Having long ignored global attempts to protect whales from being fished to extinction, the Japanese have found dolphins easier to find. But who would eat the meat?


Japanese children, whose school lunches incredibly include mislabeled dolphin. Is it necessary to mention that dolphins are not fish, but mammals? Indeed, they're among the most intelligent of mammals and seem naturally friendly toward man. They're even tool users, employing sponges to protect their snouts in some situations, and teaching that learned behavior to their offspring.

"The Cove," a heartbreaking documentary, describes how Richard O'Barry, director Louie Psihoyos and a team of adventurers penetrated the tight security around the Taiji cove and obtained forbidden footage of the mass slaughter of dolphins. Divers were used to sneak cameras into the secret area; the cameras, designed by Industrial Light and Magic, were hidden inside fake rocks that blended with the landscape.

The logistics of their operation, captured by night-vision cameras at times, has the danger and ingenuity of a caper film. The stakes are high: perhaps a year in prison. The footage will temper the enjoyment of your next visit to see performing dolphins.

It is an accident of evolution that dolphins seem to be smiling, the film informs us. They just happen to look that way. Their hearing is incredibly more acute than a human's, and the sounds of loudspeakers and recorded music, rebounding off the walls of their enclosures, can cause them anxiety and pain. O'Barry believes one of the dolphins he trained for "Flipper" literally died of depression in his arms.

There are many documentaries angry about the human destruction of the planetary peace. This is one of the very best — a certain Oscar nominee. It includes a great many facts about the craven International Whaling Commission and many insights into the mistreatment of dolphins; Simon Hutchins, who has specialized in the subject for the London Telegraph, is especially helpful.

But when all of the facts have been marshaled and the cases made, one element of the film stands out above all, and that is the remorse of Richard O'Barry. He became rich and famous because of the TV series, which popularized and sanitized the image of captive dolphins. He has been trying for 25 years to make amends. But why, you may ask, are performing dolphins so willing to perform on cue? Well, you see, because they have to, if they want to eat.


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