American hippies vs the evil Japanese

The pro-dolphin documentary The Cove exposes how warped are the misanthropic values of the animal-rights lobby.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Culture

The message of The Cove, the highly-praised, award-winning documentary about dolphin slaughter, is spectacularly simple: dolphins are freedom-loving, beautiful and intelligent creatures, while human beings – especially of the Japanese persuasion – are cruel, robotic and murderous. You know this instantly because every time the film shows a dolphin, the scene is wonderfully lit and there is sweeping violin music playing in the background, and every time it shows a Jap the scene tends to be darkly lit and the music is even darker. And as Homer Simpson once said while watching TV: ‘But Marge, that man must be evil. Just listen to the music.’

Not since Mr Osato accidentally killed a beautiful woman with poison that was intended for James Bond in You Only Live Twice have Japanese people been depicted so one-dimensionally on celluloid. Directed by Louie Psihoyos, The Cove tells the story of a bunch of American hippies – adrenalin addicts, scuba divers, dolphin-trainers-turned-dolphin-liberators, various animal-rights types – attempting to expose the slaughter of dolphins that takes place in Taiji, a small town in Wakayama, Japan, every year. There’s a cove in Taiji which each September is turned into a bloody, watery grave for around 2,300 dolphins, slaughtered, usually with hooks, for their meat and blubber. Annually 23,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed by the Japanese.

As with so many documentaries these days (I blame Nick Broomfield), The Cove is actually a film about making a film. It shows the filmmakers having run-ins with stiff, interfering Taiji officials who definitely do not want anyone going near ‘the cove’; it shows them climbing hills in the dead of night to plant video cameras disguised as rocks so that they can film the cove-based slaughter; and of course it shows them looking shocked and shedding tears as they watch their own footage of the killing of the dolphins, because what’s the point of making a film about how much you care about dolphins in contrast to those evil Japanese if you don’t show yourself on camera, actually caring?

The Cove is heavily laden with morality. It trowels on the moral superiority of the American outsiders to the cruel Taiji villagers, only this is not the old-fashioned presumed superiority of ‘civilised America’ over ‘uncivilised Japan’ but intriguingly the superiority of free-lovin’, Sixties-influenced, countercultural America over stiff, conformist, animal-hating Japan. The documentary-makers and their assistants are shown as wild and open-minded: their potted life stories are accompanied by footage of them leaping out of aeroplanes or swimming with whales. The Japanese are depicted as suppressed and unquestioning: we’re shown speeded-up footage of hordes of Japanese people walking through garishly-lit, buzzing city centres, their travels to work or home crudely reduced to pointless, super-fast marching through the streets, and we’re told that there’s a saying in Japan that ‘if a nail is sticking up, pound it down’ – in other words, Japanese culture is stultifyingly automaton. Where old racist America depicted the Japanese as rats, contemporary countercultural America depicts them as members of a rat race.

The Taiji fishermen – sorry, the hook-wielding crazy killers of beautiful dolphins – come off the worst. The film dehumanises them to an alarming degree. Where the interviews with Japanese officials are subtitled, the shouting of the local fishermen and security guards around the cove as they try to prevent the filmmakers from entering is sometimes left un-subtitled, so that viewers are left with the distinct, and distinctly queasy, impression that these are strange and peculiar men speaking in a strange and peculiar tongue. They bellow brutish-sounding words into the filmmakers’ faces. The deprivation of subtitles, of context and meaning, of the fishermen’s humanity, leaves them looking like mad ‘murderers’ with no words worth hearing.

Japanese politics is depicted as a uniquely slippery affair. The film covers the deliberations of the International Whaling Commission, the body set up in 1946 to monitor and control the hunting of whales for food and scientific purposes (the IWC doesn’t cover dolphins). The various small, mostly black nations that support Japan at IWC meetings – for example Antigua, Dominica and St Lucia – are depicted as ‘whoring’ themselves (one interviewee’s actual words) to a silver-haired, smooth-talking Japanese official. Yes, Japan invests in these small countries in return for their pro-whaling support. But there is nothing specifically and suspiciously ‘Japanese’ about such behaviour – global affairs are dominated by deal-making and support-seeking between powerful and less powerful nations. For me the most shocking thing about the IWC footage in The Cove was the sight of various representatives of white Western and white Pacific nations, which have no tradition of, or interest in, hunting whales, lecturing the Japanese for being dishonest and barbaric. Yet this – the increasing use of the whaling issue by Australia and New Zealand in particular as a stick with which to beat Japan – is depicted in the film as something heroic, while the orientation of small, poor nations to Japan’s case is depicted as disgusting, sinister, the work of ‘whores’.

The Cove unwittingly shines a light on what lies behind today’s cult of the dolphin: a discomfort with humanity itself and with the gains of modernity. Dolphins are the favoured beast of the animal rights lobby because they are presumed to be as intelligent as human beings, possibly even more intelligent says one contributor to the film. They are more spiritual, at peace and caring than we human beings (well, not hippy human beings, but the other kind, over there). As one of the many, many recent books on the wonders of ‘dolphin culture’ argues: ‘While we humans have devoted our creativity to the technological achievements possible when one has chosen thumb over flipper, they [dolphins] have devoted their vast intelligence to the realms of the heart: community, pleasure, play, touch.’ (1)

It is this that motivates the animal-rights people who made The Cove: an estrangement from humanity; a belief that we have corrupted ourselves and our souls and our capacity to deal with the ‘realms of the heart’ through our soulless modernisation of society. Like a crazy updated version of the mermaid myth, they see in dolphins the ‘lost ideals’ of the simple life they would like human beings still to be living. So the contrast in The Cove is not a terribly crude one between civilised white people and uncivilised yellow people, but rather is between feeling, emotionally intelligent dolphins (and their human champions) and overly-modern, too-speedy, light-flickering Japan. Dolphins play the role of the simple life; Japan is set up as the bad guy of modernity. The truth however is that those supposedly weird fishermen in Taiji do not stab and chop up dolphins for fun – they do it to make food, to make things, to make a living, to provide for their families. There is infinitely more humanity in their slaughter of the dolphins than there is in a film which depicts a species of animal as being superior to a nation of human beings.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Watch the trailer for The Cove here:

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(1) Quoted in Animals in Person: Cultural Perspectives on Human-Animal Intimacy, John Knight, Berg Publishers, 2005

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