A good documentary makes you think. A great documentary challenges your perspective. A stellar documentary tells a story so well that it changes the way you think about something. “A Whale of a Tale” is a stellar documentary.
“A Whale of a Tale” explores the lives of local whalers, global environmental activists and an American journalist in the Japanese coastal town of Taiji. Taiji was made famous, or infamous rather, by the 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary, “The Cove.” In “Whale of a Tale,” director Megumi Sasaki reveals that at the heart of every controversy there are still many sides to a narrative and that not every situation is as cut and dry as it appears.
Culture and tradition are funny things. A challenge of the very global society we currently inhabit is that we simultaneously exalt unique cultural practices, while also establishing a shared culture brought about by the proximity we all seem to have to one another – expectations and prejudices included. Global communication and exchange bridge the gap, but we still occasionally point and jeer at what is considered “other.”
This discussion of culture, both local and global, is the heart and soul of “A Whale of a Tale.”
The bane of the animal rights activist has long been mankind’s history of animal husbandry and hunting. Primitive methods of survival evolve into art forms and burrow deep into the threads of many cultural tapestries. In Taiji, generations of whalers are raised with a very specific purpose: a purpose that grew out of the unique landscape they inhabit, that was nurtured by necessity, and eventually became cultural expression wrapped up in the new survival instincts of the industry.
The whale (dolphin) is at the very center of Taiji, as a profession, resource and symbol. Draw your own moral lines, but there is no denying that the relationship between whaling village and whale is something reverent. The village rests on the back of those whales and the residents of Taiji are incredibly aware of that.
We live in sensationalist times. Stories that get attention are typically highly polarizing, intentionally inflammatory and drenched in inherent bias. What is most refreshing about “A Whale of a Tale” is that it is simply damn good journalism.
“A Whale of a Tale” approaches a very difficult, multi-faceted conversation with a cool-headed approach. Words and images aren’t minced. Both sides are shown for what they are, with consideration given to all perspectives. With many documentaries, the overall thesis of the piece is often made abundantly clear; perhaps “A Whale of a Tale” has no crux. We make the decision for ourselves.
This film presented a struggle for me that I rarely experience when screening films. I had seen films like “The Cove” and “Blackfish.” They broke my heart. I struggle with the hunting and exploitation of large predators like whales and dolphins. I place them in an arena of intellect and emotional sentience that makes them exceptional in my eyes. I impulsively oppose practices like those in Taiji.
I also occupy a unique position of growing up with a background that allowed me to see the circle of life up close and personal. Growing up around subsistence hunting and livestock provides a more well-rounded education than just caring for a pet. At least, that’s how I see it. Like it or not, I do understand the whalers of Taiji.
The difficulty of a film like “A Whale of a Tale” is that it forces you to see reason when every impulse of your mind and emotion is fighting against it. My heart still breaks and I can’t offer a personal endorsement of whaling. But I can understand the discussion for the difficult and nuanced thing that it is. Pride is a bitter pill to swallow, but “A Whale of a Tale” helps it go down. That’s the victory.
In “A Whale of a Tale,” you come to understand that the village of Taiji is just as much a victim as the dolphins. It begs the question, “To oppose cruelty, must a person become cruel?”
It’s a timely question.
Broader discussions aside, “A Whale of a Tale” presents a beautiful snapshot of Japanese culture. The film is intimate and very well done. The way the narrative is strung together over many years is commendable, and the technical aspects of the film are cohesive, neither overshadowing or detracting from the subject.
I offer “A Whale of a Tale” my highest recommendation. A must-watch.
“A Whale of a Tale” will open theatrically in New York on August 17 (The Quad), Los Angeles on August 24 (Laemmle Music Hall), San Francisco on September 7 (Alamo Mission) and Seattle on September 14 (SIFF Film Center). A nationwide release will follow!
Featured image credit: Courtesy of Megumi Sasaki
Caitlin is a lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began when she was shown “Rosemary’s Baby” way too early in life. Bylines include The Financial Diet and Film Inquiry. Caitlin is a member of the Online Association of Female Film Critics and the Women Film Critics Circle.