Comfortable and Furious

The Cove (2009)

Fuck Japan. Behind the Shoji screen of deferential bows, puckish smiles, and cacophony of camera clicks, stands an incomprehensible brutality; a savage, sinister impulse that arrives in tailored suits and rigid formality, only to duck out early to urinate on your daughter. It is a nation devoted to the single, unbending idea that if it exists, it can and should be butchered, and if it can be imagined, it will be penetrated with an erect penis. The Rape of Nanking, a period of untold brutality which the government has yet to acknowledge, let alone apologize for, was no anomaly.

Instead, it revealed a dark, unavoidable truth about a culture that, to this day, continues to equate individualism with dishonor, scatological humiliation with virtue. In a world teeming with exploitation, degradation, and unspeakable horror, Japan stands peerless in matters of baffling perversion. That said, it should come as no surprise that in the otherwise bedroom community of Taiji, the deafening cries and blood-splattered rocks come not from the usual black market torture porn industry, but rather the annihilation of harmless dolphins. Despite the outward appearance of love, respect, and Sea World-style entertainment, Taiji is home to a Holocaust. Only this time, it’s one you can genuinely care about.

On its face, the motivation to slaughter dolphins is strictly business. Live dolphins fetch up to $150,000 from assorted venues and parks (“swim with the dolphin” programs and the like), but the less acceptable specimens – the ones passed over in this bizarre ritual – are left to the fishermen, who spend the late fall spearing the creatures with such random brutality that it’s impossible to believe anything is left to sell. Though the final bloodbath is guarded with a secrecy usually reserved for intelligence gathering, the initial process of “trap and capture” is largely open to the public.

The boats organize, line up, and herd the dolphins to a cove by creating a sound disturbance in the water. Once trapped, the dolphins are enclosed via nets and left for the coming madness. It’s at this point that the cove becomes an armed camp; a state park flush with knife-wielding maniacs and overly aggressive agents in service of an industry still smelling the oils from a long distant whaling empire. Though officially banned in 1986, whaling is still practiced with abandon by the Japanese, who spend every waking moment trying to overturn global initiatives standing in the way of their need to drive entire species to extinction. For what, you ask? Food? Culture? The impossible-to-quench male libido? All and none, apparently.

And so we have The Cove, an unapologetically biased slice of agit-prop in service of a single notion: that dolphins should not be hunted to the tune of 23,000 per year simply because a few dollars can be made. And yes, I can hear the cries of hypocrisy even now, what with the general acceptance of the beef, chicken, and pork industries in our own country. Are we not as revolting in our practices? Perhaps, but lines are drawn all the time, and simply because we are cracking skulls, electrocuting unsuspecting cattle, and slicing engorged bellies onto blood-soaked kill floors over here, doesn’t mean we can’t get teary-eyed with outrage over there.

They are called distinctions, and they are made by seemingly intelligent people every day without fear that the consistency police will smugly arrive with their usual charges. In the same way that our media cares more for missing white children, or dads spend more time with less-effeminate sons, we can and should speak up for the creatures among us who are cuter, more talented, and most likely to appear in engaging television specials. I proudly display more affection for cats and dogs than rats and chipmunks, for example, and feel no sense of obligation to explain myself. If America can’t stand for the idea that dolphins should be free and wild in the open sea, not stiffening the miniscule members of the Japanese elite, then what moral authority is left us?

Still, far from plodding along as a self-righteous screed, The Cove is a thrilling adventure story in its own right, complete with surreptitious surveillance, underwater escapes, and tightly wound car chases. The primary activist, Ric O’Barry, once trained dolphins for the Flipper program, and is now committed to their release from captivity. No zoos, no water parks, and no forced human contact of any kind. O’Barry’s argument stems from his belief that dolphins, because of their keen intelligence, deserve no less. So yes, he believes that brain power connotes worth, and any creature with its own blend of reasoning and language should not be hunted, either for food or sport.

Again, it’s not necessarily a consistent position, but a remarkably reasonable one nonetheless. So long as we extend the same principles to the human family, I am firmly on board. Some claim that pigs have good sense, though I’m not about to defer to a bunch of fringe activists in the face of a good brisket. Not even Babe could change that. And cows? Perhaps nature’s stupidest creature save the turkey, and don’t even get me started on the chickens. So yes, intelligence, at least the kind that can be sufficiently anthropomorphized, is enough to spare the knife. Hell, the eugenics movement wasn’t all bad.

O’Barry, along with the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS), conduct covert raids into Taiji, all in the hopes of documenting what for many remains an incomprehensible myth. The film crew conduct “on the street” interviews with Japanese citizens, all of whom appear to be shocked by the practice, but their protests are all too reminiscent of the sweet grandmothers who lived downwind from Auschwitz, all the while claiming to have no clue about the mysterious odors. Sure, the Japanese government is more tight-lipped than Stalin’s inner circle, but the Japanese have been ingesting exotic nonsense for decades, and I doubt they could have avoided the dolphin steaks while shopping for their tiger penises and bald eagle drumsticks.

O’Barry, known throughout Japan as a troublemaker, is followed relentlessly, so he delegates many of the tasks to his Ocean’s 11 team (as they are called) of ex-military, world class divers, and animal rights fanatics. At every turn, obnoxious guards chest-bump them out of the area, block their views, and goad them into physical confrontations, providing the excuse to alert the authorities. One man, called “Private Space” because those are the only words of English he knows, is so thoroughly despicable that I couldn’t help but hope that someone, somewhere, perhaps an inebriated fisherman, mistook him for a dolphin. A really sick, angry dolphin.

The Cove Crew on the Wakamaya Coast near Taiji

There is, amidst the copious bloodletting, a humorous twist to the tale, in that dolphin meat is so laden with mercury that it’s poisoning the Japanese citizenry literally to death. Babies are being born with no fine motor skills, both blind and deaf, and usually severely retarded. It’s most of the fish, really, and as Tokyo’s fish market is the largest in the world, they are exporting this plague to the rest of us, but at the very least, dolphin consumption is creating a new generation of untouchables. As the Japanese handle difference and diversity with all the land their military handled the Chinese in the 1930’s, it is assumed that these genetic misfortunes are ground into the same concoction as Flipper burgers. But to listen to the Japanese officials interviewed for this film, all is more than cheery in the Land of the Rising Sun. In fact, it’s downright rhapsodic.

The Japanese are masters of putting a toothy grin to barbarism, and The Cove does little to disprove that thesis. Take their actions at gatherings of the International Whaling Commission, perhaps the most inept, corrupt body not the United Nations. Japanese delegates routinely lie with impunity, call for the resurrection of Moby Dick-era tactics, and claim that they have perfected “humane” techniques that, in their version of reality, still involve a great deal of suffering and torture.

But when you’ve placed live grenades in the vaginas of captive women, flailing, screeching dolphins are pretty easy to stomach by comparison. It goes without saying that as part of their campaign to rid the world of every living creature not shat forth from clenched cheeks, Japan has now enlisted the “support” (read: bribed, bought, and sold) of helpless, bankrupt Caribbean nations to resume whaling and the like. These head-slapping interviews do little but prove that for all the effort, colonization and occupation never did pass on a shred of good sense.

Regardless of your stance on dolphin death, and whether you have little tolerance for those who love their dogs, yet smack their hungry lips at far less sentimental attachments, the men and women of The Cove inspire even the laziest of us to take action. What, exactly, remains to be seen, as the Taiji massacre continues unabated, but here and now, let me be the first to say that while I’ll continue to get greased up by crab legs, scallops, and lobster tail, I will never eat dolphin nuggets. Nor will I eat whale meat, despite its reputation. Call it the Star Trek IV exception, or womanish hypocrisy if you choose, but it’s enough to say that my beliefs are fully consistent with a long-held attitude that when it comes to global catastrophe, or even a plane crash, I sit up and notice more often when the victims are American. Or physically attractive.

It’s a global economy to be sure, but I’m still hunkered down in my fortress, watching the world go by without a passport. None of this would be an issue, I suppose, if the Japanese weren’t so blatantly dishonest in their practices, nor would I care half as much if this whole thing weren’t so inextricably linked to their need to flip the finger to the Western world. Maybe by killing one of the world’s most beloved and romanticized creatures, they are getting back at us for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, freeing us at last to stop apologizing for what amounted to the most reasonable course of action at that time or any other.

While The Cove isn’t likely to resurrect racial hatred or xenophobic fear of the Japanese, it can and should cause us to take another look at a conquered people who still act as if they haven’t done anything wrong. Ever. At the very least, curtail your fucking fish consumption. While the mercury is doing its righteous work, let’s convince the bastards to add a Big Mac or two, just to keep things honest. Our oceans will be empty soon enough.



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