Ponyo vs. The Cove: Two different takes on sea life in Japan

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      Two films about Japanese sea life, recently released one after the other, could not be more different from each other on every level. One is replete with dreamy idealism; the other, gritty and painful reality. One is colorful and visually entertaining; the other is coloured with blood.

      Last week, Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo debuted to critical acclaim. It’s an animated fantasy for children.

      Today, The Cove, a gripping documentary that exposes a secret mass slaughter of dolphins in a hidden cove in Japan, hits screens in Vancouver today.

      Ponyo is a Japanese take on the classic children’s fable The Little Mermaid while The Cove follows several Westerners as they struggle to break a shroud of Japanese silence on a horrific secret.

      What unites them both is the desire to express respect for living creatures, particularly sea creatures.

      Like most children’s tales, Ponyo, of course, pales in comparison to the powerful impact of The Cove in terms of contemporary social relevance.

      Yet something I wondered about after watching The Cove is why the activists and filmmakers  didn’t try to include some Japanese members in their team? It could have been due to any number of reasons, such as language barrier, lack of contacts, or time restrictions. They did employ one translator on-screen.

      However, it obviously  would have made their job of infiltrating the village of Taiji a lot easier and less innocuous, rather than a number of Westerners descending upon the place en masse and rousing suspicions.

      The other aspect  that employing Japanese members  would have helped with would have been intercultural relations.

      In order for substantial change to take place in Japan, they will need to work with Japanese people in order to instill systemic change from within. And not just for the dolphin cause, but also for the problem of whaling, which is also addressed in the film.

      There are both positive and negative cultural repercussions of a group of Westerners having instigated this movement.

      Japanese media are often constrained by complex rules of Japanese etiquette. For instance, in Canadian journalist Catherine Bergman’s book From the Japanese, she points out that Japanese reporters were too afraid to report on the engagement of the Crown Prince because it would display disrespect to the royal family.

      Also, during an official dinner in Japan, George Bush, Sr. became ill and vomited on the Japanese Prime Minister.

      In both cases, these hot scoops and footage mysteriously made their way into the hands of Western reporters and were broadcast from foreign sources.

      At that point, Japanese reporters were then liberated from social restrictions and able to say, “According to the Washington Post”¦” without offending anyone, which is of utmost importance in Japanese society.

      Such may be the case with the Taiji dolphin killings. If the government and police are involved in the media blackout in Japan about these massacres, The Cove may break those imposed social barriers surrounding the issue—including how the Japanese public is being sold mercury-tained dolphin meat disguised as whale meat—and permit Japanese media to cover it.

      On the other hand, as detailed in the film, because the attempt is perceived as a group of foreigners imposing their views on a domestic group, for certain conservative Japanese groups, the issue becomes one of territorial defensiveness and nationalism.

      A similar dynamic may have been at play with the media coverage of Canada's seal hunt: foreign celebrities like Heather Mills and Paul McCartney drawing international attention and criticism, with the Canadian government and local fishermen reacting defensively and resisting.

      Of course the depletion of wild animal populations, and the consequent impact on ecosystems and food chains, are of concern to everyone, and drastic action sometimes needs to be taken if the situation is dire.

      Nonetheless, having one group face off against another only results in animosity, however misguided or selfish it may be.

      If foreign activists were able to change their tactics so that they could empower domestic populations to work within their own countries to make change, by people who are much more familiar with the intricacies and subtleties of social politics, substantial and successful  changes may take place. Changes forced from external pressures may resolve one particular problem, but there remains the very real possibility of future repercussions, or resistance created in other areas.

      One danger, for instance, is that if Japan relents to international pressure to stop the dolphin killings out of embarrassment, will Japanese conservatives or traditionalists channel their resentment or humiliation into increasing whaling or similar activities?

      After all, as shown in the film, the real problem is the whale meat market, which the dolphin meat is being used to supplement.

      Change definitely needs to take place, but there might be changes already happening that are unrecognized by foreign eyes.

      It's important to remember in cross-cultural interactions that what may be perceived as not changing may actually be the result of not recognizing change in different or perhaps more subtle forms if we simply judge things by our Western standards.    

      In Bergman's book, she also points out how Western women, incensed that Japanese women seemed to be trapped into outdated sexist roles, held a conference in Tokyo to educate Japanese women about how to liberate themselves and do more to become like them. What these foreign women did not realize is that Japanese women had already been engaged in a movement with a 140 history of social change and progress that was appropriate and sensitive to the Japanese culture.

      Yet this one incident in Taiji is indicative of much more pervasive, complex, and deeply rooted problems inherent in the Japanese social fabric. It's something that needs to be addressed. But permanent and effective change will only happen from within. External sources can help to facilitate that by learning how to work alongside domestic sources, rather than assuming an "us versus them" stance that may be counterproductive to the cause at hand.

      The juxtaposed releases  of Ponyo and The Cove is actually quite fortunate. In both cases, each film inspires hope that change is possible. With the idealism of Ponyo influencing young minds, hopefully one day the two worlds shall meet in real life.



      Dean, Australia

      Aug 23, 2009 at 5:29am

      Thank you for a balanced view of this issue. Something does need to be done, but we must consider cultural relativism before we cast criticisms. What privileges the lives of some animals over others in our decisions about what we eat is usually culturally, economically or geographically determined, and does not grant us the moral high ground. In Australia, for instance, similar international outcry often greets the culling (and eating) of kangaroos as an environmental pest, even though numbers have assumed plague proportions from the changes wrought on their habitat by European agricultural practices.