As influential documentaries go, few have achieved the outrage-fostering success of 2009’s Oscar-winning “The Cove,” which spotlit the barbaric-sounding practice of engineered dolphin slaughter/capture in the town of Taiji, Japan, and made lifelong fishermen into ready-made villains.
But filmmaker Megumi Sasaki sees a more complicated standoff in this environmentally framed fight between Western activists and the Japanese traditions of dolphin and whale hunting, and her tempered answer-doc, “A Whale of a Tale,” tries to frame that debate in a way that paints it as global versus local, contextualizing Taiji’s whale-centric history as a story of sustenance and culture, while showing visiting protesters as impassioned, but also occasionally invasive and crass bullies.
With Japanese-speaking, mediating American journalist Jay Alabaster as an occasional on-camera guide, Sasaki’s movie explores a middle ground — respect for sensitivities and an acceptance of realities (Japan eats less and less whale meat each year) — that could have prevented Taiji from being turned into a high-tension town out of an old western.
But Sasaki is also strangely vague on where she stands on the things “The Cove” cared about: the gruesome killing of highly intelligent animals and their being sold into water-park lives of ritualized abuse. Its cooler-heads heart is in the right place, but “A Whale of a Tale” is an unfortunately directionless, low-gear rebuttal that hardly ever stirs up emotions as effectively as “The Cove” did.
‘A Whale of a Tale’
In Japanese and English with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 24, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills