The effort to block the theatrical release of the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove in Japan escalated this week. Protestors reportedly demonstrated at the home of the chief executive of the film’s Japanese distribution company.
In an email sent to Cove filmmaker Louie Psihoyos and the film’s marketing partner, Participant Media, a representative connected to the distributor says the home of Takeshi Kato was the site of a vocal demonstration by a group of protestors at around 7:30 a.m. on April 19.
Kato is the CEO of Unplugged, Inc., which has been commissioned to promote and distribute the film from Medallion Media, where the e-mail originated. Both companies are based in Tokyo. (Participant Media is also the parent company of TakePart.com.)
“They were beating the door very hard, and with [a] loudspeaker, they threatened Mr. Kato for about 30 minutes on the street, in front of the apartment,” reads the message from the Medallion representative.
The Kato family was prompted to leave their home, the email reads, and goes on to say that police broke up the protest, which moved to Unplugged’s Tokyo office.
Reached by e-mail at his Tokyo office, Kato said through an interpreter that he could not speak publicly about the matter because of police and legal restrictions. Kato did, however, say that the apparent group behind the protest was a nationalist organization called Shuken Kaifuku Wo Mezasukai (The Society to Seek Restoration of Sovereignty).
That would make Monday's events the second effort by the group this month to halt the distribution of the film, which chronicles the bloody annual hunt of dolphins near the Japanese coastal village of Taiji. Residents of the area and the hunt’s supporters claim the dolphin kill is a traditional right and that the film slanders Japanese people. Opponents to the hunt, including Psihoyos and The Cove’s main subject, Ric O’Barry, depict it as violent and unnecessary.
In the April 19 event, nationalist anti-Cove protesters led by Shuhei Nishimura held a well-publicized demonstration at Unplugged’s office, where Nishimura shouted down representatives from Unplugged. Nishimura is a vocal activist connected to Shuken Kaifuku Wo Mezasukai and has led protests on several issues, including an opposition to domestic violence laws. He has also advocated for Japan to be allowed to continue whaling.
The Cove has been subject to protest in Japan since last fall—in October, Taiji officials threatened to sue the filmmakers as the film was screened at the Tokyo Film Festival. Starting in late June, about 20 theaters across Japan are slated to show The Cove.
For that release, Unplugged has already made concessions due to the sensitive nature of some of the content, agreeing to blur the faces of some of the Taiji fishermen and include a statement recognizing that the validity of the hunt is a matter of debate in Japan.
Carl Clifton, the managing director for The Works International, the international sales agent for The Cove, says the effects of the protest on the future of the film’s distribution are still unknown. The Works is in frequent contact with Unplugged and Medallion Media, he says, but the impact of the protests is yet to be seen—as is their effect on the individual theater owners who’ve agreed to show the film.
“There will be those [theater owners] who will think, ‘Well, hey, this is certainly going to put the film on the map, and raise its profile for when we release it in June,’” reasons Clifton. “Maybe the stronger reaction will be one of concern that they could see a whole lot of trouble on their doorsteps.”
Kato did not address the question, but signed off his message saying, "We are working hard to release this in Japan."
But pressure has already influenced at least one theater. The U.S. Air Force Yokota Air Base in Japan last week canceled a screening of the film due to "sensitive local political and cultural concerns," a base spokesperson told the Associated Press.
Clifton raised the possibility that anti-Cove interests were helping stir the protesters.
“There are a number of groups that would like to see The Cove not shown in Japan,” Clifton says. He includes the Taiji fishermen’s cooperative and the city’s council among those groups, but points out there is no evidence linking them to the recent demonstrations.
One of the last lines of the email from Medallion on the April 19 events, however, indicates that lawyers representing the town of Taiji are preparing to file a legal injunction—a “provisional disposition”—to halt the release of the film.