Whaling Imagery - The Absent Whale
"No whales are captured or slaughtered in the story; on the contrary, after a series of rituals and transformations, two new whalelike animals are created and released into the ocean." (from press release)
The iconic water blow or tail flukes so popularly associated with the whales didn't find their place in the film. The presence of a real live whale would probably invite impassioned identification with the victim of the food chain process documented in the film. The only whale appearing in the entire film is a CGI model in the title sequence. Although blood is shed, ripped apart, the whale swims across the screen steadily, like a spaceship. A stylized torture where the whale doesn't suffer.
Barney will describe every step of the ancestral tradition of whaling from hunt, roaming for weeks out at sea, to retrieval of the blubber oil on the factory ship. Only that the entire process is not filmed with real whales and blood, but in a clean abstracted way, each sailor performing a dramatized act as if on a theatrical stage, every professional gesture applied to a symbolic model instead of the animal. And that's why we could speak of an "Avant Garde documentary" of sort. We can sense a de-personification of the whale there, turning it into an object, an idea, a concept. Whale is food. Hunt is a need. Tradition is noble. Such is the surfacing message of this "stylized propaganda commercial" for the Nisshin-Maru, but we'll see the subtlety of a multi-layered meaning later in detail. A latent critique of whaling and a critique of human relationship to natural resources springs from the subtext and this artistic (read : cryptic) posturing.
Throughout the rest of the film, the whale appears symbolized by other (lifeless) objects. Its evocative shape incarnated by foreign matter, or whale by-products standing in for a whale.
- Initially only evoked orally in the prologue song. A fisherman sent a letter to General Macarthur in 1946 to thank the occupying powers for the removal of whaling moratorium to provide the starving post-war Japanese population with whale meat. The choice to feature this letter introduces upfront an ambivalent political situation involving both the USA and Japan around whaling policies and also setting a tricky historical context of this diplomatic relationship around WW2. 1946 is also when the International Whaling Commission was founded.
- Whaling factory ship, Nisshin-Maru, is a steel allegory of the whale itself. The story of Jonas (Bible) or Pinocchio, trapped in the belly of the whale, like the Occidental Guests are inside the belly of the massive ship. It could be seen as well for a metaphor of the Japan island, alone in the middle of the ocean.
- The mould of the Field Emblem is designed/carved as to show the characteristic tail flukes shape on one end of the petrolatum pool and the throat grooves (ventral pleats) at the other end, once the solidified jelly is unmolded. We get a brief glimpse of these features, a black outerskin (rubber?) with flukes and grooves, before it collapses.
The outer envelope of the petrolatum slab is made of a different material, black and more resistant, which signifies the hard skin of the whale (epidermis/rubber) protecting the white flesh inside (blubber/petrolatum). Although Barney didn't show this special preparation in the film, nor does he show when the plastic spine is installed in the mid-section (before solidification) that will allow it to be pulled out by a crane without collapsing.
Coincidentally the 3D Field Emblem extruded in a whale-sized pool of petrolatum roughly looks like the sea mammal in its general shape, with a long fat body and small flippers on each side.
- This representation of the whale skin (blubber and epidermis) is again used in the ship kitchen where the cook prepares a dish made of a white jelly with a black and solid top crush, in the shape of the Field Emblem.
- An oversized ambergris log drifts on the ocean. It is first discovered by the Japanese oyster fisherwomen to emphasize its connection with seashells and oysters (it looks made out of a conglomerate of shrimp casing and cement, which are the material later used on deck by the kids), and then captured with harpoon, to emphasize its reality of being an actual whale within this setting.
Note : Ambergris is a fatty substance produced by the whale's stomach to facilitate evacuation of squid beaks and krill casing that are indigestible.
- An astute connection (that I had missed) with pearl oyster is explained on the SFMoMA website :
Like ambergris, the production of a pearl in oysters results as a defence mechanism against the presence of a foreign (indigestible) object inside the host living organism. A grain of sand in the case of the oyster. Both are digestive leftovers turning out to be a luxury asset, in perfume industry for ambergris, in jewellery for pearl. The digestive allegory of The Path (mouth-stomach-anus) suggested something creative can result from restraint in the stomach (productive state). What best evidence can you get than creating luxury from excrements? Barney finds in nature a proof of his theory initially developed around artistic restraint and human digestion.
- In the dressing room, a Japanese screen separates Barney and Bjork, displaying an old ink painting of a traditional whale hunt. Reference to the artistic rendition of a noble tradition (village whaling opposed to industrial hunt) when the battle actually required courage to face the sea monster on a tiny boat. Maybe an adventurous era reminding us westerners of the fantastic story by Herman Melville, Moby Dick, when the relationship between man and whale wasn't depersonified.
- Before the ambergris log is captured and dragged on-board, the crew seems to play a game on the upper deck to pass time... Sailors pull by a rope a huge black garbage bag across the deck and other men train to hit it on the move with traditional hand-propelled harpoons (again reference to ancient times when whaling was noble). Once the game is over they rip open the bag, and a small model of a ship is found in this symbolized stomach full of shrimp (krill is the food of whales), like if this "whale" had swallowed a whaling ship. Back to the Jonas/Pinocchio myth.
- Blubber, fat matter of the whale skin, is symbolized by Barney's trademarked petroleum jelly, in the mould. Incidentally, when processed into oil, blubber can be burned in lamps and used in paints, soaps, cosmetics, and other products. So Barney's association of his familiar petroleum jelly element, with whale is not inappropriate. It issues a meaningful substitute and hints at the correlation with fossil organic fuel (exploitation of natural resources by the oil industry). His obsession with petroleum jelly thus makes sense and constitutes a valid critique/apologia (within his artistic research) of human dependence on oil by-products.
- A dispassionate whale slaughter is symbolically performed by the ship crew on this lifeless ambergris log, once hauled on the top deck, with stylized, choreographed gestures. They first honor it by pouring sake all over it in a formal ceremony, and drinking a toast to its well respected sacrifice, because according to Shinto religion, all creatures are sacred and life can only be taken with the utter most deference. The old, sculptural, traditional flensing blades are used to bisect the solidified petrolatum, and extract the plastic spine from the crossbar (which really gives materiality/animality to this abstract chemical pool).
- Meanwhile the proper slaughter is enacted by Bjork and Barney in the tea room, with graphic close-ups of flesh slicing by flensing knives. Like if man turned this violence onto himself. The whale is after all a mammal like us, and some believe an intelligent creature with complex social behaviour. To me this scene really holds the key to Barney's position on the whaling debate, as this S&M display of mutual mutilation bears a violent symbolic significance. We really get a disturbing feeling of (literally) hurting ourselves when whaling is translated this way.
- Regarding whaling ban (IWC moratorium since 1986) : Industrial whaling only continues in Iceland, Japan and Norway today.
USA (represented by Barney). The discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in the late 19th century was the beginning of the end of commercial whaling in the United States as kerosene, distilled from crude oil, replaced whale oil in lamps. Later, electricity gradually replaced oil lamps, and by the 1920's, the demand for whale oil had disappeared entirely. Only native population of Alaska exercise whaling rights, although only until 1996.
Iceland (represented by Björk) left the IWC in 1991 and rejoined in 2002 to exploit the loophole allowing industrial whaling for scientific researches.
Japan (host of the film). Whaling is an ancestral tradition as far as 12th century. Whale meat was a primary source of food in the couple decades of WW2 aftermath. Japan continues to exploit the IWC loophole for scientific researches, and kills over 500 whales per year.
- The Nisshin-Maru factory ship bumped a Greenpeace boat in 1999, which is the event recalled by the ship host during the tea ceremony, with elliptical words. The ship collided with a Greenpeace boat again in 2005 and 2006 (after completion of the film, and after the captain's speech about how profoundly shocked his conscience was).
- The oil leak from the boiler filling the tea room could be interpreted as an ironic overflow (of sea water) inside the ship (without actually sinking). It is also an allegory for gastric acid in the whale stomach that decomposes meat and transform it into nutriment (here into sea mammal hybrids).
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