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"It's Dante's Inferno for dolphins"

Welcome to Taiji, Japan, home of the annual bottlenose dolphin slaughter.

An animal rights activist covered in red paint lies on a white sheet made to look like a Japanese flag during a protest against dolphin slaughter in Madrid, Sept. 3, 2008. Every year thousands of dolphins and small whales are killed between October and March in Japan's fishing villages, according to animal rights activists. (Susana Vera/Reuters)

TAIJI, Japan — Taiji reveals its Janus face as soon as you emerge from the road tunnel on
the town’s periphery. Bottlenoses leap out of the water in unison at the aqua park, where visitors are invited to board rowing boats and “play with the dolphins.” Giant models of two whales, framed by a brilliant blue sky, serve as reminders of the town’s traditions, while the emerald waters of the Pacific Ocean combine with heavily wooded cliffs to form a coastline of outstanding beauty.

But for all its natural charms, this town of 3,500 people is inextricably linked with something much less palatable: the systematic slaughter of thousands of dolphins for their meat.

After years of operating with near-impunity, Taiji’s hunters are the reluctant subjects of a new U.S. documentary that has sparked an international campaign to end the carnage in this isolated, picturesque corner of western Japan.

Over the course of three years and at a cost of $2.5 million, the makers of "The Cove" used a panoply of hi-tech equipment, including underwater cameras, hidden microphones and aerial drones, to capture graphic images of the dolphins’ bloody demise.

The film, directed by the National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos, won the audience award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and has received positive reviews in the U.S., Europe and Australia since its release at the end of July.

Last week, the organizers of the Tokyo International Film Festival caved in to pressure and agreed to screen the film next month, although it is unlikely to go on general release in Japanese cinemas.

Its hero is Ric O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer for the 1960s TV show Flipper, who has conducted a 15-year crusade to put an end to the slaughter in Taiji. “I’ve been working with dolphins for most of my life,” he said. “I watched them give birth. I’ve nursed them back to health. When I see what happens in this cove in Taiji, I want to do something about it.”

He has witnessed fishermen pursuing pods of dolphins across open seas, banging metal poles together beneath the water to scare their prey and disrupt their sonar.

The animals are herded into a large cove, where they are kept overnight before being dragged into a neighboring inlet to be slaughtered, out of sight, as the shallow water turns a deep shade of red. “It is Dante’s Inferno for dolphins,” O’Barry said.