TAIJI, Japan - To animal rights activists it's a cruel and bloody slaughter; for Japanese it's a long tradition: this week fishermen in a picturesque coastal town embarked on their annual dolphin hunt.
Every year, crews in motorboats here have rounded up about 2,000 of the sea mammals, banged metal poles to herd them into a small, rocky cove and killed them with harpoons, sparing a few dozen for sale to marine aquariums.
But this year the small southwestern town of Taiji was shunted into the global spotlight with the release of the hard-hitting US-made eco-documentary "The Cove".
In the film, years in the making, a team of underwater cameramen, free divers and other experts used hidden cameras and other technical devices to covertly capture the hunt in graphic detail.
The film shows angry confrontations between residents and the lead activist, Ric O'Barry, who in the 1960s trained dolphins for the US hit television show "Flipper" but now argues the animals should be free to roam the oceans.
The film won numerous international prizes, including the Sundance Festival's audience award, and last month led the Australian city of Broome to announce it would cancel it sister-city relationship with Taiji.
"Dolphins are a large-brain creature," O'Barry, 69, told AFP during a recent return visit to Japan. "They are highly intelligent, they are self-aware, like gorillas and humans. I nursed them, I watched them give birth.
"And for me, to kill them, is extremely, extremely..." He paused, then simply added: "I don't see the purpose."
In Taiji, where about 3,700 people live, the global uproar stirred by "The Cove" has met with equal incomprehension -- and anger.
"If it's cruel to kill dolphins, it's also cruel to kill cows and pigs," Hiromitsu Taniguchi, a 41-year-old house painter, told AFP during a recent interview as several of his friends nodded in agreement.
"I can never understand those Westerners' argument. They eat cattle, pigs and chicken. We eat dolphins and whales. That's it."
Fishermen and town officials declined to speak with AFP about the film, citing what they described as widespread media bias against them.
"We've been betrayed for years by reporters," said a fishing cooperative official. "If we explain our opinions to them, editors cut out the parts giving our views and the result is stories supporting anti-whaling activists."
Taiji is filled with monuments to dolphins and whales, which are commonly grouped as 'whales' in conversations here, and has a museum dedicated to hunting the sea mammals, a practice it says started around the year 1600.
At a monument, people from the town pray for the souls of the dolphins, porpoises and whales killed in the hunts.
The film's director, Louie Psihoyos -- a veteran National Geographic photographer and co-founder of the non-profit group the Ocean Preservation Society -- says he doesn't buy the tradition argument.
"The dolphin hunters told us that they are proud of their tradition," he told AFP in an email. "This 'tradition' has been only going on with fast diesel power boats" since the early 1900s, he wrote.
Psihoyos suggested that some traditions need to end. "In America we had a much older tradition of slavery and not allowing women to vote."
Amid the raging controversy, Taiji's fishermen started their annual hunt Wednesday, catching about 100 bottlenose dolphins and 50 pilot whales, said Wakayama prefectural official Yasushi Shimamura.
They plan to sell about 50 dolphins to aquariums nationwide and release the remainder back into the sea, while the whale meat will be sold for human consumption, an official at a local fishermen's cooperative said.
Officials said they would not slaughter any of the dolphins caught on Wednesday, but denied it was due to international pressure and did not say whether or not they would hunt or cull more of the animals this season.
"We didn't decide to release the remainder of the dolphins because there have been protests against dolphin hunting from animal rights activists," said a fisheries cooperative official who declined to give his name.
"From the viewpoint of resource control, we've been occasionally releasing them on our own judgement in the past."
This year, Taiji was allocated a cull quota of about 2,300 small cetaceans, or hairless aquatic mammals such as dolphins, whales and porpoises.
O'Barry made a return visit to the town, accompanied by media, at the start of the hunting season, September 1, but the hunt was delayed by officials citing inclement weather conditions.
He was an unwelcome guest, blocked at one stage by a fisherman from entering a supermarket that sells dolphin and whale meat.
O'Barry has stressed that his message is not anti-Japanese but intended to protect them because dolphin meat, once served in school lunches in Taiji and still sold elsewhere in Japan, is toxic.
He told AFP that he came back "to get this information out about mercury poison in dolphin meat," referring to the heavy metal that concentrates in the marine food chain and is often found in dolphin meat.
People in Taiji say they already know about the mercury risk.
"The Cove", which has not been shown in Japanese cinemas, features interviews with two Japanese experts who speak about the heavy metal.
Both now say they are angry their comments were used in the film.
Hisato Ryono, 52, an assemblyman in Taiji who raised the alarm over dolphin meat being served in school lunches, said: "It's a betrayal. I thought (the film) was about marine pollution, but it's about anti-whaling."
"Showing the scene of the slaughter is not fair."
Tetsuya Endo, of the Health Science University of Hokkaido, who also spoke about the mercury risk on camera, said: "The overall tone of the film is an insult to the Japanese people and the people of Taiji in particular."
Psihoyos told AFP: "'The Cove' is not an attack on the Japanese people... I believe stopping the killing of dolphins is a win-win situation for both the dolphins and the Japanese people."