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TOKYO (Reuters) - Shouts, a scuffle and flag-waving protesters greeted the Japanese opening of "The Cove," a controversial Oscar-winning documentary about a grisly annual dolphin hunt.
The movie, which shows dolphins being herded into a cove and then slaughtered, has met with fierce opposition in Japan from groups who say it is "anti-Japanese" and an affront to traditional culture.
Dozens of police and more than 50 protesters, both for and against the screening, faced off in front of a cinema in Tokyo's trendy Shibuya district.
"Don't bully the fishermen!" read one banner. Another protester waved the Japanese Imperial flag.
"Australia kills a total of 3 million kangaroos per year, but yet no one does anything about it," said 62-year-old Nobuo Kikuchi as he held a sign saying "Stop Racial Discrimination against Japanese."
"What I would like to know is why the Japanese have become a target."
Fears that protests might inconvenience moviegoers prompted cancellations at two cinemas in Tokyo and one in Osaka that had originally planned to screen the film, according to Unplugged, the Japan distributor.
Directed by former National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos, the documentary follows eco-activists who struggle with Japanese police and fishermen to gain access to a secluded cove in Taiji, southern Japan, long known as a whaling center.
Moviegoers took the controversy in stride, with some saying they just wanted to know what was going on.
"Japanese killing and eating dolphins is a true fact but yet many don't know much about it. This is why we want to learn about it and see this film," said Tetsushi Matsuoka, 33.
Japan has long maintained that killing and eating whale is a cherished cultural tradition, and conducts annual hunts under the name of research whaling.
New Zealander Pete Bethune is currently under trial in Tokyo for boarding a Japanese vessel in an attempt to stop Japan's annual whale hunt in the Antarctic. A verdict is due on July 7.
In the version of the film screened in Japan, the faces of fishermen and others in Taiji are blurred to hide their identity.
A statement from the cinema said they were "relieved."
"We'd really like to thank the movie theatres and staff who worked hard for this opening, despite the controversy," Takeshi Kato of Unplugged said in a statement.
Eighteen other cinemas across Japan plan to screen the movie at a later date.