Review – The Whale Rider
Oahu Island News
When Niki Caro’s latest film won the Audience Award
at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, it was praised for its
stirring depiction of Maori life in New Zealand and a contemporary story
as powerful as ancient legend. Thankfully,
its best moments are alive and well in the book that inspired the film,
Witi Ihimaera’s lovely coming of age tale, The
When Kahu is born into a Maori tribe in Whangara, New Zealand, her
great-grandfather, Koro Apirana wants nothing to do with the child.
Not only has Kahu broken the male line of descent in the tribe, her
father has sacrilegiously named her after Kahuti
Te Rangi, the legendary "Whale Rider" who brought their people to
Whangara. Kahu craves the old
man’s affection, but Koro is too busy selecting the next chief of the
tribe to notice the young girl. Not only does Kahu act more like a Maori than the young boys
around her do; she seems to have a connection with whales that only her
ancestors possessed. While
Koro stubbornly searches for the boy "who can pull the sword," and
lead the tribe, he refuses to believe that his people’s savior may be
the young girl he has rejected.
"Once there were many protectors.
Now there are few. Listen to how empty our sea has become." Koro laments the
disappearance of the whales, and the broken covenant between the Maoris
and the natural world.
It’s a moment that strikes to the heart of the Maori dilemma. Under the
British Commonwealth, the Maori have become two distinctly different
people: A race of warriors loyal to ancestral tradition, and the "going-nowhere nobodies" of New Zealand’s welfare state.
In Once Were Warriors,
the Marae - the tribal place of worship - was a Grail amidst the grim
reality of state built housing. In
Ihimaera’s book, the Marae is center-stage, and in desperate need of
Kahu acts as the bridge between two foundering souls: Koro,
the "old whale stranded in an alien present," and the ancient bull
whale who grieves for the loss of human companion, the "Golden Rider,"
Kahutia Te Rangi. When Kahu finally reunites the tribe with their wayward
spirit, the moment reflects the deepest drive of mythology: Recapturing
innocence. Kahu stands as a
lovable update of the Maori hero, charging Ihimaera’s tale with a
refreshing element of girl-power absent in classical mythology.
Tales of redemption abound in Maori culture.
Like Lee Tamahori’s film, Once
Were Warriors and Keri Hulme’s award winning novel
Whale Rider places a moving story of love and forgiveness against
the backdrop of myth.
Whale Rider is a little book, to be sure, but like the "cetacean
crib" Ihimaera beautifully describes in her book, it is the reservoir of
Island myths are often governed by the physical laws
of the island itself, with punishment and salvation coming in on the
tides. But Ihimaera might see
it differently: Bad
things don’t happen because we can’t talk to the whales, they happen
because we’ve stopped trying. The Whale Rider
is finally a story about resuming that conversation between our spirits
and us. Like the
whales’ song, the equation is simple and filled with promise:
"You have called and I have come, bearing the gifts of the
by Witi Ihimaera