Tokyo– Controversial dolphin doc “The Cove” bowed on six screens in Japan on Saturday without major incident.

About forty protesters objecting to the pic’s alleged “biased” slant on the annual dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan showed up at the Image Forum Theater in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. They were countered by a small number of demonstrators defending freedom of expression. Both were monitored by cops and a heavy media presence, while fans filled the 108-seat venue for the first screening. The second screening was also boffo.

Distrib Unplugged said that four of the six venues had been harassed by rightists opposed to “The Cove,” though two theaters in Tokyo and Yokohama were protected by court restraining orders.

The pic will roll out to 18 more venues across Japan.

The mayor of Taiji, Kazutaka Sangen, told the Kyodo news agency that, while supporting freedom of expression, he was disappointed by the pic’s opening in Japan. “You have to think about the rights of the fishermen and the rules for film production,” he said.

Taij city officials and local fishermen’s reps have objected to the Louie Psihoyos doc for shooting the dolphin slaughter undercover and without permission. Psihoyos has responded that repeated requests to film the slaughter were denied.

The winner of the 2010 Best Documentary Oscar, “The Cove” has won many prizes and screened at many fests around the world, including the 2009 Tokyo International Film Festival. In February Tokyo-based Medallion Media announced that it had acquired the pic for Japan from The Works International and commissioned Unplugged to handle distribution and PR.

The distrib and the several of the 26 venues it assembled to screen the pic were hit by protests by right-wing activists, including visits from sound trucks. In early June two theaters in Tokyo and one in Yokohama canceled planned screenings, citing security concerns. Soon after they were joined by three theaters in northern Japan, stirring speculation that rightist pressure might scotch screenings entirely.

Unplugged, however, later lined up replacements, including the Image Forum theater in Shibuya and the Yokohama New Theater in Yokohama.