Bright Lights Film Journal

Still Life with Cannibal: On Issei Sagawa and the Documentary <em>Caniba</em> (2017)

The notion of the body as entry to the soul becomes a fallacy: penetration is not a portal to another person’s psyche – just as Sagawa’s cannibalism of Hartevelt could not possibly bring about their fantasized union. Rather, the flesh holds its own allure and exists by itself as a terrain of discovery.

 * * *

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s documentary about the Sagawa brothers from Japan – one, an infamous former cannibal, the other a private masochist – is one of the most probing and stylistically daring explorations of human perversity.

In Caniba, the pair of filmmaker-anthropologists seek out Issei Sagawa, who in 1981 as an exchange student in Paris murdered and gradually consumed the object of his unrequited love, Renée Hartevelt. In 2016, they find him aged, weak and practically immobile in a home hidden away in the suburbs of Tokyo. His brother, Jun, is his only caretaker. Sagawa’s seclusion, however, did not follow immediately after his criminal act and consequent arrest. In fact, he spent only four years in a French mental institution, thereafter returning to Japan, where he enjoyed an odd celebrity writing novels, appearing on magazine covers, in documentaries and pornography. Prefaced only by a brief biographical title card, Castaing-Taylor and Paravels’ portrayal of Sagawa sidesteps the man’s life story, instead focusing on what it is like to be with the man himself.

The opening shot is as cryptic as it is revealing: a man’s blurry face comes in and out of frame; sounds of eating are heard somewhere in proximity. Soon we realize the man is patiently feeding some invisible other – presumably Sagawa. Immediately, the worst of our imagination is teased and tested: what exactly is being eaten and why is it being fed? The filmmakers thus introduce their aim of unraveling the relationship between standing face to face with horror and our imaginations or fantasies thereof. For Sagawa’s story is primarily about trying to embrace the internal – be it desire, fear, or love – through contact with the external – the flesh.

Caniba is filmed with a low-res camera, continuously and laboriously shifting between low, to complete absence of, focus and probing clarity in extreme close-up. Sagawa’s face becomes a canvas on which the observer’s own discomfort is projected. Throughout the film the camera paints over his lips time and time again – not so much to make it an epitome of Sagawa’s affliction, but to remind us of our own (imaginary) fear, if not outright repulsion. Such invasive close-ups and tight framing deny the viewer comfortable distance, and there is no recourse from the claustrophobic atmosphere. Nor is there a corner of the frame to retreat to if what is shown proves too disturbing, as it does most of the time. The only thing is to look offscreen, but, of course, that would be missing the point. While this doesn’t make for easy viewing, it is a necessary first step in an attempt to engage the film’s subjects.

Lack of focus carries further psychological implications, even though the filmmakers explained – in a post-screening conversation at the New York Film Festival – their preference for blurriness simply as an antidote for mainstream cinema’s fetishization of deep focus. Some shots – especially one several-minute-long sequence investigating Sagawa’s reclining head – are so blurry they look like abstract impressionist paintings. Sagawa’s features become soft and indiscriminate, which provides an interesting contrast to the notion of the body as tangible, penetrable, and consumable. Instead, lack of focus shifts our attention away from the man’s forbidding exterior and activates our imagination about his emotional and moral interior.

At the same time, however, proximity doesn’t necessitate emotional closeness or empathy. We hear Sagawa talk about his desire for flesh, albeit laconically, while we observe his. Yet there is little sense of greater comprehension. The only thing we can come to rationalize is our own perception of the man and his crime. Thus the notion of the body as entry to the soul becomes a fallacy: penetration is not a portal to another person’s psyche – just as Sagawa’s cannibalism of Hartevelt could not possibly bring about their fantasized union. Rather, the flesh holds its own allure and exists by itself as a terrain of discovery. So, as the camera probes and scrutinizes Sagawa, and increasingly his brother Jun, we may fall short of empathy but come to understand that the flesh holds a paramount place in men’s psyches and how it constitutes their respective perversities.

Jun Sagawa, who gradually becomes as important a protagonist as his brother, is haunted by his own extreme masochistic tendencies. In trying to understand, or at least learn about, his fetish, Issei confesses to self-mutilation. While Issei’s is an extreme case of non-consensual cannibalism, Jun points out, through his own experience and the fact of Issei’s fame, that dangerous fetishes are all but uncommon. What is idiosyncratic is the struggle to bear one’s own perversion, big or small. The severity of this struggle becomes poignantly clear in Jun’s dismay when Issei expresses no interest in his masochism. Later, after a graphic scene of self-mutilation, Jun resigns: “I may die with not knowing why I do this.” With this sentence the vicarious pain we experience by watching Jun’s bleeding body becomes emotional – no longer a cringe reflex, but something closer to compassion.

The overwhelming “Why?” that lingers throughout the film, looming over every shot, is never fully answered. Perhaps because it cannot be. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel seem to be aware of this, posing questions with their camera rather than verbally. They are absent from the frame, while Jun interviews Issei, but simultaneously highlight their presence by manipulating optics. Obscuring boundaries and magnifying tensions at once, their filming is deliberately ambiguous. So Caniba becomes a deeply self-reflexive exploration where the psychological effort of trying to find the answer, not the answer itself, is the focal point.

* * *

Caniba is presently on the film-festival circuit, having played at festivals in Venice, New York, Toronto, Mumbai, and others upcoming. Images are screenshots from the Venice trailer and the production company.