Caniba is a disturbingly close, yet distant portrait of the famous Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa.
Throughout history, cannibalism has been the source of more fictitious stories than fact-based accounts. So it’s no wonder that it has been the subject of many a fiction film, especially within the horror genre–from the “video nasty” Cannibal Holocaust and the psychological thriller The Silence of the Lambs to 2016’s Cannes-shocker Raw.
When people have eaten their own species in real life, it has rarely been to satisfy their hunger. Usually cannibalism has been a ceremonial, magic-religious act with the aim to achieve some of the traits of the person being consumed, such as strength or courage, or to make contact with the gods.
Therefore, it seems rather fitting that Caniba in its opening sequence sites a couple of well-known verses from the Bible, John 6:53 and 6:56, where Jesus says to the Jews: ”Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” and ”Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.”
Killed and Ate a Fellow Student
At its very beginning the film presents an extensive text with information about the crime that would make Japanese Issei Sagawa famous and the circumstances that led to him being a free man only a few years later.
In 1981, while he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, Sagawa invited his 25-year-old fellow student Renée Hartevelt home to his apartment to read poetry. However, his plan was to kill and then eat the woman, whom he desired. A plan he went through with, as well as raping her dead body before he started disembodying it.
«In its lack of a conventional narrative, Caniba is close and distant at the same time.»
After he was observed whilst trying to get rid of parts of her body in a public park, the police soon got hold of Sagawa who immediately admitted to the murder. In his apartment, the investigators not only found more body parts in the refrigerator, but also the remains of a meal containing the victim’s meat.
Sagawa was declared legally insane and returned to Japan, where he was to be committed to psychiatric hospitalization. Back in his homeland he was contradictorily declared sane and, with the help of his wealthy father, never put to trial. Sagawa achieved a certain celebrity status for his horrible crime, from which he later tried to make a living. He has written books and mangas on his story, he has acted in pornographic movies and he has even written restaurant reviews.
There have been several previous documentaries made about Sagawa. Even without in-depth knowledge of these, I feel safe to say that none of them share too many similarities with Caniba. This film is directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel of the Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, who previously made (among other titles) the 2012 documentary Leviathan. In this film they portrayed a fishing boat in the North Atlantic Sea through a huge number of GoPro cameras placed nearly all over the ship, both over and under water. The result was a demanding film, without audible dialogue or conventional narrative structure, which nonetheless gave its audience a fascinating and highly sensory experience of the harsh conditions on this kind of industrial fishing trip.
Caniba consists almost exclusively of extreme close-ups of the aging and now also physically ill Issei Sagawa, as well as his brother Jun, filmed in their narrow apartment in Japan. As voice-over narration, we hear Issei talk about his fetishistic, sexual desire of human flesh, as well as the brother’s descriptions of his own, more conventional (relative as this might be) masochism. Halfway through the film, we are presented film footage from their apparently happy childhood (plus some pornographic material, possibly with Issei?). However, it’s difficult to determine whether the deviating sexual inclinations of the two brothers are due to environmental or biological factors, since they have grown up together. But if he wasn’t born that way, Jun definitely became like this very early. According to himself, he found pleasure in hurting himself from the age of three.
Close and Distant
The film itself is not too concerned with possible explanations. In its lack of a conventional narrative, Caniba is close and distant at the same time. It’s close in a concrete, physical sense, with its close-ups of the brothers’ faces as they move in and out of focus. Yet it keeps the audience at a distance, as we never really get to know the two men it portrays. Instead, I get the impression that the filmmakers want to focus on the fetishistic aspect of Issei’s cannibalism and confront the audience with their own almost fetishistic fascination with these kind of morbid stories and themes.
«Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have clearly not wanted to turn this tragic and grotesque story into entertainment.»
This creates a somewhat problematic duality in the film, if not to say double standard. It is fully understandable that the filmmakers don’t want to try too hard to understand Issei Sagawa, thereby risking that the film might become an apology or some sort of justification for his actions. The previously mentioned introductory text also specifies that the film does not want to justify the crime.
On the other hand, it seems that Issei Sagawa doesn’t really want to be understood either. Perhaps out of self-contempt, and perhaps to create further myths about himself, he describes himself as a monster throughout the film. However much the film wants to challenge or criticize our hunger for the forbidden and morbid, the film is at risk of evoking the same fascination and thereby strengthening the mystification of Sagawa that he himself seeks.
This ethical dilemma becomes even more apparent when the filmmakers let Sagawa present and comment on the content of a comic book, where he has portrayed his crime in explicit detail. Surely it must be difficult enough for Renée Hartevelt’s family just to know that this manga exists, and it won’t be any easier with this film giving it even more publicity.
To further underline popular culture’s fascination for cannibalism in general and Issei Sagawa specifically, Caniba ends with the Stranglers’ song “La Folie”, which is about Sagawa. As opposed to the recent wave of ”true crime” documentaries, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have clearly not wanted to turn this tragic and grotesque story into entertainment. However, they haven’t contributed to making it any less mysterious or intriguing either.