'Caniba': Film Review | Venice 2017

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Issei Sagawa in Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor's 'Caniba.'
Post-film discussions guaranteed.

'Leviathan' co-directors and anthropologists Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor explore the world of Issei Sagawa, the notorious Japanese cannibal who is now in his sixties.

For killing and then partially eating fellow student Renee Hartevelt at the Sorbonne in 1981, Kobe-born Issei Sagawa was arrested but finally declared legally insane and unfit for trial. Back in Japan, he finally got something that could be described as a form of punishment that may be much worse; the only way Sagawa could make money was to continuously regurgitate the details of his infamous crime, producing novels, a manga and pornographic films — and even, though the film does not address this, a spell as a food critic — and sustaining interest in his subject by continuing to appear in articles and documentaries to talk about his wrongdoing (most recently in the 2011 Vice doc Interview With a Cannibal).

Now in his late sixties and ill, Sagawa headlines yet another non-fiction take on his life: Caniba, directed by anthropologists and filmmakers Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. Their contemporary-fishery film Leviathan, from 2012, remains one of the most essential documentaries of the decade, and put Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, which also co-produced this film, on the map for nonfiction cinephiles. Their approach here is inquisitive but not outright condemnatory, though the film does come with a disclaimer that its existence does not mean it condones Sagawa’s crime.

After its premiere in Venice’s more experimental Horizons section and its North American bow in Toronto’s equivalent of Horizons, Wavelengths, this frequently uncomfortable but always fascinating work should see more festival action and a lot of post-film discussions. Whether there are theatrical distributors ballsy enough to want to champion a subject this controversial and filmmaking this unforgiving, however, is another matter.

Like in Leviathan and also their collaboration from earlier this year, the sublimely strange somniloquies, the directors aren’t big fans of either establishing shots or images that are pin-sharp. As if to honor the “sensory” part of the name of the Harvard lab that is run by Castaing-Taylor, their lengthy shots of smudgy, out-of-focus visuals and unnervingly close closeups force viewers to not only use their eyes but also their other senses to meditate on and try to go beyond what is simply presented visually.

The film opens with what will become a recurring visual motif: A part of Sagawa’s face, as he’s filmed at his (one supposes modest) home on the outskirts of Tokyo. It often completely fills the screen even if part of it might be out of focus or semi-obscured, and in the opening scene, he seems to be eating something, already a provocation on the part of the directors, as it might make viewers uncomfortable knowing they are watching an anthropophagite eat (what he is eating is not clearly visible). This discomfort, of course, says more about the viewer and the general public’s attitude towards cannibalism than it does about Sagawa, who might still harbor flesh-eating desires but who, as far as we can tell, has not acted on them since he returned from France.

Besides giving viewers a closer look at the former cannibal’s own flesh and his weapon of choice, his jaw — quite a few shots are done from a suggestive low angle that gives the body part even more prominence — these technical choices also allow for a measure of abstraction. This, in turn, allows viewers to consider not only Sagawa’s specific situation but also cases and tendencies like his. And by never stepping back and showing the whole picture, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor have found a structural way to visually remind audiences that there might be a part of their unusual subject that remains unknowable, forever out of focus or out of view.

But their interview-cum-investigation raises a lot of interesting points and questions. Most of the time, Sagawa is seen either mumbling to himself, in Japanese or French, or to his brother, Jun, with whom he was raised almost as twins. “It was my fantasy,” he says early on about his crime, suggesting it can’t be fully explained otherwise. “I want to be eaten by Renee, people must think I’m mad,” he adds, suggesting that to eat human flesh and be eaten might be part of the same hope of becoming one with another being. (Renee was never his lover; though he was in love with her, she rebuffed his advances.) His own explanation for his unusual cravings connects his behavior to fetishistic desires, which in turn, he argues, are connected to primal urges. “Who doesn’t want to lick the lips of their lover?” he muses.

Jun’s presence, often hidden in the background, immediately raises questions of nature vs. nurture as well, as he does not display any anthropophagic impulses. Quite the contrary, because when leafing through the manga Issei drew, full of lurid details about how he murdered and subsequently consumed parts of Hartevelt, Jun says he has to stop because he might throw up. Clearly, he literally can’t stomach the details of the crime.

That said, things are not as clear-cut as they might at first appear, as the strange alchemy between the brothers — also seen as cute kids in archive footage — slowly comes into view and Jun reveals something about his own fetishes that even his brother did not know. (Some of the footage that demonstrates these fetishes might be hard to watch for some viewers, on top of the excerpts from a pornographic film in which Issei starred.) The otherwise never-touched-upon fact that Jun decided to look after his ailing brother, who suffered a stroke a few years ago and has diabetes, clearly demonstrates Jun has not rejected his sibling despite his crime. Jun’s presence thus suggests he might not accept or condone his brother’s tendency but also does not want him to become an outcast or have the rest of his life be ruined by it. Similarly, rather than sensationalizing their subject, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor never forget that Issei, while clearly troubled or ill or both, is still a human being, too. It is a testament to the talent of the directors, who also shot and edited the film, that such a complex moral stance rises organically from their material.

There’s only a part of even the arthouse audience that will go along for an experimental film such as this one, with its arty longueurs, intentional focus issues and detours into violence, sexuality and monstrosity. But for those willing to commit, here is a film fearless enough to face a cannibal on his own terms and place his behavior and desires on (the admittedly very far end of) the human spectrum.

A karaoke version of The Stranglers’ 1981 song La Folie, which was inspired by Sagawa, ends this odd and provocative feature on a note that suggests that while cannibalism might be a step too far for almost everyone, a certain fascination with cannibals is at least a little more widespread.  

Production companies: Norte Productions, Sensory Ethnography Lab
Writer-Directors: Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Producers: Valentina Novati, Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Directors of photography: Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Editors: Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Sales: Elle Driver
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)

In Japanese, French, English
No rating, 90 minutes