Overview: A quiet examination of the current life of Issei Sagawa, cannibal killer. Norte Productions; 2017; Not Rated; 90 minutes.
Why, Though: There is little reason to make multiple documentaries about a straightforward cannibal killer. Not only has Issei Sagawa been the subject of at least four varying documentaries about himself (Excuse Me For Living, The Cannibal that Walked Free, Interview with a Cannibal, and Cannibal Superstar) but he’s had a fair amount of pop culture influence. It’s not because new details arise about his heinous crime, or that he’s had a miraculous transformative experience, it’s simply because since the crime he has been making a living off his notoriety.
Filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel begin their take with an expansive typed disclaimer at the beginning, briefly outlining the crime. It then features lazy, tasteless prooftexting from John 6:53,56 regarding transubstantiation. Finally, it states that their film doesn’t seek to legitimize or accept what Sagawa did. One would think it would have some purpose then. One would think a documentary about a cannibal killer would be entertaining, at the very least. Caniba is an endurance test of the worst kind, completely lacking value, entertainment, or purpose.
It’s My Fantasy: In 1981, Sagawa was studying for his PHD in Sorbonne, France. There he went to school with a Dutch woman named Renée Hartevelt. He was in love with her, and recounts his first time being attracted to white women after seeing Grace Kelly in High Noon. Much as he was with Grace Kelly, Sagawa was taken with Renee’s figure and healthful beauty. They were friends but, as it goes, Sagawa felt something more that wasn’t reciprocated. After his rejected advances, Sagawa invited Renee to help him translate some poetry. He then shot her, raped her corpse, and consumed her flesh over a period of days. He was caught in the act of discarding the body and after being found legally insane, committed to an institution.
With the recent Hollywood news it’s hard not to draw comparisons between Sagawa and every other man who feels he’s owed sexual favours by women. When Sagawa couldn’t have Renee, he killed and ate her, literally consuming the flesh he was unable to caress. In some ways it seems like an outrageous example of consent and man’s weak nature. But to simply reduce it to this idea isn’t realistic or fair.
Sagawa says he’s had a cannibalistic urge since he was a child, and that for him cannibalism and sexuality can’t be separated. At least, that’s what can be inferred from the documentary. Silences are much more frequent than any meaningful dialogue and most of the film is shot at an extremely uncomfortable tight close up of the killer’s face. At first, one might think this is a clever silent commentary on facing a monster up close and, in turn, facing ourselves. After ten minutes it starts to feel more like a toddler with a video camera, constantly shifting in and out of focus. It quickly becomes more suited to thinking about what’s for dinner than the human condition.
The killer is old and infirm now, and he lives with his brother Jun Sagawa—who is much better at stringing a sentence together—in the suburbs of Japan. He needs full-time care, and his brother is a good match for him as they share interests like Renoir and Disney. His brother feeds him and cares for his needs, piping up to add tidbits of information about their lives as Sagawa stares off into the distance or falls asleep.
Between these long closeups are silent family movies showing two cute children who love to perform and dress up together. Their family life looks happy and healthy, minus some health issues Issei faced as a premature baby. There’s also some home pornography to witness, genitals crudely blocked out as Sagawa enjoys a golden shower and enthusiastically eats ass. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s not the worst of what’s to come. The brothers also share a strange bond that’s later revealed through even more disturbing video. Jun shares that for sixty years he’s been self-harming and scarring his body and we’re treated to evidence of this. Jun wraps himself in barbed wire, lights fireworks taped to his body, stabs himself with a handful of knives and chews his skin until he bleeds.
When this is revealed to Issei, he barely shows any reaction. This disappoints Jun, who continues to ask variations of “aren’t you shocked by what I’ve shared with you?” Issei repeatedly declines, though he has tears slowly streaming down his face. The audience might expect a moving connection between two damaged individuals but any sort of is withheld. The most imaginative might think of a perfect scenario, cannibal brother eats masochist brother and they live happily ever after. Instead it’s just an uncomfortable, awkward squirm.
The Artist: The most chilling aspects of Caniba is the uneven footage of Issei’s manga outlining his crimes. His published works show in graphic detail each step of what he did with Renee’s body, and it’s ugly. He flips through making brief comments on it as his brother grows increasingly uncomfortable with what he’s seeing. “This is a piece of shit. It shouldn’t have been published. I can’t take anymore.” he goes on as Issei slowly flips through the pages. His self-portraiture shows an ugly, small man. A demon with a constant erection and gnawing teeth. No detail is left out, and though horrific it’s impossible to look away from. It also gives the most information about anything as Issei and his brother never add or reveal anything new about their lives or the crime.
“I guess some people like this. That’s their problem.” Jun mumbles mostly to himself, briefly touching on the morbid curiousity of people who collect works like this and find some strange enjoyment out of it. I wish we could say the same for the film.
Overall: You’ll get more information and enjoyment reading a Wikipedia article about the crime than by watching Caniba. It’s interesting only as an introduction to the crime and subsequent rabbit hole of deaths it will surely lead to. Even for the most morbidly curious, there are much better ways of being informed and scratching that itch.
Featured Image: Norte Productions