In 1981, 32-year old Japanese student Issei Sagawa murdered and ate Renée Hartevelt. Studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, Sagawa became enamoured with Hartevelt, his 25-year old classmate, while harbouring cannibalistic desires. He finally shot and ate parts of her before being caught. Found to be legally insane, charges against Sagawa were eventually dropped, and he was returned to Japan where he now lives free. Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the documentary duo from the Harvard University Sensory Ethnography Lab, capture Issei as he currently lives with his brother Jun, in their newest film, Caniba.
In the film’s opening, we are told that the purpose of Caniba is not to legitimize Issei Sagawa’s crimes, and it is true that the film never humanizes them. Like Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s 2012 film Leviathan, Caniba is visceral, overwhelming, and alienating. Issei and Jun’s faces fill the screen in constant close-ups, with the camera going in and out of focus. Blurred at one moment, sharp at the next, we see facial features rendered like unidentifiable shadows, while then moving into clearly defined images, with every pore, hair follicle, and blemish visible upon the men’s faces. In no way does Caniba try to justify Issei’s crime, nor does it really examine it; Paravel and Castaing-Taylor opt for objectivity in their coldly distant look at the brothers, focusing on the bodily grotesque — fragmented, out of focus body parts, rhythmically pulsing lips, the too-close consumption of food are all horrifying in the straightforward presentation. The problem is the question of if this actually effective.
While avoiding a humanization of the cannibal, one wonders if it was ever an issue. Issei himself seems that he would never have wanted to be humanized in the first place, viewing himself as perverse and disgusting, while acknowledging the horror of his crimes. The film functions to give an outlet to the Sagawa brothers, possibly in the very way they want.
At one point in the film, Jun begins to discuss his own desires. We watch as he stabs his own arm with butcher knives, barbed wire, and needles, and we watch videos he has made depicting the burning, cutting, and piercing of flesh. He describes sending them to porn companies, asking for films of torture to be made with women, and being rejected as too extreme. He describes his own arousal at the pain, and his desire to view women experiencing the harm he has done to his own body. He relates this to Issei in a shocking scene that sees Jun try to seem similar to his brother who, as a literal cannibal, is less than impressed. Paired with this is a detour into a manga Issei made about his crime, drawing out the dismemberment of Hartevelt’s eroticized, nude body, paired with cartoons of himself ejaculating as he cuts up and consumes her. Jun states it should have never been published, but Issei is indifferent, expressing only that he wanted to draw.
With their “objective” gaze, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor do not comment on the Sagawa brothers, allowing them to speak their minds, simply capturing the images. Those are monstrous, grotesque close-ups, but that seems to be exactly what the Sagawas would want. At the film’s opening, we are told that because Issei cannot find work, he makes a living off of his notoriety. The manga is proof of this. So in the so-called objective look at the Sagawa brothers, is Caniba simply enabling them, and is that ethical?
In the focus on the murderer, Caniba becomes typical of the true crime genre. Over and over again we see murderers — or potential murderers — be given attention, sensitivity, and fame. Whether this be in podcasts like Serial, in television programs like Making a Murderer, in novels like In Cold Blood, or in films like Amanda Knox, what is conspicuously missing is the victims. Often women killed at the hands of men, we lose the discussion of violence against women within the depiction of violence against women by focusing on the perpetrators, or potential perpetrators. Likewise, in Caniba we watch men whose desire centres around torturing, killing, and eating women — we do not get a look into the women they have harmed, or want to harm. Instead, we get a representation of the Sagawas, in a way that they seem to be pleased with. Perhaps it is shocking to watch, but Caniba has little to it beyond that shock value. Conventional true crime made in a more formally interesting way is still conventional true crime.