Caniba, the latest documentary by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor of the Harvard Sensory Ethnographic Lab, takes what most films use for sporadic emphasis and applies it from start to end. Its long, unrelenting close-ups are pointed mainly at the face of Issei Sagawa, the infamous Japanese man who in 1981 murdered, had sex with, and cannibalised classmate Renée Hartevelt while both were students at the Sorbonne. Today he’s in his late sixties, sick, and practically bedridden (it’s hard to imagine the film being conceived and made as it was if he were more mobile), living with his brother and carer Jun on the outskirts of Tokyo. Throughout Caniba, Sagawa’s face or part thereof fills the frame as he performs everyday tasks in his home (napping, drinking and of course, eating) and speaks with Jun about his crime, his sexual and cannibalistic desires (to him, they’re inseparable), and memories of their upbringing.
The images in Caniba are always close but only sometimes clear. Recording on two DSLR cameras and using a very shallow focus, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor allow their shots to remain partially or completely blurred for extended periods. They make no effort to adjust the focus, or are in no hurry to do so, when the subject shifts out of it; sometimes they proactively push the focus out themselves to the point of abstraction. When the focus remains sharp, Sagawa’s face – his waxy skin and seeping eyes, and often with an irreverent emphasis on his mouth – is showcased with a queasy clarity. Whether the shots are focused or not, the subject in Caniba is so consistently and stiflingly close that we can’t see much else. Only the occasional offscreen sounds of life on the streets outside remind us of the world beyond the frame. It’s virtually impossible to gauge when the film takes place, whether it’s day or night, where and how the brothers live. The close-ups in Caniba efface action, setting, context, transitions in space and time; they disorientate as much as they make clear, and obscure as much as they emphasise.
Paravel and Castaing-Taylor put so much attention into their images that they’re happy to relinquish control elsewhere. Essentially, they dictate the images and Sagawa dictates what’s spoken on the soundtrack, which in turn shapes the duration and flow of the images. The filmmakers were working in a language they didn’t understand; at their request, the Japanese sound recordist (Nao Nakazawa) would whisper translations in their ears during filming but they’d often instruct him not to. Jun sometimes doubles as a surrogate interviewer in the film, asking his brother questions that the filmmakers are uninterested in asking themselves (predictably, he evades them at will). It’s little surprise that Paravel and Castaing-Taylor describe the film as a “collaboration” with Sagawa and freely admit to offering him the floor to express himself.1 Sagawa’s speech is laconic, often cryptic and mannered, and punctuated by long stretches of silence: no doubt symptoms of his ailing health but also of a pretentious aloofness, and the freedom granted to him by the filmmakers to speak when and how he pleases.
For the most part, what’s revealed in the conversations is nothing new; Sagawa has spoken and written exhaustively about his crime over many years. Following his deportation to Japan (he was deemed insane and unfit for trial in France) and walking free due to legal technicalities, Sagawa appeared on innumerable TV shows and documentaries, talked on panels, cameoed in pinku eiga films, starred in pornos, and had a stint as a food critic. He’s also had a prolific output as a writer, having published novels, plays, essays and articles, as well as a vile account of his crime in the form of a manga, the pages of which Paravel’s and Castaing-Taylor’s cameras pore over for a good ten minutes. To paraphrase the words of a Japanese reviewer who covered Sagawa’s first foray onto the stage in the ‘90s, the strangeness of the public’s fascination with Sagawa has perhaps surpassed the madness of the actual incident.
Paravel and Castaing-Taylor merely allude to this public fascination, refusing to provide a wider view of the culture and society that has provided Sagawa with a mutually-beneficial platform on which he has lived off his own infamy. Only the manga and an excerpt from a fetish porno – both niche products, it’s fair to say – get a look-in as examples of media representations of him, and neither comes close to suggesting the spotlight he’s managed to hold for so long. In the manga, he’s represented as a red oriental monster and in the porno, as an innocuous sexual pervert. At the centre of the film is also a scene of archival 8mm footage being projected, showing the brothers’ happy and carefree childhoods, which invites simplistic psychological conclusions. The implication is that Sagawa is and has been many things, and it’s impossible to truly understand him and the psychological roots of his crime through these images or any other. Well aware of and indeed embracing Sagawa’s capacity to build upon his public image and cultivate his own myth, Caniba shows scant interest in culture, society, context and, as has become convention, the victim. It dedicates itself instead to treating Sagawa’s cannibalistic desire with the seriousness, and the sensory intensity, that he and the filmmakers think it deserves. Its focused and unfocused close-ups are a pure expression of this dedication: they confront us with the visceral physical-ness of Sagawa’s crime and our own imaginations of it, and block out all else.
It’s odd, then, that the filmmakers extend their visual strategy verbatim to their depiction of Jun, a non-cannibal who has killed no one. When he interjects for the first time it’s as if he emerges from a different film, a different reality, and the gulf between the siblings is immediately apparent. Jun is polite, articulate, harmless, and wouldn’t look out of place on any street corner in Japan. He’s clearly made sacrifices to care for Sagawa and makes a genuine attempt to understand him. In turn, he also desires to be understood by his brother. When Jun reveals that he’s haunted by his own sadomasochistic desires – he performs an act of self-harm for the cameras and for Sagawa in the film’s most harrowing sequence – it’s an extreme but poignant attempt to connect with his sibling. The pain he inflicts is directed at himself and himself only, yet Jun is afforded his own grotesque close-ups (including the film’s opening shot) and frequently shown floating in and out of focus like a ghoul in the background; the film’s only shock-cuts are also reserved for him, leading into and during the self-harm sequence. Caniba’s stubbornly insistent style and desire to repulse eventually draw uneasy parallels between Jun’s masochism and Sagawa’s murderous desires – all of which suggest that the film isn’t as different to other sensationalist representations of Sagawa that it claims to be, but is simply the most accomplished and audacious example of it.
A pair of deflections occur towards the start and end of the film which hint at the narrowness of its purpose. Sagawa is pressed by his brother to consider the fear his victim must have felt at the moment of her death, and he evades the question and asks for a piece of chocolate instead. He later confides to a female friend (who is dressed as a French maid and recounts a zombie-themed fairytale at his bedside) how happy he is, and how miraculous it is, to be cared for by such a beautiful woman; after a nervous laugh, she redirects the conversation back to the more convenient world of fantasy and cosplay. In the end, the film itself also registers as a deflection, not despite but because of its proximity to its subject. Its close-ups offer refuge in the belief that Sagawa is unknowable, providing an uncomfortable and disorienting, but ultimately safe, distance. The film is content to depict Sagawa’s morbid fascinations in a bold and unconventional way, rather than question its own; it’s easier to feel and sense than to try to understand. In this way, Caniba doesn’t stare so much as it squints.