Caniba (2017)

Caniba first published by RealCrime Magazine

“There’s no reason to make this.” says Jun Sagawa to his brother Issei. “I don’t see how anybody could enjoy it.”

Jun is talking about the manga open before him, written by his brother as a graphic memoir of the murder, necrophilia and cannibalism that Issei executed in Paris in 1981 – but he might as well be talking about this latest documentary (in fact the fourth to be made on Issei) from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Laboratory. For directors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Leviathan, 2012) have chosen to present the perpetrator of this unspeakable real crime in a format that is near unwatchable: long handheld shots, drifting in and out of focus, that uncompromisingly hold the gaze of Issei and/or Jun – both now aged and ailing – in extreme close up, long after they have run out of things to say. The camera is held so tight on this pair that we are made to feel trapped there with them, much as they themselves are locked together in dysfunctional symbiosis (Jun is Issei’s carer) and unable to escape a past that has forever defined and confined them both. We also, in a gesture that is more discomfiting than humorous, see the one-time cannibal repeatedly engaged in acts of biting, sucking and chewing on food.

As we are forced to stare – and keep staring – into Issei’s moral abyss, and remain no more comprehending of his drives than he himself appears to be, our only refuge from these probing confrontations of the camera is provided by a triptych of older recorded footage: first an exploitative porn film featuring Issei (and urolagnia), then family videos of the brothers as young boys (already so close as to seem, as Jun comments, “like twins”), and lastly a secret tape made by Jun of his own expressly sexualised aberrations (“Compared to you,” Jun observes with a rueful twinge of fraternal jealousy, “my condition isn’t a big deal.”).

Most challenging of all is the ending, in which a third party (Satomi Yoko) appears – without (explicit) explanation – to deliver Issei a ‘miracle’ as close to the romantic fantasies of a decrepit cannibal as a documentary could get without degenerating into snuff. It is a bizarre variation on the sort of fairytale finish that more conventional cinema enjoys, here provocatively framed as a redemption for the (maybe) irredeemable.

© Anton Bitel