March: Caniba

“Sadism Too Far”

Andy Rice (Miami University)

Questions of ethics will devour Caniba, the most recent provocation by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) duo Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor of Leviathan (2012) fame. Issei Sagawa murdered, raped, and passed two days eating his Dutch classmate Renée Hartevelt in Paris while an exchange student at the Sorbonne in 1981, a crime for which he never stood trial after French authorities transferred him to Japan. With string-pulling from his wealthy father, Sagawa checked himself out of a Tokyo mental health facility in 1982, and he has since made a living by retelling the story of his cannibalism in books, manga comics, television appearances, and small roles in pornographic films.

Caniba is a feature made of several close and quiet filming sessions with the ailing, sixty-something Sagawa at his small living space in a warehouse outside of Tokyo as he carries on stilted conversations about cannibalism, sado-masochism, sex, and traumatic family events with his brother Jun. Unlike previous SEL efforts, there is no pastoral or waning industrial setting to aestheticize here, so faces dominate the screen. Recorded entirely in extreme close up and mostly out of focus, the filmmakers have mused that it is a “non-talking head” piece, an effort to offer “attention to the way in which affect, identity, and subjectivity communicate through a face that is fundamentally non-verbal.” Indeed, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor largely didn’t know what their subjects were saying in the midst of filming. Issei proclaims his desire to die by being eaten by Renee. Jun flips through most of the manga comic memoir Issei created to graphically detail his crime, calling it “shit” and refusing to read to the end. Jun torques his arm in barbed wire in search of “the perfect pain,” and then stabs the flap of skin beneath his armpit with steak knives. Jun then confesses to Issei—for the first time, he says—that he has dabbled in masochism since childhood. Castaing-Taylor half-joked that the Sagawa brothers turned Caniba into a Rouchian experiment in cinema vérité.

There is much to admire in SEL’s framing of cinema as a form of knowledge production within text-centric social science disciplines like anthropology, and in the group’s embrace of the long take against the pacing norms of digital culture. There is much to hate in Caniba. Short on context and unpleasant to watch by design (a sadistic film about sadism, in this way), its ethical position begs for account. In distinction from other documentaries about sadistic subjects like S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003, Panh) and The Act of Killing (2012, Oppenheimer), there is no class of victims for whom justice might be served by Caniba except, perhaps, the Hartevelt family. But Caniba is clearly not a film for them. So what could justify these two privileged, white filmmakers in filming this subject without guarding against old-school Orientalism, accounting for the views of the victim’s family or community, or exploring what justice might mean here?

Castaing-Taylor (2017) has argued in defense of the film that such questions are dangerous to forms of curiosity long central to anthropology:

If there’s any element of gravity [in Caniba], it’s a species of innocence or seeking to disrupt a form of moralism that disallows any real curiosity or can motivate a distinct desire. So we have to say that he’s abject, that he’s monstrous, et cetera. And how could we possibly give him airtime? Why would we spend time with him, why would we be his mouthpiece? Blame the messenger, essentially. It seemed to be the kind of moralism that refused to take what he does seriously or engage with his being, with his humanity. It’s a form of moralism that’s cowardly and unethical.

Within this ethical framework, the researcher who intends to learn about the Other, especially in precarious communities, prioritizes understanding over judgement as this is the pathway to transcultural humanism and growth. Anthropology’s insistence on extended periods of ethnographic fieldwork; learning subjects’ language, collecting data including photographs and filmic records; and processing, analyzing, writing and editing away from fieldsites aimed to enable the researcher to understand subject cultures from the inside and outside. Humanizing the Other and accounting for practices that readers or viewers may deem taboo or threatening could prevent stereotyping and violence at moments of nascent colonization. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor emerged as artists from within the ethical tenets of anthropology, but they neglected other ethical questions in their film here.

One “uncurious” form of moralism that Caniba’s two slow cinema entrepreneurs aim to “disrupt” might be found in feminist and critical race theory troubled by the ethical posture of observing and representing the Other as though neutral. These are fields that do indeed caution white makers against presenting themselves as brave messengers. Filmmakers of color have long seen their craft as “concerned not only with documenting culture, but with building it,” in Japanese-American documentarian Renee Tajima-Peña’s (2016) terms, and so viewed the ethics of documentary much more through accountability to subjects and communities than humanist notions of understanding that rarely did subjects any good.

Viewed another way, the film offers evidence for Tajima-Peña’s critique of a documentary world increasingly dominated by “wealthy media companies, individuals and foundations, major film festivals, elite film schools . . . [and] whiteness.” Indeed, Castaing-Taylor’s position uncomfortably echoes one that our Harvard brother Mark Zuckerberg recently offered for Facebook’s accountability in proliferating polarizing and taboo content on its particular platform. Don’t blame the messenger for “making the world more open and connected,” right?

SEL makers who prioritize sense to language hold that the world is far richer and more confusing than our linguistic proclamations make it out to be. The camera’s indexicality affords the communication of ambivalence and contingency—how we experience the world before our language constrains it. But certain aspects of the SEL techniques themselves go a long way to producing the world that they inevitably “discover,” a cinematic world so thick with being and so eager to encompass landscape, animals, movements and technological artifacts that it cannot represent points of resistance, community, or political allegiance beyond a tacit (yet aggressive) disavowal of dominant media conventions. Caniba is par for the course here. Upsetting media norms is no small thing, and abandoning the imperative to entertain or provide pleasure to an audience can be brave. But Caniba fails to offer an “aesthetics of accountability,” in Faye Ginsburg’s terms, for impacts on subjects’ and subjects’ victims’ lives. I would like to see future SEL efforts succeed on this point.

“Cannibals of Harvard Square”

James Leo Cahill (University of Toronto)

“There’s no reason to make this. I can’t pretend I’ve enjoyed it.” Jun Sagawa’s words, delivered halfway through Caniba (2017), may come to serve as the critical epitaph for the film. Jun’s admonishment is aimed at his younger brother Issei Sagawa, after a long sequence focused on Issei’s manga account of the events that made him infamous: the 1981 murder, rape, and cannibalization of his Sorbonne classmate Renée Hartevelt. Although Issei confessed to the crimes, he was found non compos mentis by the French legal system and deported back to Japan. At home he began to live as something of a media sensation, publishing an autobiography, several novels and manga, working as a food critic, appearing on television, and performing in numerous pink and pornographic films.

As with previous Sensory Ethnography projects, spectators enter Caniba disoriented and only slowly get sufficient clarity to figure out what is onscreen. This defamiliarization technique roughens perception and refreshes our senses. Faces are shot in extreme close-up with an incredibly short depth of field, such that many of the images are composed of a thick fog that, with slight adjustment, reveals minute details in sharp focus. The sound design functions in a similar manner: providing unsettling audio close-ups of the infirm Issei’s labored mastication and swallowing, which are the heart of his identity as a cannibal. His strained ingestion highlights forms of difficult eating as well as the pleasures, prohibitions and entire cultural logics organized around what can and cannot enter and exit our mouths. What we enjoy or can’t pretend to are primal anthropological questions that begin in what Valéry called the “succulent theater of the mouth.”

Yet Caniba also marks a significant departure from key Sensory Ethnography Lab films. Sweetgrass (2009) and Leviathan (2012) showcase a contemporary take on Dziga Vertov’s kino-eye, capturing phenomena from all angles and perspectives and redistributing the human sensorium through a network of nonanthropocentric vantages. Caniba emphasizes corporeally bound and highly proximate perspectives that recall the caméra à la nuque of the Dardenne brothers and Hu Bo. This shift in cinematographic approach makes sense in terms of the scale of the film’s subject as well as the small apartment the Sagawa brothers inhabit. But the cinematography also suggests a kino-mouth, an ocular maw that morcellates and devours its subjects and, at moments, its spectators. This raises the primary ethical question of the documentary: what can or does Caniba bring into perceptibility and experience that the scores of other media examinations of Issei Sagawa and his hat-trick of transgressions haven’t already accomplished?

The generous response to this question might be that Caniba offers a study of extreme forms of intimacy. In the spirit of Jean Epstein’s ode to magnification in Bonjour Cinéma (1921)—a text whose fetishistic fascination with the face and particularly the mouth of Sessue Hayakawa anticipates Caniba—the filmmakers explore what is revealed by pushing closer and closer until the face is devoured by the frame and the frame threatens to devour us. This experiment in extreme formal intimacy initially severs Sagawa from his media-phenomenon context by holding his features in extreme close-up and seeing what, if anything, can be taken at face-value. Extreme intimacy also interweaves the themes of cannibalism and fraternal care, suggesting anthropophagy may continue to function as a fundamental anthropological fact. Issei Sagawa theorizes cannibalism—in French no less—as nourished by fetishistic desire: “The desire to lick the lips of your lover and things like that are based on primal urges. Cannibalism is just an extension of that.” Cannibalism, in his articulation, is unrepressed eros taken to its logical conclusion. The film also documents bonds of filiation through Jun’s work as the primary companion and nurse for his outcast brother. Jun asks if Issei would cannibalize him, a question that hangs in the air unanswered: it is sometimes as terrible to be wanted as to be rejected.

The decontextualization and reframing the film accomplishes is undermined by a shock cut from an extreme close-up of Issei’s face as he savors a piece of chocolate to footage of him performing anilingus on a woman, taken, as will later become evident, from a pornographic film. The structure of the cut suggests we are now inside of the fantasies of the cannibal, a tasteless in-joke recalling for those with previous knowledge of his transgressions that after he murdered his victim, Sagawa attempted to eat one of her buttocks raw. The found footage initiates a set of sequences that suggest a mise-en-abyme relation between fantasy, mediation, and the immediacy of cannibalism: including the close-reading of Issei Sagawa’s manga, a montage of home movies from the brothers’ idyllic childhood (Jun comments that they grew up like twins), and Jun revealing for the camera, through a combination of live performance and a selection of home-made video tapes, his masochistic sexual predilections. As he drinks his own blood, Jun professes “My brother and I have this in common.” These sequences foment an economy of exhibitionism that feeds off of potential for discomfort. Why do the filmmakers appear so willing to enact the transgressive fantasies of their subjects as if they were a make-a-wish organization for cannibals? Is the film meant to reveal a cannibalistic continuum that extends from eating the other, to ethnography, to media consumption?

The choices made while filming and editing the Sagawa brothers also document the experimental cannibalism latent in the Sensory Ethnography Lab’s practice. A concluding sequence features the pink film actress Satomi Yoko dressed in a French maid’s outfit, feeding Sagawa as she recites a sexualized zombie fantasy for him. In response to being doted upon by a beautiful woman, Sagawa declares this moment of pleasure a miracle. The sequence suggests how ill-equipped documentary techniques may be for encountering—to say nothing of countering—media savvy predators. To circle back to a parallel triggered by found footage of Sagawa receiving a golden shower, what the mainstream media has failed to learn in its interactions with the 45th President of the United States proves also to be a peril to which the documentary avant-garde is susceptible. The film delivers an abject lesson in manipulation and exploitation, wherein the ready forms of engagement end up giving this genre of fiends what they crave: a platform for their grotesquely cruel fantasies. Issei Sagawa expresses his wish to be devoured. Media attention partially fulfills this, while also allowing Sagawa to continue to feed off his victim. Watching this film, we too partake in forms of cannibalism. Our appetites are not always easy to swallow.

2 thoughts on “March: Caniba

    1. The novelist Nicole Caligaris, who was a classmate of RH (victim) and IS (perpetrator) in Henri Béhar’s seminar on Surrealism at the Sorbonne, has written a probing, self-critical long-form essay on the events, her subsequent epistolary exchange with IS, and the larger contexts of lethal cultural appetites for the flesh of young women in « Le Paradis entre les jambes » (Paris: Gallimard, 2013). It offers perhaps the best answer to the question of how one might return to this oft-explored and exploited story and add genuine insight (as well as a lucid sense of where the insight ends). Despite the encounters with Surrealism at the heart of this sordid tale, it yields no exquisite corpses.


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