Thursday, September 28, 2017
VIFF 2017 review: Caniba - Horror, Boredom, Perversion and Revulsion
There is more than one way in which Caniba, screening at the VIFF tomorrow (and October 10th), is hard to watch. Consider this less of a review and more of a cautionary description...
After opening titles that include some explanation - including audio from a French news report - of Japanese killer cannibal Sagawa Issei's infamous 1981 crime, directors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor linger at length on close-up, at times out-of-focus images of the faces of both Sagawa and his brother, Jun, in their home on the outskirts of Tokyo. We can infer from what we see that Sagawa has had a stroke, and that his brother is now his caregiver, though Caniba doesn't provide very much explanation as to their relationship, and mostly leaves aside details (like that Sagawa has diabetes) that do not arise from the conversation between the people who appear on screen; the film prefers to show, not tell. In particular, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor - whom I interviewed below in regard to their best-known film, the "immersive" fishing trawler documentary Leviathan - make a point, during this first third of the film, of showing images of Sagawa's chewing mouth, as he snacks and talks - slowly, quietly, but without any sign of aphasia - about everything from the ways in which cannibalistic desire is simply an extreme extension of the urge to lick ones lover, to his "other" extreme (a fondness for Renoir, Disney, and chocolate - sweetnesses in which he finds some respite). There are also long periods of silence, where the filmmakers simply let Sagawa look into the camera. It's troubling, fascinating, confrontational, demanding and also - I think the blunt word for it is "boring;" because as much soul-searching and revulsion as a close up of an out-of-focus cannibal's face can inspire, it's still a lot to be asked to sit and look at for over half an hour.
I mean, we could as easily spend half an hour on the interior of Jeffrey Dahmer's fridge, and while there is much that would be troubling to contemplate in regard to that particular appliance, a half an hour of a fridge would, at the end of the day, still be a half an hour of a fridge.
Boredom does not necessarily equal bad cinema, mind you: I mean, I love the work of James Benning (whom I interview here) but it's pretty much impossible, as one tries to find a way to engage with his films - which in some cases see a single shot going on for an hour and a half, as with Nightfall - to not nod off for short periods. Maybe I'm only speaking for myself, here, but I've slept through parts of some great cinema in my day. I have napped and snored and jolted myself awake through Tarkovsky, through Kurosawa, through films noir... but never through a film as horrifying in its subject matter as Caniba. It is, in fact, quite an accomplishment that the filmmakers managed to set me nodding with subject matter as sensational as this - I was a bit shocked at it, myself.
One should ideally not fall asleep in the presence of a cannibal, even if he's only on a screen.
Anyhow, the first 30 minutes of the film provide a challenge, to find a way to take in the rather maximal subject matter/ minimal approach, which you'll have to figure out your own way to come to terms with. In fact, they've got nothing, in terms of being hard-to-watch, on the next twenty minutes or so. We cut from Sagawa describing how he most wanted to eat fellow student and victim Renée Hartevelt's buttocks, to clips from a pornographic film that Sagawa acted in, as one of his various attempts to make a living (it's not easy to get a job when you're a cannibal killer, even in Japan, it seems). The filmmakers allow themselves a bit of black humour in this edit, beginning the excerpt with a clip of Sagawa's mouth on the buttocks of his female co-star, so we go from the stated desire to eat someone's buttocks, to the actual eating of ass, in a slightly different way.
Apparently - I have read this elsewhere, it is not dealt with in the film - Sagawa's pornos have a sort of revolting "gotcha" quality to them, as the actresses have sex with Sagawa without knowing who he is, and only at the end of the film are shown clippings of his crimes; their revulsion becomes a part of the film. If this is true, none of it is shown here.
I should give, I guess, a warning - though I already feel like it is coming a bit late: in describing this film, I'm going to be forced to cover some pretty revolting territory. The squeamish, easily-offended, or, say, people really concerned with spoilers, who already KNOW they want to see the film, might want to check out here and now. If you're already disgusted by what you've read - own it, and stop reading; it's on you if you continue, eh? It's going to get quite a bit uglier.
(And while I am offering asides and disclaimers, if you want me to justify that I'm spending time on this, note that I was living in Japan when I first learned about Sagawa, and found that he was roaming free in the same area where I was, which was pretty disturbing; it makes an impression on you, to know that the guy you just passed on the sidewalk might be a cannibal. Also note that, as I say above, I have interacted with the filmmakers before, and was interested in seeing their new work before I even realized what it was. I didn't realize that they'd made a film about Sagawa, though it IS, to me, interesting subject matter, to a point).
Anyhow, to get back to the porn clip, as is standard with more above-ground Japanese pornography, the film Sagawa appears in is partially censored with fogging mosaics, so you can't get a clear glimpse of anyone's genitals, male or female. However, you do get to see, near the end of the clip, the "lower" half of a golden shower that Sagawa receives, GG Allin-style, on his face, while he gags. (I've never known what to make of that: if you want a girl to pee on your face, as Allin obviously does in Hated and Sagawa presumably does here, what's with the gag reaction?) The partial censorship, of course, raises questions about Japanese standards of obscenity. It brings to mind browsing, circa 2001, with a Canadian girlfriend through an open-air market in Tokyo where there were pornographic VHS tapes for sale, showing all manner of perversion, including - we gather this was also an early interest of Sagawa's, though again it is not included in the film - bestiality. (My girlfriend and the time and I were just amused to see what was on sale at this market, which ranged from samurai swords to lighters to Hello Kitty sex toys. "Hey, check it out, they've got porn - but - wait, WHAT THE HELL?"). The upshot of censorship laws at the time was that you could buy a video of a woman having sex with a dog, but the dog's genitals (or the woman's) would be fogged. You could buy tentacle porn, showing animated girls being raped by the tentacles of demonic beasts, but their crotches would be fogged (though not the tentacles). I don't pretend to understand any of that. As long as you don't show pubic hair - which is consistently blurred even from arthouse and mainstream movies, or was when I was living there - you seem to be able to depict pretty much anything else on film or in comic books in Japan, no matter how grotesque or offensive. So in the porno clip in Caniba, you can see urine splashing Sagawa's face, but not the bush from which it flows; you can see his semen on the hand of the "actress" who jerks him off, but not his penis.
Not that you really want to see Sagawa Issei's penis, but the standards for obscenity in Japan are a curious thing.
Does the film get worse from there? Why yes it does! The next segment of Caniba, and the one that is most likely to drive away a few audience members, has brother Jun - apparently a patient and understanding caregiver to Issei, if not himself a cannibal - flip through a manga that Sagawa drew, again as a way of capitalizing on the notoreity of his case (and generating income for himself). He's not much of an artist - the drawings are crude and somewhat childish - but they're extremely expressive and revealing, and horrifying as all hell in terms of content, showing Sagawa cutting up and eating chunks of his victim's flesh. (You also learn next to nothing in the film about her, or her family, or how they might feel about this crime). I am going to elect NOT to show any panels from that comic book here, though you can see some of them - along with crime scene photographs - here, if you like. I don't really recommend it; nor, it turns out, does Sagawa's brother, who talks about wanting to vomit as he turns the pages of the manga - though he gets through quite a few pages before he begins to complain, and continues for quite awhile after. Eventually he stops, around the time we see cartoon images of a naked, ejaculating Sagawa holding Hartevelt's severed head. Jun opines more than once that the book should not have been published, and he's got a point.
Apparently Japan, besides bizarre standards of censorship, has no law saying people can't profit from a criminal activity. I am pretty sure a book like this would be impossible in North America. Presumably Sagawa made a fair bit of money from it. (I am under the impression it's not his only publication - there is also mention in the film of a novel).
If you're thinking the film couldn't get weirder - sorry. Remember Crumb? Remember thinking as you entered the film that Robert Crumb is a pretty messed up person, then having to re-evaluate him as you saw what his brothers were into?
After some archival footage of the two Sagawa brothers as boys, Jun has a reveal of his own. His story (and his perversion) are in fact nowhere near as disturbing or dangerous as Sagawa's, but - golden shower aside - we don't see FOOTAGE of Sagawa's perversions in action. We do, with Jun: he allows Paravel and Castaing-Taylor to film him. His kinks involve self-harm, mostly on his right bicep, which he describes as his sex organ; since the age of three, apparently - some sixty years - he has been attacking his own arm, with barbed wire, knives, and candle flames (apparently S&M candles aren't hot enough so he uses candles from the family altar). Much of this is presented without explanation, as he wrangles a giant mass of barbed wire, leaving you wondering what the hell he is doing, but eventually, as he narrates his own actions, it all becomes clear. Then he is shown stabbing at his own arm with a fistful of kitchen knives, which eventually do break skin.
One reviewer has already made mention of the strangeness of Jun's own evaluation of the act: Jun says, "this isn't fun yet," as he jabs himself, and the reviewer calls particular attention to that last word, "yet." There is some irony to the fact that, now that the worst is over and the WTF aspects of the film have reached a feverish pitch, the movie is actually starting to become (sort of) fun at this point, as you try to sift through your confused reactions to what you're seeing. You are so not in Kansas anymore that your disorientation itself becomes kind of bizarrely entertaining. We also get some video Jun shot of his own arm, wrapped in barbed-wire and subjected to fire; then strapped with a lit firework. You might wonder if this in any way normal in Japanese society, for people to nurse such perversions, and if not, how did these two brothers get so twisted...?
Jun then informs us that he offered a porno company to do all this to a girl - to bind her in barbed wire and set to her skin with knives and candle flames - but they refused, saying it was too extreme.
What follows is my favourite segment of the film, as Jun confesses his perversion to his brother, who has never known about it before, apparently. The VIFF catalogue describes this aspect of Caniba as "Shakespearean," and I must confess, though I was initially skeptical, that I can see what they were talking about. I will leave this interaction more or less undescribed here, so it can be fresh when you see it. It is quite entertaining to contemplate the psychology on display, and in no way, now that the worst is over, requiring any sort of warning.
The final segment of the film is somewhat confusing, and the segment that would most profit from some additional explanation. Sagawa's care has apparently fallen on to a woman; whether this is because of an off-camera fight Sagawa has with Jun, where he apparently damages one of his brother's eyes, is left unexplained - that seems one logical explanation - but suddenly, Sagawa is being attended to by a sexy woman in a French maid costume, with considerable cleavage when she bends over. It is unclear if she is a nurse, a maid, or a prostitute; it is also possible that the lines between roles are blurred. She feeds Issei a chocolate croissant and talks to him about cosplay, revealing her own dream where she is a flesh eating zombie.
It is unclear if she fully understands who she is telling the story to, but Sagawa obviously enjoys hearing it. He has said earlier in the film that his fantasy now is to be eaten by a woman, perhaps his former victim. She is now dead, of course, killed by Sagawa, but now that he is in the care of a girl with her own cannibalistic fantasies, he is in a kind of glory, closer than he might have ever hoped to get to a "happy ending." She takes him out in his wheelchair for a walk; we hear an apparent sports crowd in the background, and the film cuts to a karaoke song, "La Folie," by the Stranglers, inspired by Sagawa's story. The words appear on the screen, in French, with English subtitles; we can sing along about our own madness if we want.
There are, of course, many more questions raised than the film answers. Is there something about Japanese society that encourages or allows extreme behaviour? Can Sagawa's perversions be understood as something we all possess - a universal, primal orality given extreme expression - or do they say more about his privileged upbringing, or his culture, or...? What should be done with people like Sagawa, who, because of bureaucratic complications (and, we gather, an influential, wealthy father) are allowed to walk free, having done horrifying things? How did his crimes impact the family of Renée Hartevelt? And what of the briefly-alluded to desire on Sagawa's part for WHITE flesh? (He had, before going to France, also attempted to rape and eat a German female travelling in Japan, but was foiled in the attempt, and concealed the cannibalistic aspect of his urge when caught). Would the Japanese have taken his crime more seriously if he had killed an eaten a Japanese woman? (One actually suspects that they might have; part of traditional Japanese culture involves drawing a line between what you do at home, within your circle, and what you do outside it, which is regarded with a kind of "what happens in Vegas" free-for-all indulgence. Renée Hartevelt was Sagawa Issei's Vegas).
Finally, a lesser but still pressing question lingers at the end of the film: is there a way that Sagawa could have been supported WITHOUT turning to obscene, exploitive manga and porno films? (We gather he worked briefly as a food critic, but the film also doesn't delve into this - nor make mention of the story I heard while in Japan that he had appeared in a commercial for a steakhouse. None of these are great improvements on his profiting from a pornographic manga detailing the indignities he inflicted on the body of Ms. Hartevelt, however. But if he's going to roam free, really, what sort of income SHOULD he have? A special-case pension for utter unemployables?). We might even feel complicit in his continued celebrity status (though a wee title at the beginning of the film explains that the filmmakers do not endorse or pardon his actions).
The film has no answers to any of this. Depending on what you expect of a documentary, the lack of answers may count against the movie; some critics have seemed to expect more from it, and I can see their point. But as a close-up confrontation with taboo human desire - or as a portrait of an aging cannibal outcast - or as a WTF provocation, plunging us into what we can only hope is deeply abnormal psychology, even by Japanese standards, it's pretty fascinating. Not an easy watch. Hard to watch in many ways. But it's bound to make an impact, if you let it into your life.
Caniba screens tomorrow at the Cinematheque, as part of the 2017 VIFF, then again on October 10th.