Caniba is an uneasily intimate documentary that offers a window into the life of Issei Sagawa, a notorious Japanese cannibal who murdered and ate a woman whilst living in Paris. After being found criminally insane and, therefore, unfit to stand trial, he was deported back to Japan. Not able to find conventional employment, he, instead, made a living through the minor celebrity status he had attained.
Whilst very grim, the details of Issei’s life – particularly those focused on his legal trials and the aftermath of his crime – are very interesting and exactly the sort of fodder many true crime docs build themselves around. In Caniba’s case, however, the film doesn’t seem to care about what Sagawa did or the specific facts of his life. Instead, the focus is on him as a person and, specifically, his emotions and feelings.
You’re asked to spend an hour and a half in uncomfortably close proximity to a man who’s committed heinous acts because, by doing so, maybe you’ll learn something about the human condition. It’s uncomfortably close proximity in more ways than one. The vast majority of the film is comprised of long, long takes zoomed up close on Sagawa’s face and frequently out of focus as Jun, his twin brother and carer, speaks to him about his crime. These conversations are disjointed and unstructured, but the extremely slow pace forces you to wallow in his company and, as a result, what little insight you’re given into his psyche is all the more powerful and unsettling.
Documentaries are generally assembled from hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of raw footage which are then whittled down to 90 minutes of the best stuff. Caniba’s greatest flaw is that it feels more like a documentary assembled from 80 minutes of raw footage padded out to 90 minutes with the use of some home movies.
There are many fascinating glimpses into Sagawa’s mind. A sequence in which his brother leafs through an autobiographical manga depicting Issei’s crime is especially enlightening and disturbing, as is the fact that such a book found a publisher.
Caniba is a film that revels in being unpleasant without ever really trying to justify it. Sagawa’s cannibalistic urges are a sexual compulsion and that’s the one side of his mind that the film seems consistently interested in exploring, complete with extensive footage of homemade sex-tapes and fetish videos. The film is about sexuality, but it has to be said that such a topic makes for very difficult viewing.
Ultimately, Caniba is less of a documentary than it is an art-film. It’s an art-film with definite merit; it’s just that your mileage is very likely to vary.
CANIBA / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR: LUCIEN CASTAING-TAYLOR, VERENA PARAVEL / STARRING: ISSEI SAGAWA / RELEASE DATE: DECEMBER 16TH