Right off the bat, I’m going to lay it out for you like this: Caniba is not going to be an easy film for most people to make it through.
Directors (and noted anthropologists) Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing document the life of notorious, real-life Japanese cannibal, Issei Sagawa, in a very intimate, disturbing, and (uncomfortably) close setting.
Sagawa, now in his 60’s, rehashes that fateful night with student Renee Hartevelt back in 1981 where he murdered, raped, then ate her body (in that order). Sagawa never really paid for his crime because the justice in Japan ruled him insane, and therefore, never served his time in an actual correctional facility.
“…never served his time in an actual correctional facility.”
In fact, quite the opposite. Sagawa has been allowed to profit off of his crimes through multiple outlets ever since returning to his home country. And though he has told his story many times, he’s never shown any remorse for what he did. Instead, he has tried to explain away why he was “pushed” to do what he did.
Caniba is not for the average moviegoer. Paravel and Castaing’s decision to shoot this 90-minute film with a focus of a close-up of Sagawa’s horrid face the entire time (with a few flashback sequences), is pretty unforgiving on the senses. There were times that I need to break away from this movie for a few minutes and fix my eyes on something more… mundane. But it’s this unapologetic style choice that makes the documentary different than most you’ll probably ever watch.
Camera style aside, the subject matter of Sagawa’s atrocious crimes are pretty fascinating. But it’s the pace and moments of complete dead silence that kills (no pun intended) the tension you would think would be obvious when making a documentary about a living cannibal. There were even times when I felt like it was coming dangerously close to a pretentious “film school” project that was going for style over substance.
“…a close-up of Sagawa’s horrid face…is pretty unforgiving on the senses.”
Then there was the random, gratuitous, and very explicit, sex flashback/fantasy that ends with Sagawa receiving a “golden shower” that seemed ridiculously out of place. But knowing what I know of most foreign filmmaking, I’m not very surprised that this was thrown in.
Caniba is a hard one to critique. And it’s hard to say how well it will be received. It’s a film that you really have to be “in the mood” to watch. Even for a documentary about murder, it goes above and beyond to make the audience feel as uncomfortable as possible. And though compelling as the subject matter is, I feel Paravel and Castaing’s unrelenting close-ups and bizarre editing choices, are going to make this a “hard pass” for a lot of people.
Caniba (2017) Directed by Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing. Starring Issei Sagawa, Jun Sagawa, and Satomi Yoko. Caniba screened as part of the 2018 Overlook Film Festival.
5 OUT OF 10