Some decades ago, art student Issei Sagawa fell in love while studying in France. The object of his affection was a fellow student from the Netherlands who liked him as a friend, but no more than that, which led Sagawa to shoot her in the head, strip her, eat parts of her dead body and have sex with the remains. He was caught trying to dispose of what was left, and understandably arrested, though at his trial he was judged to be hopelessly insane and confined to a mental institution; however, he was after a short while deported back to his Japanese homeland, where he was not incarcerated again, he was allowed to be free. In fact, he became something of a celebrity there...
There was a quote at the start of Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor's documentary that stated they in no way wanted to legitimise Sagawa's actions by making a film about him. And the band played believe it if you like, was a conclusion you could uncomfortably draw should you choose to watch Caniba, for there was no other reason to concentrate on him as a subject if he had not essentially gotten away with murder, and not only murder but a series of acts of depravity that placed into question what had happened in Japan to keep him out of prison, or at least a high security hospital. He had not reoffended, anyway, not in his real life at any rate.
He had certainly got up to some unlovely activity since, however, some of which was detailed here, as the directors caught up with Sagawa now he lives in a semi-paralysed state with his brother, who seems bemused the boy he grew up with could have turned out so badly, but tolerates him anyway (we are told they have arguments, however). The technique used to capture these two men, though mostly the killer, would be familiar to those who had seen this filmmaking pair's previous documentary Leviathan, the one about the fishing which was told in often repulsive close-up from start to finish, pushing the audience's faces in the least attractive practices of sailing the oceans to catch fish.
That was a harsh life, you were left in little doubt about that, but it was no cannibalism, was it? Sagawa could still talk, and rambled away about his fetish for eating women's flesh (he doesn't seem impressed when asked if he could eat a man), though in the main he preferred to stay silent, even in response to what his brother was inquiring of him. We were teased by watching him eat something, which turns out to be chocolate, which should give you some idea of a nasty playfulness at work here as Paravel and Castaing-Taylor on the surface appeared to be blankly presenting the man who committed this awful crime for you to draw your own conclusions, but examining it were more digging up various confrontational images and dialogues as if they were trendies trying to confront the squares.
It was not a good look, and while Caniba was fairly compelling, as how could it fail to be with human nature being drawn to the darker elements of life as much as the lighter, there was a veiled hypocrisy in the approach which didn’t make you feel sorry for Sagawa, but did have you question what this could possibly assist in understanding. Other than staring into an abyss of corrosive insanity, if that was your bag, none of it was helpful, not the hardcore porn the subject had an "interest" in (which was pixelated, but you could work out what was going on) and certainly not the lengthy sequence where the brother, Jun, leafs through his brother's (published!) manga version of his attack and the pleasure he evidently still took in reminiscing about it. Sagawa was already past help, but you would worry for those who thought this was appropriate reading matter, even if they treated it as a sick joke. Ending in more rambling, this time from an actress dressed as a French maid, the benefits of this were hard to discern, and certainly not a tribute to his tragic victim.
[Caniba has its UK premiere at the London DocHouse on Saturday the 16th 2017.]