Disturbingly documented and intimately shot, Caniba analyses the crimes of Issei Sagawa, a Japanese PhD student who killed and slowly cannibalised his classmate, Renée Hartevelt. When he was arrested in Paris, June 1981, Sagawa was deported back to Japan and committed to a mental institution. Here, psychologists determined his motivations for murder and mutilation were sexual desires, not insanity. The French authorities, however, had already dropped the case, so Sagawa was, notoriously, released and allowed to walk free in 1986.

Instead of relying on archived footage and investigator accounts, directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel choose to focus solely on Sagawa and his brother and carer, Jun, who are interviewed simultaneously. Issei Sagawa is sincere, softly-spoken and, occasionally, hypnotically poetic, stating: “I want to suppress my feelings. I want to lock them up in softness.” Jun Sagawa, a sadomasochist himself who constantly searches for “different ways to find the perfect pain”, is critical of his brother’s crimes. Still, Jun argues Issei is more complex than a cold-hearted cannibal, claiming that “both extremes exist within him”. Issei, though, professes cannibalism is simply an “extension” of his brother’s own desires.

This fascinating, brotherly bond, coupled with camerawork that distorts every shot while accentuating each sound and syllable, means that Caniba never needs to jump for the extremes of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho or the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom to explore the bounds of social taboos. This lack of depth and detail, however (found in documentaries like Cropsey and non-fiction novels like Vincent Buglioshi’s Helter Skelter) makes it more difficult to contextualise our cannibal and his crimes.

Nonetheless, Caniba provides a confidential, intoxicatingly claustrophobic portrait of Issei Sagawa. This 90-minute biopic may never explicitly entertain us, but it never fails to subtly unsettle and horrify.

Issei Sagawa

Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Verena Paravel

Japanese Avant-garde and Experimental Film Festival
Bertha DocHouse

Posted by Jim Reader

Jim is a London-based journalist who has worked for a number of titles, including Bizarre, Vogue, Boxing News and the Daily Sport. He graduated from the University of Nottingham in 2009 and became a Master of Research in American Literature in 2010.