In the post-film Q+A, co-director Véréna Paravel remarked that, “If you were born in Paris pre-1981, the story of Issei Sagawa was a cultural moment that stayed with you.” Now, who exactly is Issei Sagawa and what exactly is his story? To keep it brief, Issei Sagawa is a Japanese sex cannibal who, during his time at the Sarbonne pursuing his Ph.D. in literature, shot, dismembered, and consumed fellow classmate Renée Hartevelt. After his capture, Sagawa spent two years in jail awaiting trial until he was found legally insane by French judge, Jean-Louis Bruguière, thus leading to his indefinite confinement in a French mental institution. However, following a visit and accounting of the murder by Japanese author Inuhiko Yomota, Sagawa experienced a cult-like celebrity status in Japan. This led to the French authorities’ deportation of him to Japan, where his stay at Matsuzawa hospital declared his crime was that of a sane man, due to sexual perversion being the sole motivator. With the French charges dropped, Sagawa was ultimately released as a free man and to this day, continues to live freely in Japan.
Now, while exploring the Japanese Pink film (Pinku eiga), directors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (of Leviathan  and Ah Humanity!  fame) discovered that one of their subjects, director Hisayasu Sato, had actually featured Sagawa in one of his films: 1992’s Unfaithful Wife: Shameful Torture. This surprising connection between subjects appears almost serendipitous as the filmmakers’ focus on Pink film quickly shifted to an examination of Issei Sagawa. Given the prior description, one expects Sagawa as a monstrous form – yet, in Caniba one quickly realizes that expectation is far from reality. Rather than a villainous, macabre figure, Sagawa is a silent, near immobile and passive man. Thus, providing the framework for the masterwork that is Caniba.
A film of few sequences, yet with a running-time of ninety-seven minutes, Caniba is a documentary best understood in Greg Hainge’s analysis of Philippe Grandrieux’s Retour à Sarajevo (1996), “We are here dealing with events and forms made up of intensities that vibrate before us, captured by a film maker who moves with these events at a different level of frequency, never pretending to ‘understand’ what he sees, to claim his own perspective as somehow equivalent or equal to that of those he moves with, yet able, nonetheless, by resonating at a frequency in a harmonic relation to the events he follows, to fold himself into them.”
In the case of Caniba, what this means is that Paravel and Castaing-Taylor never claim nor seek to justify, understand, or legitimize the crimes of or even the figure that Sagawa is. Rather, this is an intense documentary that seeks to explore the modes of representation of such a figure and how to visually represent such a being, all the while questioning the very legitimacy of their own medium. This, of course, requires further breakdown.
First, the claim that Paravel and Castaing-Taylor are not actively seeking to understand Sagawa. This is easily proven through an opening disclaimer citing such, as well as their fleeting focus of Issei and subsequent exploration of his brother, Jun Sagawa. Caniba is cinematic portraiture more so than an examination, which is to say, the interest lies in the physical properties of the individual far more than his actions. Which leads to the next point, being that Caniba is an examination of modes of representation.
Various representations are found within Caniba’s running-time. First the news report concerning Sagawa’s crime that is played over a black screen, which posits him as a monster and/or criminal. Then, and in no apparent order, there is 8mm footage of Issei and Jun as children in 1950s Japan. The children run around, dress-up, play fight, and exhibit a general excitement for life which posits Issei as human and separates the viewer entirely from the notion of monster. Then, there is the footage from Sato’s film which features Issei. The moment is a terrifying and immediate cut following a nearly subdued and aged Sagawa, as it initially displaces the viewer temporally and asking, “Where have we just gone?”
The sequence features Issei fornicating with and even biting a young actress. This representation, while fictional, is also the closest, visually speaking, the audience gets to viewing Sagawa in the actual act he is notorious for committing. It’s a disorienting yet astounding moment as it concurrently disgusts its audience thematically yet demands their attention visually.
Then there is his manga covering the crime. It’s a near-Shakespearean scene as the manga a discovery made by Issei’s brother, Jun. It feels like an age-old revelation Jun subsequently translates the text aloud for the audience and flips through the pictures. It’s a horrifying long-take that while viciously translated, covers the entirety of Sagawa’s crime, but since it remains as pictures, text, and translation, to the point where Jun is so horrified it exists only as pictures and text, there is a definite rift between spectator and content as the role the audience plays is the spectator of a spectator, meaning that the experience is secondary thus the focus of Paravel and Castaing-Taylor is on the horror felt by Jun rather than the atrocity committed by Issei.
Finally, there is the The Strangler’s “La Folie,” a 1981 song inspired by Sagawa’s crime which serves as a cultural representation. The song plays in the doc’s closing moments and even recalls another recent cannibal feature, Julie Ducournau’s Raw (2016), which features a similar, sick song about forms of consumption. Which of course, brings to light the much bigger question – what is society’s obsession with cannibalism?
Those are just a few examples, but enough to posit Caniba as a near cubist portrait of Issei Sagawa. By layering these various representations of Sagawa, one cannot simply view him as a monster, or even something remotely human. Which is largely the result of the film’s visual aesthetic. Bringing the conversation back to, how does one begin to photograph a being such as Sagawa?
Framed in only close-up and extreme-close-up, the film exceeds that of the talking-head doc, by its framing as well as Sagawa’s extended silences, to where it is merely a “head” doc. As if a wide shot were too dishonest or criminal of a mode to photograph Sagawa, the audience experiences Sagawa in the same way as Paravel and Castaing-Taylor. Claustrophobic, blurry, out-of-focus, Sagawa is a figure that defies conventional depiction. There are moments in which the camera delves so deeply into Sagawa’s face, that his profile evolves into shades of light, yet due to his fragile decaying condition and contrary to what one would believe, the shades dictate anything but virility.
This visual approach brings us back to Hainge’s analysis of Grandrieux’s own form. Given the erratic and unprovoked movements of Sagawa, it is impossible to provide a controlled frame, meaning that what the audience experiences is Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s immediate accounting of the physical space that Sagawa inhibits and is surrounded by. In fact, it’s rare to find a film as visually in-sync with its subject as Caniba is. Yes, Sagawa is a monster, and thus through the extreme close-up is felt as such. Yet, through the constant out-of-focus framing, the audience is visually provided the duality of Sagawa: a monster, who even by himself, seems misunderstood, soft-spoken, and free from mere definition.
This aesthetic leads back to the questioning of the very medium which Paravel and Castaing-Taylor utilize for their film. Who decided the legitimacy of focus and determined that blurred imagery is experimental or aberrant? To claim that one views the world in constant focus is to deny the basic reality of vision: human beings are incapable of viewing everything in perfect focus, so why fetishize techniques such as deep focus? If anything, there is more truth in the “abstract” imagery of Grandrieux, Paravel, and Castaing-Taylor than there are in the compositions of Welles, Truffaut, or Scorsese. Meaning that, what the audience witnesses in these non-formal approaches, is an artist interacting with reality rather than recreating it; as Hainge puts it, “…a harmonic relation to the events he follows, to fold himself into them.”
Thus, this is the masterwork that Caniba is. A documentary by two visionaries at the top of their game, constantly redefining the modes of their own medium all the while questioning their very tendencies. Which leads to the filmmakers forming a relationship with Sagawa, as figures who struggle with their actions yet commit as they believe them to be undeniable truths. From Issei’s cannibalism, to Jun’s own pain oriented sexual gratification, to Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s coming-to-terms with and portraiture of such a figure – all the while ignoring the role of Hartevelt – proving that in this myriad of conditions, the one which we all share is human, and whether it be monstrous or cinematographic, harmony is the only way for them to co-exist.