The Godfather of Cannibalism : Issei Sagawa

“This must sound rich coming from me,” explains the Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa to Vice Magazine in 2009, “but the moment the girl became a corpse, I realized that I had lost an important friend and even regretted killing her… my ultimate intention was to eat her, not necessarily to kill her.” The man widely known as “the Godfather of Cannibalism” is a man that is noticeable for many things: he is well-articulate, unapologetic, a free man, a cultural icon, and, of course, a cannibal. Without reducing a civilization and its culture to crude generalizations, elements of Japanese culture appears restraint to outsiders on the exterior; a culture based on a tradition of hierarchy and respect. The use of the word “appearance” is misleading; that suggests that these characteristics are a mere façade. That it is not accurate. However, lapses in this repressed system do show in unique and unabashed forms – Japanese society’s absurd fascination with school girl panties, sadistic game shows, or even the elevation of an unapologetic cannibal into a popular iconography.

Issei Sagawa

Issei Sagawa

In 1981, Issei Sagawa launched into popular imagination for being responsible for what the Japanese know as Pari jinniku jiken – the Paris Human Flesh Incident. As an exchange student in France, he wished to make his life-long dream come true of eating human flesh. In his words: “It was in the first grade of elementary school when I saw the quivering meat on a male classmate’s thighs and I suddenly thought, “Mmm, that looks delicious.” As is typical of cannibal killers, he described himself as socially awkward and viewing himself to be physically inadequate. Unlike other cannibal killers, his tone when he speaks of his crime is not rooted in anger or anxieties – it is calm, reassured, and unapologetic. What occurred in Paris began with an obsession with a Dutch classmate, Renée Hartevelt. During a poetry reading session with her at his residence, Issei Sagawa shot Renée Hartevelt and spent the next two days dissecting and eating her parts. Ultimately, as he went to dispose of the body, he was caught and taken into custody. Viewed to be mentally unfit to stand trial, he was deported back to Japan to the Matsuzawa mental hospital in Tokyo. Less than 15 months later, thanks to his influential father, this Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa was a free man without facing any prosecution.

Renee Hartevelt

Renee Hartevelt

In the years following his release, Sagawa took pride in his taste for the human flesh. He wrote best-selling books, such as his first text named “In the Fog” which describes his murder in horrifying details the step-by-step process of how he devoured Renée Hartevelt, as well as his recommendation for how to eat human flesh (he went for the buttocks first). He became a painter, with his favorite subject being, unsurprisingly, the buttocks of females. Issei Sagawa became the source of inspiration for songs and films. With disappointingly little scrutiny, he had become a figure viewed to be more comical, rather than disturbed. Indeed, he was also hired to write restaurant reviews for a Japanese magazine.

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Apologists of Issei Sagawa argue that, although a cannibal killer, he is only a one-timer; a man who was driven not by malice or personal insecurities, but by overwhelming curiosity.

The cannibal stories told  popularly use Issei to demonstrate its lighter side, as he himself as starred in soft-core pornographic films which mirror cannibalistic themes. The absurdity of the situation is only matched by its creepiness. Though secondary to the theme of human cannibalism, the reality is that Issei Sagawa got away with murder.


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