The Cannibal that Walked Free (AKA Cannibal Superstar) is a British documentary produced by Visual Voodoo for Channel Five which explores the case of Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa. It uses dialogues with police and psychiatrists and, most intriguingly, extensive interviews with the cannibal himself.
Sagawa murdered a young Dutch woman, Renée Hartevelt, a fellow student at the Paris Sorbonne, then mutilated, cannibalised, and performed necrophilia on her corpse over two days.
The mellow voice of the narrator, Struan Rodger (Chariots of Fire), announces:
“This man murdered and ate a woman in Paris… he has never stood trial. Today he walks the Tokyo streets a free man, a free man with an ongoing appetite for human flesh.”
Around midnight on June 13 1981, 32 year old the Japanese exchange student, Issei Sagawa, emerged from his apartment at 10 Rue Erlanger in the 16th arrondissement of Paris with two large suitcases, hailed a taxi and travelled the short distance to the Bois de Boulogne. His hopes that the park would be empty at night were in vain, and several witnesses saw this 4’9” (145cm) smartly dressed Asian man trying to drag two large suitcases to the lake. Worn out (and probably full of meat), Sagawa fell asleep on a bench and woke to find an old man opening one of the cases. When the old man began to scream, Sagawa walked calmly away.
The police found that someone had removed flesh from parts of the body. During the autopsy, they discovered there had been post mortem sexual intercourse – necrophilia.
Within four days, the police tracked Sagawa through the taxi driver, and he confessed immediately. In his refrigerator, they found a large quantity of human flesh.
On the table was a plate with pieces of cooked human flesh, condiments and mustard.
The case was reported globally with the press expressing horror and disbelief. Patrick Duval, Author Le Japonais Cannibal interviewed Sagawa for several hours.
Sagawa said that the feelings began when he was very young: “I was very weak, very ugly, like a small monkey.” He described as an important memory from his childhood a game in which his uncle would play a ravenous cannibal, out to gobble up Issei and his brother.
As he grew up, he felt unable to attract the kind of women that he desired:
“Object of my desire is definitely the white girl, beautiful blonde hair, blue eyes.”
Jean-Pierre Van Geirt – a journalist from Paris Match, said “Sagawa was deeply in love with Renée, and his love was so mad that he thought the most he could love her was to eat her.”
Sagawa had invited the young student to his apartment to discuss literature. He said he asked Renée to read a German language poem he had chosen, a poem about cannibalism, and that she was unaware that he was standing behind her, holding a rifle. He shot her in the back of the neck.
“I had decided before that the first bite would be the buttocks. I was able to cut through the skin, I’m a fool so I didn’t have a clue about human body structure. I thought that red flesh would appear straight away but it wasn’t like that, and this layer that was like sweet corn just carried on for ages, however deep I cut through. I couldn’t reach with my knife so I ripped out the flesh with my fingers and put it in my mouth. After I had sex with her, I tried to kiss her I said out loud I love you, in French. And I felt a huge shiver.”
He had a tape recording of the murder and a camera with which had recorded the stages of what he did to Renée after her death; police found both in his apartment after his arrest. He had also saved a good deal of her flesh in his fridge, before packing up her remains in two suitcases.
Just 34 months after his confession, Sagawa would be a free man. Found to be insane and unfit to stand trial in France, his father employed an influential French lawyer who argued successfully that it was unfair for the French taxpayer to pay for indefinite confinement in a mental hospital, and that he should be sent back to Japan to be cured. Accordingly, less than three years after his confession, Sagawa was put on a plane and sent back to Japan. The only condition was that he could never come back to France. He spent 18 months in a Japanese mental hospital but then checked himself out, and has been free ever since.
The interviewers tracked down his psychiatric report: it said
“He was hung up by his height, not self-assured, over-sensitive and most of all emotionally cold and self-satisfied when he talked about the murder. Someone who is capable of feeling guilty wouldn’t commit such an act. You have to be completely devoid of some human emotions. Among which is the sharing of the universal taboo of cannibalism.”
The interviewer visited Sagawa’s Tokyo apartment where he lives under a false name and found him enjoying Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – the second movement, popularised in the film Clockwork Orange. He claims that he wept for the victim’s family and for his family, who were devastated – his father lost his high-powered job, his mother attempted suicide.
Despite his alleged distress, in the mid-1980s he wrote a book “In the Fog”, against the express wishes of both his and Renée’s family. It is the story of his crime, written from his perspective. It sold out. He wrote a further 19 books about his crime, became a columnist in magazines, joined a symposium at a Japanese university and appeared in two stage shows, finally appearing in torture porn, including recreations of his crime, using tall, Western actresses.
Under his false name, he told the interviewer, he meets up with Western sex workers.
“My final desire is just the same – when I see all the beautiful girls’ legs, I want to eat. So I’m not cured at all.
But now, I’m not interested in at all the white women. I hate them. I found that Japanese women are the most beautiful in the world.”
Sagawa now feels the urge to cannibalise young Japanese women.
At the programme’s request, Sagawa agreed to attend his first psychiatric assessment in over ten years. In the documentary, he tells the Criminal Psychiatrist, Dr Susumu Oda:
“My libido and appetite are connected. This is very important. For instance, you see the beautiful girls on the train in summer, and you see their legs, don’t you. I think they look delicious.”
He says that he masturbates to make his feelings disappear.
“A child suckles on his mother’s breast. A child survives eating breasts. So it is not that strange that a child would want to eat something he loves.”
Sagawa was small, weak and spoiled, so he never learnt to suppress those desires.
“Deep down, he doesn’t regret what he has done. He has a tendency to slowly turn the other person into an object. I think this is very dangerous.”
The doctor’s conclusion:
Freud maintained that there are two “pregenital” forms of sexual organisation in very young children not yet predominantly motivated by their genital zones. The first of these he called “oral-sadistic” or “cannibalistic”, in which sexual activity is not separated from ingestion (the second was “sadistic-anal”), and he suggested that these were “harking back to early animal forms of life”. In this “cannibalistic” stage, “the object that we long for and prize is assimilated by eating and is in that way annihilated as such.” It is not surprising, therefore, that Sagawa wanted to eat his ideal woman, and he made a particular point of eating her breasts.
“Too Much Blood”, a song on the Rolling Stones‘ 1983 album Undercover, is about Sagawa and violence in the media. His crime also inspired the Stranglers‘ 1981 song “La Folie”. The Noise Black Metal band Gnaw Their Tongues released an EP titled Issei Sagawa in 2006.
The documentary is available in full on Youtube at the time of writing. The link is at the top of this blog.
A more recent look at Sagawa is the 2017 documentary Caniba.