ISSEI SAGAWA – “the Kobe Cannibal” – DEAD at 73

Issei Sagawa, a Japanese murderer known as the “Kobe Cannibal”, died of pneumonia on November 24 2022 at the age of 73. His funeral was attended only by relatives, with no public ceremony planned, according to a statement from his younger brother and the publisher of the brother’s 2019 memoir.

In 1981, 32 year old Sagawa, then a Japanese exchange student, murdered a young Dutch woman, Renée Hartevelt, a fellow student at the Paris Sorbonne, then raped, mutilated, and cannibalised her corpse over two days.

After that, he cut up her remains and packed them into two large suitcases, called a taxi and tried to drop the cases off in a park in the middle of Paris. He fell asleep in the park (eating too much meat can have that affect) and someone opened one of the cases. Sagawa walked calmly away, but within four days, the police tracked Sagawa through the taxi driver, and he confessed immediately. In his refrigerator and on his dining table, they found a large quantity of human flesh.

Sagawa was declared insane, but his father employed an influential French lawyer to argue, 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 being that he could never come back to France. He could not be prosecuted in Japan because the French had sealed the case files after the murder charge had been dropped. He spent 18 months in a Japanese mental hospital but then checked himself out, and has been free ever since.

There is a comprehensive study of the case in the documentary THE CANNIBAL WHO WALKED FREE, which I reviewed in this blog in February – you can read it here. It contains a link to the documentary on YouTube.

Another fascinating documentary which looks more closely into the psyche of both Sagawa and his brother through interviews (sometimes disturbingly close-up ones) is CANIBA, made by two artists/anthropologists in 2017. I reviewed that in May, and you can read it here. It has a link to the production site where you can buy the DVD should you be so inclined.

The French philosopher Georges Bataille is widely quoted on the Internet as saying

“A kiss is the beginning of cannibalism.”

I hate to be a party pooper, but there is no evidence of Bataille ever saying this. Nonetheless, the concept makes sense. Sex is a very oral experience – from passionate kissing to cunnilingus and fellatio, much of foreplay consists of licking, tasting and biting. Even non-sexual love often involves phrases such as “I could just eat you up.” Cannibals like Armin Meiwes and Jeffrey Dahmer ate their victims to keep them close. Sagawa did the same, claiming he loved Renée.

Sagawa, with a massive inferiority complex based around his conviction that he was small and ugly, saw a bullet in the neck as his only way he would ever have sexual experiences with a live partner, particularly a beautiful young woman who seemed totally out of his league. Murder in such a belief system must have seemed like a form of courtship, and cannibalism a way to keep her with him forever. For forty years, he has done just that, living off his notoriety, making films, appearing in torture porn, writing books and comics (from which the drawings in this blog are taken), and even reviewing restaurants for foodie magazines.

Sagawa appears in the documentaries mentioned above (and several others I have not yet reviewed) as a repulsive, sick individual, but never as repulsive and sick as he firmly believed himself to be.