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.

Cannibalism as eating disorder: FEED ME (2022)

So, the buzz for this movie is ‘Ted Lasso goes cannibal’. By that, they don’t imply we will need to sit through any football matches, but that there is going to be a lot of American “can-do” ardour, conflicting with British reticence and melancholy. Also some dark humour, and a whole lot of gore, which some may find objectionable. Consider yourselves warned.

Feed Me is directed by Adam Leader and Richard Oakes (Hosts). XYZ Films released the horror-comedy on October 27 2022 on digital and on demand platforms. Feed Me follows Jed (Christopher Mulvin) whose life is shattered when his wife Olivia (Samantha Loxley) suddenly dies, leaving him feeling guilty. The blurb says:

“Spiralling into an abyss of depression, he finds himself in a bar with a deranged cannibal, Lionel Flack (Neal Ward) who convinces him he can redeem himself through the glorious act of allowing himself to be slowly eaten to death.”

Suicide, usually unassisted, is sadly common in modern society, and besides making the relatives wretched, it is also an enormous inconvenience to the police, medics and trauma-cleaners who have to deal with it. So why not benefit someone – the local cannibal who promises a painless death that will not require housekeeping, because he will eat the resulting mess? Jed moves in with Lionel, whose tiny house is filthy and full of body parts. But Jed is ready, eager to die, and Lionel is tremblingly eager to eat him.

Cannibalism, particularly vorarephilia (the erotic desire to consume or be consumed by another) can be seen as a type of eating disorder, particularly in cases where there are other foods readily available, but if that is the case, so can any form of carnivory. The film starts and finishes with such reflections – Jed’s wife is a beautiful young woman who is convinced she is fat and ugly, and eventually dies from the effects of bulimia – she starves herself and vomits out whatever nourishment she does eat, until her body closes down.

As Jed explains it, her mental illness meant that she “was eaten from the inside out.” Lionel’s solution is that, if Jed is determined to kill himself, he should do it from the outside in.

Lionel quotes some fake anthropology – a tribe called the Yiurkun who, he says, live in perpetual happiness,

His offer (and there is a written contract involved) is to eat Jed, quickly and painlessly, so he can join his beloved. Why not, Jed thinks, since Olivia has effectively (in his dreams) eaten his heart?

Lionel starts small – local anaesthetic, one finger chopped off with secateurs and carefully cooked, the wound cauterised with a hot clothes iron. “How do you feel?” Lionel asks.

But of course you can’t eat a whole person one finger at a time, and it’s not long before Lionel is removing limbs, but now without anaesthetic, because he gets mad at Jed.

Lionel says he has heard that

“some cultures believe that torturing the animal alive improves the taste and quality of the meat.”

This is not an invention of the director – it’s well known that dogs and cats and other animals are often beaten or burnt or at least made to watch the death of other animals, to make the terror and agony generate adrenalin, which is supposed to add flavour. Astonishingly, Hillary Clinton was accused of doing the same to small children. Other politicians have had the same accusations hurled at them. While these are almost certainly nonsense, it is true that almost every one of the seventy billion land animals humans eat each year will go through extremely painful ordeals, and all of the trillions of sea creatures. Jed is just one more animal in agony.

When the neighbour calls police about all the screaming going on, Lionel invites them in and feeds them some of his “mild veal”.

The enjoyment of food depends largely on what we believe about it. The actor playing the cop is probably in fact eating a piece of veal. His character, the cop, believes he is indeed eating veal. The audience, us, suspends disbelief so we can imagine that he is actually eating part of Jed’s leg. This turns the meal from gourmet to horror – a simple change of species, entirely within our imagination. The title, FEED ME, challenges the assumption that food will be prepared and served with our preconceptions catered for – it will be tasty and uncontroversial. In this society, eating a baby cow who wanted to live is praiseworthy; eating a man who wants to die is horrific.

The title reminded me of a foodie show called “Somebody Feed Phil” which sees writer and producer Phil Rosenthal (Everybody Loves Raymond) travelling around the world eating huge dishes of food while adding no weight to his irritatingly slim frame. In a recent episode, Phil lands in Madrid and apologises to a suckling (newborn) pig –

“you’re very cute, but I’m going to eat you.”

Most cannibals, like carnivores everywhere, do not usually have their victim’s permission, and usually do not apologise either, although they may feel some cognitive dissonance, knowing that their meal required the suffering and slaughter of the animal whose flesh is involved. Phil didn’t kill the new-born baby pig, but did apologise for eating him. Jeffrey Dahmer killed seventeen men and boys and also didn’t apologise (until it was far too late). The closest parallel to the plot of this film (the trailer above states it was “inspired by true events”) is the true case of Armin Meiwes, who advertised for a man who wished to be killed and eaten, had dinner and sex with the only genuine respondent, and then killed and ate him. He felt there was no apology needed, since Jorgen Brandes had wanted, indeed demanded, to be eaten. So it is with Lionel, who offers to kill and eat Jed, and then slowly and gradually makes good on his promise.

Neal Ward plays Lionel as an over the top, twitchy, verbose American con-man, the kind of man we like to think serial killers and cannibals look like, because that would make them easy to spot. Yet the essence of the real modern cannibal is his (or sometimes her) completely normal and unremarkable appearance – they walk among their peers, unknown and unidentified until their arrest (if they are ever found). Neighbours, for example, praised Meiwes as a nice young man who would mow the lawn for them. Issei Sagawa was so small and apparently innocuous that the young woman he killed and ate had been happy to come to his apartment to read poetry together.

The tagline for this movie is

“You are who you eat…”

The concept is interesting – if you are who/what you eat, do you want to eat pigs or chickens or sheep, all of whom are used, quite unjustly, as common insults (for gluttons, cowards or mindless followers). If you are what you eat, Lionel tells us, you should eat humans.

The anthropologist Marvin Harris wrote in his book Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture that, while humans are clearly not obligate carnivores, “our species-given physiology and digestive processes predispose us to learn to prefer animal foods”. This presents a problem for him, since “strictly speaking, human flesh itself contains the highest-quality protein that one can eat”. Lionel’s pathology stems from his calculating, impeccable logic.

The film is a fascinating study of love, loss, despair, friendship, loneliness and appetite. The gore is perhaps a bit over the top, but no longer unusual in modern films. The acting, despite what other reviewers have said, is great and the story compelling. Neal Ward plays Lionel as both a monster and a clown, a hard role to portray, but he is, in the end, seeking the same as all of us – self-acceptance, love, a validation of his humanity, and a good meal.

Issei Sagawa, in your face: CANIBA (2017)

In 1987, Japanese student Issei 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 a period of two days.

Sagawa was declared insane in France and returned to Japan, where he could not be tried for murder as no evidence had been sent by the French. A free man, he became something of a celebrity, making torture porn movies, selling paintings (many of them nudes), writing books and manga showing his crime, and even becoming a food critic. The fascination so many people feel with the life and crimes of Issei Sagawa is shown by the number of documentaries made about him:

  • Cannibal Superstar (Viasat Explore, Sweden, 1986, 47 minutes)
  • Excuse Me for Living (Channel 4, UK, 1993, 60 minutes)
  • The Cannibal That Walked Free (Channel 5, UK, 2007, 46 minutes)
  • Interview with a Cannibal (Vice, US, 2011, 34 minutes)

And, most recently, this one: Canniba, made by two artists/anthropologists, Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Unlike the more standard documentaries which deal in psychoanalytic speculations and dramatic narration, this one is an extreme close-up of the cannibal himself, in his declining years. The only characters shown are Sagawa himself, his brother Jun and a young woman carer, who is inappropriately dressed in a maid’s uniform and happily tells him zombie stories as she prepares him for bed. Sagawa was hospitalized in 2013 from a cerebral infarction, which permanently damaged his nervous system, and due to this and severe diabetes is largely unresponsive through most of the filming, becoming animated only when discussing his murder of Renée. Jun sums his brother up:

“Cannibalism is really very much nourished by fetishistic desire. The desire to lick the lips of your lover, and things like that, are based on primal urges. Cannibalism is just an extension of that. Both extremes exist within him. Cannibalism is a totally different world for him.”

The film seems to ask us to consider our own fetishes (you don’t have any? That would make you unique) and asks whether we are repulsed by Sagawa’s acts, or by the abjection in ourselves which he forces us to confront.

The first thirty minutes are a gruelling close-up of the two men – Issei and Jun and their desultory interactions, with the camera so close you can see every pore, except when it (blessedly) goes out of focus. Issei is largely catatonic, staring sightlessly as we, in turn, stare in extreme close-up at his face, which looks almost like a death mask. The only signs of animation are when he is offered chocolate, of which he seems inordinately fond, perhaps as a substitute for the human flesh he so craved. Probably not great for his diabetes, but we’re not really hoping for a happy ending to this story.

Unable to see a future, Issei dwells on the past. He remembers his mother telling him in graphic detail about falling down some stairs in a department store and miscarrying.

From this glimpse of the behavioural background to his subsequent actions, we are suddenly catapulted to a clip of a much younger Issei in a porn film, biting a woman’s buttocks, as he did to the dead victim, then being urinated on and finally masturbated by her.

The horror of his ruined visage is contrasted to the prudish pixilation of the debauchery.

If we haven’t walked out by now, as many of the audience did at the early screenings in the Toronto and Venice film festivals, we are then treated to his commentary, now quite animated, on his manga – a comic-book format showing his murder, rape and cannibalisation of the young woman. His brother tut-tuts throughout, saying he doesn’t want to see such things, while Issei explains what he did, and what it meant to him.

“For a hideous person like me, she was out of reach.”

A bullet in the back of her neck was the only way he could think of to bring her into his reach.

“Finally the thing I was craving to eat was right in front of me! The stench doesn’t matter. I started with the richest part of her right buttock.”

The murder and cannibalism turned a shy, diminutive man-child into a fierce Samurai, in his own mind.

He describes the eating the flesh (the harvesting of which is shown in detail in the manga) as “an historical moment!” For that brief time, the woman was entirely his, and what Derrida called carnivorous virility gave him an absurd sense of masculine power as he “dominated” the woman’s corpse for his sexual and gastronomic pleasure.

There’s heaps more, but you’ll have to watch the film or get the manga – my blog has its limits.

The film then disconcertingly lurches into home movies of the two men when they were cute little boys.

We are not given a commentary, but we know from other accounts that their uncle would dress up as a cannibal and capture them for his cooking pot. The psychoanalysts would eat that up, but we should consider that many of us are chased by various demented relatives in our childhood games without going on to become monsters in their likeness.

Issei’s brother Jun, now his carer, appears as the sane one in the family, but we are quickly disabused of that as we see his own self-abuse – he likes to wrap his arms in barbed wire, and cut his arms with knives. Everyone needs a hobby I guess. Issei is not impressed – compared to shooting a woman from behind and then having sex with the body and eating parts of it, a bit of cutting would seem fairly tame to him.

Finally we meet the carer, a young, attractive women dressed as a maid. This is actually Satomi Yôko, an actress playing a maid playing a carer, a further jolt to our fragile sense of reality. She giggles over Issei, telling him, as he stares into her breasts (a particular fetish of his):

She asks him if he wants to cosplay a zombie, and tells him a convoluted story about a zombie woman who eats the old man who keeps her in chains, a reversal of his history, and another fetish of Issei’s, who early in the film says “I want to be eaten by Renée.” She tells him:

“For the zombie to survive, I have to keep eating live humans… I’m alive, but I can’t be with normal humans.”

It’s a perfect summation for the fate of Issei Sagawa.

The only soundtrack is at the very end, The Stranglers’ 1981 song “La Folie” (“madness”) which concerned Sagawa’s crime.

It’s in French, but the partial translation is:

He was once a student
Who strongly wanted, like in literature,
His girlfriend, she was so sweet
That he could almost eat her
Rejecting all vices
Warding off all evils
Destroying all beauty

The film managed 53% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, while the New York Times called the movie “an exercise in intellectualized scab-picking.” IndieWire summed up:

“Caniba” ranks among the most unpleasant movies ever made, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it.

There is another review of an earlier Sagawa documentary, The Cannibal That Walked Free on my blog. The film Caniba is available, if you are so inclined, from https://grasshopperfilm.com/film/caniba/

Serving your crew: DREAD HUNGER (eight-player cannibalism game)

Imagine you are trapped on a ship surrounded by ice in the Arctic, and some of your friends might actually not be whom they seem. Dread Hunger, a New Zealand computer game in which players can cannibalise their friends, has become a huge success, mainly in China.

I usually blog about cannibal movies here, or news stories about cannibalism when they break. This is the first game I have covered, although I am waiting to see the game “Borneo: A Jungle Nightmare” which is due for release this year – it is scripted and directed by Ruggero Deodato, who brought us one of the seminal cannibal movies in 1980: CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. This game was originally going to have the same title, but is not a remake (in game form) of the original, but more like fourth in Deodato’s cannibal saga. Due out sometime in 2022.

Anyway, back to DREAD HUNGER! When the Christchurch company, Digital Confectioners, released the game earlier this year, they were hoping they might reach 10,000 players in the US. To their surprise, they found that more than 260,000 people in China play the game every day. Due to time zones, says Director Sam Evans, the demand is mostly between the hours of 12.30am and 5am New Zealand time (which for computer nerds is a fairly normal operating time).

Dread Hunger is a survival game set during an Arctic exploration in 1847-48. Players can build fires, fight off wolves, and hunt for food, including, sometimes, human flesh from their shipmates.

There are various weapons, and the players can also “pick up severed heads and limbs and use them to kill.”

One of the strategies is:

Betray Your Friends
Feed them tainted food, lure animals to attack them, hex them with blood magic, or if all else fails… just shoot them in the back.”

The game has become a target of hackers, including DDOS attacks and “cheats” where hackers find a loophole in the game code they can exploit to give players an unfair advantage.

Dread Hunger has just passed 1 million copies sold, a figure Evans called “insane”. The graphics are splendid and, well, graphic.

This has led to some new, if profitable, challenges.

“The American market largely treats games like a product. They buy the game, they play the game on average 10-15 hours over a few weeks, then they move on. But in China when they find a game they like, they play it for hundreds of hours, for years and years. This forced us to treat the game like a service. We now have to focus on continual development and regularly updating the game to add more cool features over time.”

The game is mainly based on the 1845 expedition of 129 men led by explorer Sir John Franklin, which left Britain for the Canadian Arctic in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. Their ships, the H.M.S. Erebus and the H.M.S. Terror never returned.

Rumours that the crew resorted to cannibalism have swirled around the doomed expedition since the nineteenth century. Evidence suggests that Franklin’s crew may have not only consumed the flesh of deceased compatriots, but also cracked their bones, to eat the marrow inside. In 1854, interviews with local Inuits described piles of human bones, cracked in half.

In 1864, Sir Edwin Landseer‘s painting Man Proposes, God Disposes caused a stir at the Royal Academy exhibition for its depiction of two polar bears, one chewing on a tattered ship’s ensign, the other gnawing on a human ribcage. Cannibalism did not get a mention – yet. 

More recently, in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers recovered remains of the crew on King William Island. Knife marks on the bones backed up early accounts of human cannibalism. A newer analysis of 35 bones by anthropologists Simon Mays and Owen Beattie suggests that the men did indeed eat each other. The bones showed signs of breakage and heating—indicating that the crew members probably cooked them to extract the marrow. Mays and Beattie published their results in 2015 in the International Journal of Osteology.

Horror writer Dan Simmons‘s 2007 book The Terror was developed as a 2018 AMC television series also called The Terror. The expedition has, over the years, taken on the mythic value to the British that the Donner Party holds in the USA.

One of the lines from the launch trailer (above):

“I have heard it said that this land can change a man. Turn him into a beast. Well, to that I would say—men were always beasts. Some you see, well, they’re just better at hiding it than others.”

Dread Hunger is what is called in games parlance a “social deduction game”. This is a category of game in which players attempt to uncover each other’s hidden role or team allegiance. It’s an ideal formula for a population who never know quite who the agents of their government might be. And also an ideal cannibalism game for the recent history of man-eating, in which the cannibals like Albert Fish, Jeffrey Dahmer, Issei Sagawa and Armin Meiwes all appeared as very ordinary, normal neighbours.

We all need to do some social deductions, it seems.

Issei Sagawa: THE CANNIBAL THAT WALKED FREE (Toby Dye, 2007)

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.

Oda reported:

“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.

“…we are all potential cannibals”: SERIAL KILLERS: THE REAL LIFE HANNIBAL LECTERS (Sean Buckley, 2001)

This is an American documentary about serial killers, but specialising in those who ate parts of some of their victims. I guess that makes it inevitable that they will throw the name Hannibal Lecter in there, even though the similarities are not immediately apparent.

There are a lot of documentaries about cannibals, some mostly interested in sensationalism, and others seeking some sort of journalistic accuracy. This is one of the better ones, with a good selection of experts commenting on the various cases.

Cannibals, and particularly cannibal serial killers, are a real problem for the media. The difficulty comes from the scepticism that journalists need to cultivate in interpreting a world of stories that are stranger than fiction, or sometimes are fiction disguised as fact, or just fiction that people want to believe. Cannibal books and films fall into the horror genre and are usually lumped together with vampires, zombies, ghouls and other strange monsters out of their creators’ nightmares. So cannibals are a problem.

Cannibals are real. Many cannibals have had their activities thoroughly documented, some are even willing to be interviewed. Jeffrey Dahmer gave a range of interviews in which he spoke openly of the way he lured young men and boys to his apartment in Milwaukee and drugged them, then drilled holes into their heads and injected acid, hoping to create compliant zombie lovers, or else strangled and ate them. Dahmer was killed by a fellow prisoner after serving only a tiny fraction of his sentence of 937 years imprisonment.

But others are still alive – Armin Meiwes is in prison in Germany for eating a willing victim whom he met on the Internet and has willingly given interviews revealing his deepest passions, and he even gets out on day release from time to time. Another documentary reviewed on this site a couple of years ago compared him to, yep, Hannibal Lecter.

Issei Sagawa was arrested in Paris for killing a Sorbonne classmate whose body he lusted after and then eating parts of her, but was not sent to prison as he was declared insane. When the asylum sent him back to Japan, he was released (the French didn’t send any evidence with him), and lives in Tokyo where he has made porn movies, written for cooking magazines, and yes, done interviews for unnerved journalists. There are at least three documentaries on him, which we will get to – eventually.

Documentaries like this one love to compare real-life cannibals, or the much wider field of serial killers, with the fictional character, Hannibal Lecter, “Hannibal the Cannibal”. The problem here is that the serial killers in this doco (or any that weren’t) are not very much like Hannibal. Actual modern cannibals are usually categorised as banal, normal-looking folks who under the polite surface are depraved psychopaths, while Hannibal is civilised, educated, rational, brilliant and independently wealthy. He is a highly respected psychiatrist (until his arrest) and remains a likeable protagonist to many readers and viewers, despite his penchant for murder and guiltless consumption of human flesh. He even introduces his own ethical guidelines: he prefers to eat rude people: the “free range rude” to quote another Hannibal epigram.

Much of the commentary in this documentary is by Jack Levin, a Criminologist with a rather distracting moustache, or perhaps a pet mouse that lives on his upper lip. He sums up the modern cannibal serial killer:

 “Many Americans when they think of a serial killer will think of a glassy-eyed lunatic, a monster, someone who acts that way, someone who looks that way. And yet the typical serial killer is extraordinarily ordinary. He’s a white, middle-aged man who has an insatiable appetite for power, control and dominance.”

The standard serial killer appears very ordinary indeed. According to the doco, 90% of serial killers are white males. Many serial killers, we are told, experienced a difficult childhood, abused emotionally, physically or sexually. Hannibal of course saw his sister eaten, and probably innocently joined in the meal, so I guess you might call that a difficult childhood. But of course many people have difficult childhoods (less difficult than Hannibal’s, one hopes) without becoming cannibals or serial killers. Many of these so-called “real life Hannibal Lecters” featured in this program were not even cannibals, such as John Wayne Gacy, who murdered at least 33 young men and boys, but did not eat them, and was not even vaguely similar to Hannibal in appearance, MO, or dining habits. Same with Ted Bundy, who also gets a segment. These killers killed because they enjoyed it – as an act of dominance. Serial killers, Levin tells us, get “high” on sadism and torture. Hannibal, on the other hand, just killed his victims the way a farmer might choose a chicken for dinner – slaughter the tastiest, fattest one, or else the one who has been annoying him.

 “There is much discussion as to whether cannibalism is an inherent characteristic in all human beings, our animal impulses, or whether cannibalism stems only from the minds of mad beasts such as some of the most prolific serial killers.” Richard Morgan, narrator.

Eventually, we get to the cannibals. First up is Andrei Chikatilo, the Russian cannibal who sexually assaulted, murdered, and mutilated at least fifty-two women and children between 1978 and 1990. Chikatilo, we are told, liked to cook and eat the nipples and testicles of his victims, but would never admit to eating the uterus – far too abject for his psychosis. Sigmund Freud and Julia Kristeva would find that fascinating.

 We look in some detail at Albert Fish, the “Gray Man” who tortured and killed probably fifteen children around the US at the beginning of the twentieth century. He mostly specialised in the children of the poor and people of colour, but was eventually caught because he ate a little white girl, causing the police to take the cases seriously at last.

A large section of the documentary is dedicated to Jeffrey Dahmer, perhaps the most famous of the modern real-life cannibals. Dahmer was not a sadist, disliking violence and suffering, so he did not really fit the description used in the doco, and was certainly no Hannibal.

The other experts wax lyrical about cannibals, such as author and psychiatrist Harold Schechter, who speculates that

Anthropological evidence seems to suggest that cannibalism was a kind of activity that our pre-human ancestors indulged in with a certain regularity, so I think there is probably some sort of innate impulse towards that kind of activity… serial killers act out very archaic, primitive impulses that clearly still exist on some very very deep level.”

Well, that’s definitely not Hannibal, the Renaissance man, who carefully considers each action and dispassionately stays several steps ahead of his pursuers. Jack Levin again:

“Any serial killer who cannibalises victims has broken one of the most pervasive and profound taboos in all of society. Psychologically, this means the killer has achieved the opposite of what he had hoped… in terms of ego, in terms of self-image, he has got to feel worse about himself.”

That certainly is not Hannibal!

But there are some interesting observations in this documentary if we set aside the obvious problems with the comparisons with Hannibal. Zombie flesh-eaters were first popularised in Night of the Living Dead which came out in 1968, what the documentary calls “the most murderous decade” – the 1960s, followed a few years later by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. People flocked to the cinema to see people being eaten because two Kennedys and MLK were assassinated and the brutal, unending Vietnam war was filling the television screens? Maybe so.

Levin tells us

Most people don’t see the difference between Hannibal Lecter and Jeffrey Dahmer. To the average person, there is no difference between fact and fantasy.

 Col. Robert K. Ressler, who founded the FBI Behavioural Sciences Unit (which makes him a real life Jack Crawford) points out that there are no serial killer psychiatrists, nor do serial killers normally become well integrated into the upper levels of society like Hannibal. So he’s not helping the Hannibal comparison at all. Nor is Levin, who points out that Dahmer was remorseful at his trial, and went out of his way to avoid inflicting pain, unlike most serial killers to whom the killing is a “footnote” to the main text – the torture of the victim. So Dahmer does not fit into the model of serial killer presented here, and he has nothing in common with Hannibal Lecter.

But author Richard Lourie, who wrote a book about Chikatilo, points out that we, the audience, really want to see the serial killer as a Nietzschean Übermensch (superman) – a brilliant criminal genius. He also tells us that Hannibal seems asexual, above the primal drives that motivate people like Chikatilo and Dahmer. Not entirely true of course, if you have read the end of the book Hannibal or read any of the Fannibals’ fan fiction which speculates on some juicy homoerotic episodes between him and Will.

But there is a point to all these rather painfully stretched comparisons between real serial killers and the fictional Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal, Leatherface, the Zombies, are all the inchoate faces of our nightmares, and horror stories are our way of understanding the terrors that fill the news sites. Hannibal is not typical of the real-life serial killer or cannibal, but remember that the apparently kindly old woman who wanted to eat Hansel and Gretel was hardly typical of the horrors of Europe at the time of famine and plague when the Grimms were writing their stories. Each is a facet of horror.

Schechter talks about the simplistic view that cannibalism is in itself “evil”. Which is actually worse, he asks, to torture and kill a person or to eat their flesh when they are dead, an act which can certainly do them no more harm? Indeed.

Levin sums up:

It could be argued that cannibalism as this ultimate form of aggression lurks within every one of us…. We have an aggressive part of ourselves, it’s part of basic human nature, and to that extent we are all potential cannibals.

A kind face, a deceptive smile, a gingerbread house or psychiatrist’s couch can sometimes be more terrifying than the sordid crime scenes left by Chikatilo, Dahmer and Fish. The seeming normality of Albert Fish, Andrei Chikatilo, Jeffrey Dahmer or Hannibal Lecter conceals something that we hide deep within our shadow selves.

The full documentary is available (at the time of writing) on YouTube.