Born in 1949, Japan’s Issei Sagawa has everything his wealthy family could provide for him. He is also highly intelligent, receiving his Ph.D. in literature at the age of 32 while studying in France. And he is a cannibal.
Issei Sagawa was a premature baby, small enough to fit in his father’s hand. He was a skinny, weak child and in first grade, he observed “the quivering meat on a male classmate's thighs and I suddenly thought, ‘Mmm, that looks delicious.’" From this point on Sagawa obsessed over eating human flesh. He also self-reports other fetishes, including bestiality with his dog as a child.
As he grew older, he became obsessed with tall, beautiful Western women. Sagawa grew to be less than five feet tall and, in his opinion, not particularly handsome or desirable; he believes this is why he is attracted to this type of woman.
|Issei Sagawa, Renee Hartevelt, and |
one of the suitcases
Sagawa’s obsession was initially just to bite, “to gnaw on their flesh.” He recognizes it as part of a sexual act and not as something affiliated with hunger. He also learned if he did not masturbate often, the urge to bite women, to "gnaw" them, would become stronger and stronger. He explains that cannibalism is an extension of wanting to be next to a woman, an extension of liking someone, wanting to see her, smell and kiss her. “The desire to (kiss) is based on primal urges.”
When he was 23 years old, in Tokyo, Issei Sagawa watched a tall German woman walking home. He broke into her apartment and, as she slept, sliced off a piece of her skin to consume. She awoke and managed to escape. He was caught and charged with attempted rape. Cannibalism was not suspected then, because Sagawa kept his secret.
At 32, Sagawa moved to France to earn his Ph.D. in literature at the Sorbonne. He would pick up prostitutes and try to shoot them from behind so he could consume their flesh, but could not make himself pull the trigger. Part of the reason was the realization that he would ruin his life by committing murder. He would later admit to picking up “hundreds” of prostitutes and fail in his attempts to kill, and that killing them became more about a “ritual” than about eating their flesh. The women never suspected there was a gun being pointed at their backs, never knew how close they were to dying.
While at the university he met a Dutch woman seven years his junior named Renee Hartevelt. They were good friends and study partners. Sagawa had invited Renee to his house numerous times, and she never realized he had pointed the gun to the back of her head, just as he had done with the prostitutes.
Finally, on the night of June 9, 1981, Issei Sagawa decided he had to murder Renee Hartevelt and eat her flesh. She came over to his house as planned. When she turned her back to him he snuck up behind her, raised the gun to
her head, and pulled the trigger. It misfired,
and he quickly put the gun away. Renee, unaware of the gun, happily agreed to
return in two nights “to work on a poetry assignment.” Again, Sagawa waited for
Renee to turn her back to him; he crept up behind her, raised the gun to her head,
and pulled the trigger. He would later say he regretted killing her and wished
he had asked her if he could just taste her because he preferred eating living
flesh and because he had lost a good friend by murdering her. It was best to
kill a stranger, someone he had not personalized.
|Police found Issei Sagawa had placed parts of |
Renee Hartevelt's organs on plates
Sagawa performed necrophilia with the corpse, and then ate the sex organs of the body, the tongue, breasts, face, and the neck. He tried to eat through the buttocks but found them too thick to chew through. He kept the corpse for a day, which made the meat “taste better.” The soles of the feet smelled bad, and because the victim was on her period, there were other body parts that smelled. “If you really want to feast, you should eat the thighs,” he would tell a reporter in 2018.
He packaged and froze some of the organs and body parts, leaving the head, legs, and torso. He stuffed these body parts into two suitcases and hailed a cab. The plan was to drop the suitcases into the Bois de Boulogne Lake but witnesses observed him and notified police. The suitcases were dripping blood, and Sagawa told the officers, “I killed her to eat her flesh.”
|Issei Sagawa circa 2009|
Sagawa’s wealthy family bought him the best defense lawyer. Police held him for two years in France and he was declared legally insane; therefore, he was exempt from prosecution. The French court documents were sealed so they were not available to Japanese courts. Sagawa was deported to Japan. Back in his home country, Sagawa was held in a mental institution until professionals declared him sane; thus, he could sign himself out of the institution. This he did in August 1986, and Issei Sagawa now walks the streets of Japan.
Sagawa’s fetish goes beyond cannibalism. He has explained a female friend gave him bottles of her urine and saliva to consume. After the woman gave birth, however, Sagawa became turned off. He began seeing her as a mother figure and he claims the urine became odiferous.
Does he still have the same urge to eat live human beings? In 2018 he asked Vice Reporter Tomokazu Kosuga, “Can you please call for people who would willingly be eaten by me in your magazine?” He also requested “any woman who wants to kill me to step forward” saying his dream would be to drown in female saliva.
Issei Sagawa remains in Japan and has worked as an author, a commentator, an actor, and has been featured in documentaries. He is in poor health and is cared for by a brother who has admitted perverse sexual fantasies of his own. Sagawa's new dream is to die at the hands of another cannibal.
“Caniba” (October 2018). A Norte Prods., Sensory Ethnography Lab production in association with Cineventure 3. (International sales: Elle Driver, Paris.) Producers: Valentina Novati, Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor.
Greenfest, Sara (April 17, 2018). ‘Issei Sagawa, the Japanese cannibal who still walks free.” Insider.
Kosuga, Tomokazu (January 1, 2009). “Who's Hungry?” Vice. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/7bwvvx/whos-hungry-502-v16n1
Morris, Steven (September 20, 2007). "Issei Sagawa: Celebrity Cannibal". New Criminologist, the On-line Journal of Criminology. New Criminologist.