August 22, 2014
Without a doubt, the most impressive meeting I ever had was with the Japanese Cannibal Issei Sagawa. In 1981, he murdered and cannibalized a Dutch woman named Renée Hartevelt in Paris, while he was a student at the Sorbonne. He invited her over to his apartment for dinner, with plans to translate German poetry for a class. What he did was shot her in the neck, killing her, and then carried out his plan to eat her. After having sex with the corpse, and for over two days, Sagawa ate various parts of her body. He was discovered by the police when he attempted to dump the mutilated body in a remote lake. The police later that day found parts of the body in his refrigerator.
After two years being held in Paris without trial, Sagawa was deemed legally insane and unfit to stand trial by French judge Jean-Louis Bruguière, who himself is quite an interesting character. As an investigating magistrate, he became famous for battling anti-terrorism, specifically the far-lett group Action Directe. He eventually captured the notorious terrorist Carlos (the Jackal). In 2007, he left his occupation as a magistrate to work and support the Nicolas Sarkozy presidential election. Meanwhile, Sagawa was admitted to a mental institution in France, but eventually the French authorities took the decision to have him extradited to Japan. Once he got to Japan, he was sent to Matsuzawa Hospital, where he was examined, and all the psychologists found him to be sane. The Japanese authorities found it impossible to detain him because the French declined to release the court documents on the case. Technically his case was dropped in France. Therefore on August 12, 1986, he checked himself out of the mental institution.
Sagawa’s interest in killing and eating the girl was because she was healthy and beautiful. He, on the other hand, is ugly and slightly deformed. He was quoted as saying that he is a "weak, ugly, and inadequate little man." By eating her, he claimed that he wanted to “absorb her energy.” Sagawa not only killed a girl, but also destroyed his family as well. He is from a wealthy and loving family, but due to his crime, the father and mother lost their wealth and standing in the Japanese community as well as ruining any hope or chance for his brother to obtain marriage. As for Sagawa, as a writer, he couldn’t find a publisher for his writing and has been rejected from over 500 different places of employment. When his parents died in 2005, he was not permitted to attend to their funeral. He did repay their creditors over time, and eventually moved into public housing. It was during this time when I met Sagawa.
My wife and our friend were invited over to his apartment for lunch. It was his birthday that day, and I was asked to go along. I have heard of him of course, but I was totally repelled at the thought of meeting him. Yet, at the same time, I was deeply intrigued with his narrative. Once Sagawa was released he became well-known as a person to interview, if one wants to know the inside brain of a psychotic killer. He could articulate his own crime as well, because he has full knowledge of what he did, and doesn’t blame society, parents, family for his crime. It is all due to his sexual fantasy as well as his self-hatred for himself due to his unhealthy body. He became such a celebrity in Tokyo, that he actually ended up as a food critic for Spa Magazine. Nothing can last occupation wise for him, and the only thing he does have, is his skill as a writer. He wrote two books on his crime. One volume is about the murder itself, and the second book, which I think I would find more interesting, is what happened afterwards. With great temptation, I agreed to go with my wife and friend to his house.
It took awhile to get to his two bedroom apartment in the Tokyo area. Through out the train trip, I was very nervous about meeting him, and even more so, because lunch was going to be served. Once I got there, the first thing I notice is that he had a “welcome” mat by the front door. I knocked, and he answered the door. My friend introduced me and my wife to him. We shook hands, and invited us in. After taking off our shoes, we were led to his front room, which was interesting. By his front table, I noticed a dog sleeping, because you can see it was breathing. It took me a minute or two to realize that this wasn’t a living dog, but a dog-sized doll that is always sleeping. That slightly un-nerved me. Once we took a place on his couch, he sat right by me. He was totally focused on me, because he wanted to speak English and he was very interested in the Obama campaign at the time. I thought to myself “I hope to God no one knows that he’s a Obama fan.”
There were about five or six people in the house, and it was a small birthday party for him. There was a discussion about food, and there was none in the house. It was agreed that everyone will go to the local market as well as the nearby KFC outlet and bring food back. I was told to stay in the house with Sagawa and keep him company. Once everyone left the house, and I heard the door shut behind them, I felt very uneasy with him. Sagawa is a very charming man, and he noticed my behavior, which I tried to hide, but obviously failing in doing so. He offered to give me a tour of his apartment. In his living room, he had a sizable collection of first edition copies of Yasunari Kawabata’s work. He told me that he went to the Soborne to hopefully translate his works into French. To this day, he has a passionate interest in Kawabata’s writings. Also he had a collection of 19th century French dolls, which were displayed all over the apartment. He then took me to his bedroom.
Sagawa had a lot of things in his bedroom. On the floor he had straight porn mags, and then when you look at his wall, he has images that are carefully curated in sections. First row was pictures of cats and dogs, but photographed with brightly colored bows around their necks. After that, a series of images of J-Pop female teen idols. They appear to have been carefully cut out of fan magazines. Then there is a section of the wall that is devoted to the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Basically prints of her underwater photographs. Also an autographed self-portrait of Leni, during her world war ll years, scribed to Sagawa. Then after that a series of photographed portraits of numerous German conductors. Sagawa has a great love for German orchestration and no surprise, is a huge fan of Wagner’s music. He's clearly not a fan of Debussy or a modernist like Stockhausen. Looking back now, I don’t think I have ever been to a more fascinating bedroom than Sagawa’s room. In one tiny area of his apartment, I caught the drift of his personality and passions.
Before the other guests came back, he told me that if “the crime” or “incident” didn’t happen, he more likely would be teaching at an all-girl university. When he told me that, I just froze. Thirty seconds later he said to me that unfortunately each student would disappear one-by-one. At that point, I was just trying to show no emotion on my face. He gently hit me on the shoulder, and said he was only kidding. To release his stress, he tells me that his humor is quite dark at times. Also he did so to make me feel more comfortable in his presence. The truth is, Sagawa at least that afternoon, was totally charming. Clearly he was interested in me due that I’m a publisher, and my wife did read his two books, and she told me that they were incredible.
What’s interesting to me about Sagawa is not the crime he committed, but what happens after such a hideous act of violence. After one crosses that line, how does one live. For me it is not a guilt issue or how society sees that person, but more of a situation where all your life you are led to a specific act, and once you have done it, how can one go back to a “normal” life. I think Sagawa clearly thought that once he got arrested, the narration will end there. But alas, life is so full of twist and turns, and it is difficult to navigate one’s fate or direction in a world that is clearly insane. For myself, I usually turn to George Herriman’s great comic strip “Krazy Kat, ” which is about a non-gender cat, a puppy who is a cop, and a no-good mouse. As the landscape changes on a consistent basis in the comic strip, I imagine Sagawa is too traveling in a world of his making, but in a world or landscape that consistently changes, due to its mood. What should have ended for him, to be frank didn't. Clearly and without a doubt, the most fascinating man I have ever met in person is Issei Sagawa