June 13, 1981, Paris, France: A couple is enjoying the warm summer evening at the Bois de Boulogne, one of Paris’ largest and oldest parks. They are strolling near the Lac Inférieur, the largest of the park’s many lakes, when they notice something strange.
A taxi pulls over into a side road just ahead of them, and a small Asian man gets out. The driver helps him retrieve two large, heavy bags from the trunk. The man then begins dragging the bags into the park. The couple watches in fascination as he changes course, apparently headed towards the lake.
Then the man finally seems to realize that he is being watched. He looks at the couple, then slides the bags under some bushes before walking away. Intrigued, the couple approaches the bags to see what’s inside. Once they open the first bag, they are in for a shock: inside is the bloody, mutilated torso of a woman.
The police are called and quickly take custody of the bags. Inside the second bag are the victim’s head and limbs. Clearly the small man was trying to dump this body in the lake and panicked when he saw he was being watched.
The remains are taken in for an autopsy. Once on the table, her body tells the story of a grisly crime.
The woman had suffered a gunshot wound to her neck, which was the cause of her death. But that wasn’t all: her body was mutilated extensively, with large pieces of her legs, breasts, and buttocks cut away. An exam would reveal that someone had had sex with her corpse over the course of about two days.
Meanwhile, the police go about tracking down the small Asian man who had been interrupted dumping her remains. Through the taxi company, they find the driver who had taken the fare. He told police he had picked the man up at an expensive apartment building on Rue Erlanger, in the upscale, tony district of Auteuil. He also told police that when he loaded the heavy bags into the trunk of his taxi, he jokingly asked the man if they contained a body. He said the man told him they were books.
Looking at the apartment building’s tenants shows there is only one Asian man living there, and he matches the witnesses’ description perfectly: 32-year-old Issei Sagawa, a Japanese student studying literature at the Sorbonne.
Only 48 hours after his botched attempt to dump the body, Sagawa is arrested at his apartment without incident. On his table, they find a partially eaten meal of vegetables and human flesh. Inside his refrigerator, police find more pieces of human flesh, carefully wrapped so as to be eaten later.
Under questioning, Sagawa confesses readily. The victim’s name, he tells police, is Renée Hartevelt, a Dutch classmate of his at the Sorbonne. He had been attracted to her for some time, he tells them, and he would get aroused just thinking about eating her flesh — especially her buttocks. He killed her, he confesses, solely in order to eat her.
He tells police that he had attempted to kill her a few times before, but had chickened out at the last minute. This time, he had steeled himself, vowing to follow through with his twisted plan. Knowing Hartevelt was fluent in German, he invited her over to his apartment by asking her to read a German poem — about cannibalism — so that he could record it for a class.
Sagawa says that while she was reading the poem with her back turned to him, he aimed his .22 rifle at her neck and pulled the trigger. He says she fell forward and a large pool of blood began spreading across the floor. He says that he fainted then.
When he came to, he tells police, he was so sexually aroused that he undressed her and tried to chew through her buttocks. But he couldn’t bite through her skin. He says he tried cutting through it, but the knives he owned weren’t big enough for the job, so he left and bought a butcher knife.
He describes how he cut Hartevelt’s body up and ate some of it raw, sometimes biting the meat off with his teeth. He describes how he cooked some of her body parts and ate them — how he enjoyed the taste of her thighs and hip, but not her breast. He also took pictures of Hartevelt’s body at each stage of mutilation.
He admits to having sex with her corpse multiple times.
There is no doubt that Sagawa is guilty of murdering Hartevelt. However, because the French will not try a person who is ruled insane, Sagawa is sent for a pre-trial psychiatric exam.
His exam reveals a twisted pathology going back decades.
Sagawa was born into a wealthy family in 1949, the younger of two sons. He was born prematurely and was so small, he fit into his father’s hand. He nearly died as an infant after a bout of enteritis, and would be small and sickly for the rest of his life.
Sagawa says that his family life was unremarkable, supportive, and loving. In fact, he may have been overprotected or even spoiled because of his frail health. The only fault Sagawa finds with his upbringing is that his parents were extremely secretive about sex. Because of his ignorance, when he first experienced an erection as a boy, he thought he might be ill. Sex and shame would be forever linked in his psyche.
Sagawa tells the court psychiatrist that he first began to fantasize about cannibalizing women around the age of 11. When he was attracted to a woman — always tall, blond white women — he would also get hungry for the taste of her flesh, particularly her thighs. He says this urge to eat the object of his desire is the ultimate expression of love, of wanting to consume them and make them a part of him. As time went on, the compulsion just seemed to grow within him.
He explains that he never wanted to kill anyone, only to eat them. The first time he attempted to bring his fantasy to life was when he was a 24-year-old student at Wako University in Tokyo. There was a blond German woman who lived nearby, and Sagawa became obsessed with her, stalking her until he found out where she lived. Then, one night, he broke into her apartment with the plan of hitting her over the head to knock her out. He believed he could then eat some of her flesh without killing her.
However, as he was breaking in, he awakened the woman, who immediately began screaming. The police came right away and arrested Sagawa for attempted rape. Sagawa did not tell them his real intentions. But his father was able to use his wealth and influence to cover up his son’s crime.
Sagawa says that he tried to get help with his obsession. When he was only 15, he called a psychiatrist and confessed his terrible urges, but the doctor insisted that Sagawa needed to come into his office. He was too ashamed to do so. Then, after the botched attack on the German woman, he went to another psychiatrist. This one stated that Sagawa was a public danger. However, nothing was done to put him away or even under supervision.
Instead, he continued his studies. He did very well academically, earning an MA from Wako University, then being accepted to the Sorbonne to study for his PhD.
Surrounded by so many beautiful, young white women, his cannibalistic urges grew harder to resist. While in Paris, he says that he had tried to kill several prostitutes in order to eat them, but couldn’t pull the trigger. As much as he wanted to consume Hartevelt, he says, he didn’t want to have to kill her. She had actually been a good friend to him, perhaps the only friend he had ever had.
But his compulsion was too strong to resist.
After their exams, the French court psychiatrists concluded that Sagawa was indeed insane, a sexual psychopath, and therefore unfit to stand trial. He was sent to an asylum for the criminally insane, where he was to be confined indefinitely.
Sagawa did not take his sentence well. As a well educated man from a wealthy family, he felt he did not belong with the other patients who were, as he put it, “deranged,” and would have preferred prison to the insane asylum.
But he made good use of his time, writing and illustrating a semi-autobiographical book as a form of therapy. Thanks to the infamy he gained because of his gruesome crime, he was approached by an author from Japan named Inihiko Yomota. Yomota convinced Sagawa to give him a copy of the book, then had the book published in Japan under the title In the Fog. The book, which included graphic details of the murder and cannibalizing of Hartevelt, became a best-seller in Japan, and Sagawa’s infamy transformed into fame.
Then, in 1984, Sagawa’s father was able to hire an influential attorney to ensure his return to Japan. Capitalizing on the French public’s unhappiness with having to support a criminal like Sagawa, the attorney convinced the French government to deport him back to Japan.
Sagawa arrived to a media frenzy. However, he could grant no interviews (yet); he was immediately taken by ambulance to Matsuzawa Hospital.
What the French government, and the public at large, didn’t know was that Sagawa was only admitted to Matsuzawa Hospital voluntarily; the ambulance and appearance of being taken into custody was little more than a press stunt designed to cover for the fact that Sagawa was now a free man.
Because he had been declared insane, the charges against him in France were sealed, so none of the paperwork could be released to Japanese authorities. Without the French case files, Japan had nothing to charge him with. After 15 months at Matsuzawa, Sagawa — a confessed murderer, cannibal, and necrophile — checked himself out and walked free.
After his release, the Japanese media treated Sagawa as a kind of eccentric celebrity. He was interviewed on numerous TV shows and magazines, where he spoke calmly about his crimes, describing in detail how he killed and cannibalized Hartevelt. He has been a guest commentator on TV shows, has appeared on game shows and cooking shows, and even worked as a freelance food critic. He has also starred in several porno films where he bites his co-stars.
Sagawa went on to write 19 more books, erotic graphic novels, not all of which deal with cannibalism. For a time, he was able to support himself with the royalties and fees for media appearances — along with a hefty inheritance after his parents died.
However, once his inheritance — and public interest — dried up, he was forced to live in public housing and draw welfare benefits. By 2013, his health was failing; he was diagnosed with diabetes and suffered two heart attacks. Then he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that forced him to use a wheelchair.
Now living in a suburb of Tokyo under an assumed name, Sagawa claims that although he still has the urge to eat beautiful women, he could not ever murder another human being.
In what is perhaps a small bit of poetic justice, last year Sagawa had to undergo a gastrotomy and now can only eat through a feeding tube.