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True Crime in Culture: The Kobe Cannibal at large and the dark side of Manga


What responsibility do the arts have to be a moral gatekeeper when it comes to those who it chooses to celebrate? It’s a tricky question with endless multitudes to be considered. A self-certified cannibal, however, is not one of those. It should be self-evident that a man who acquired the rather literal nickname of the Kobe Cannibal should not be cherished as a creative force.

In 1981, Issei Sagawa, a 32-year-old literature student at the Sorbonne University in Paris, stood behind his fellow student and friend Renée Hartvelt. He raised a gun and fired, killing Hartvelt instantly. In the immediate aftermath, he raped her corpse and began cutting her open. He then proceeded to eat chunks of her body, mainly her pelvic region and buttocks. 

Two days later, he stuffed what remained into a suitcase and hailed a cab to a secluded park. The taxi dropped him off at the Bois de Boulogne and he headed towards a lake to dispose of the body. When witnesses saw that he was trailing a line of dripping blood from the suitcase they contacted the authorities and French police quickly apprehended him. He confessed straight away saying: “I killed her to eat her.”

Sagawa served two years in a French prison while he awaited trial. Therein he was deemed legally insane and sent to a mental institution. He was expedited to Japan to live out his days in a high-security hospital, but ultimately no sentence was handed out and he was free to leave whenever he wanted. He soon did. In 1986, five years on from the murder, he walked out into the Tokyo streets.

While the legality behind this apparent miscarriage of justice needs to be judiciously dissected from a lawful point of view, that is a separate matter entirely from what followed from an ethical standpoint. Sagawa, from that moment, was free to tell his story and he has been making a living from the grisly details of a crime beyond moral reconciliation ever since. 

As he has said over the years in many high-profile Manga depictions, books and talk show appearances – all of which have been glibly relished in as though his story is one of churlish and victimless fiction – he harbours no remorse for his crime and hopes to enact cannibalism once more. Oddly, rather than being condemned, his story seems to have been celebrated by culture at large. 

“I thought about calling an ambulance,” he said when recalling the aftermath of shooting Hartvelt. “But then I thought, ‘Hang on, don’t be stupid. You’ve been dreaming about this for 32 years and now it’s actually happening!’” Remarkably such remarks have been met with humoured amazement. In fact, while promoting a Manga novel, he once told such a tale while making his way through a bowl of chicken wings to ramp up the gory effect for the national television audience.

He even continues to describe hacking through the fat of her buttock. “The moment I saw the meat, I tore a chunk off with my fingers and threw it into my mouth. It was truly a historical moment for me,” he recalled. 

Without remorse, he has boldly recalled the details in what has oddly been classed as ‘art’ by certain commentators. “What I truly wished was to eat her living flesh. Nobody believes me, but my ultimate intention was to eat her, not necessarily to kill her.” Was one public remark that was met with interested head nobs, which would be one thing if it was the account of a man serving a sentence, but the fact that this interest was actually funding a cannibal profiting from his crime is another matter entirely.  

“It’s simply a fetish,” he once tried to explain. “For example, if a normal man fancied a girl, he’d naturally feel a desire to see her as often as possible, to be close to her, to smell her and kiss her, right? To me, eating is just an extension of that. Frankly, I can’t fathom why everyone doesn’t feel this urge to eat, to consume, other people.”

In a reversal of fate, it is not only how culture has received the odious criminal that proves a point of consideration, but Sagawa says that culture also helped to spawn his urges. He developed fantasies as a young boy over sexualised stars in the newly liberated Western culture such as Grace Kelly. His crushes, however, pertained to eating the actor rather than hanging posters on his wall. 

The liberation of culture has brought about great progressive changes. Conversely, the argument of separating the art from the artist has been brought to the fore increasingly in recent times, and it goes without saying that it is often murky territory. However, it is made far easier to navigate if morally obvious issues are dealt with in the appropriate manner. 

Legally Sagawa is free to walk the streets and that is a fact that must be discussed in court. But he is also a cultural icon in Japan and comments like – “What I’m saying is, I can’t bear the thought of leaving this life without ever tasting that derrière that I saw this morning, or her thighs. I want to eat them again while I’m alive, so that I can at least be satisfied when I die,” – should not be met with gasps of amazement on TV while he promotes his latest Manga development or book. 

In fact, he even documented how he will go about his next crime, sadistically decreeing, “I think either sukiyaki or shabu shabu [lightly boiled thin slices] is the best way to go, in order to really savour the natural flavour of the meat.” Whether this is merely salacious self-promotion or a genuine portent is hard to tell, but obviously, both should be regarded and condemned all the same. Neither has happened and you can’t help but think culture is culpable in a huge way for this. 

Recently he published the Manga novel Extremely Intimate Fantasies of Beautiful Girls and other documents have been made into films and soft porn movies where he can be seen biting actresses. This dark presence in culture is hugely problematic and perpetuates an entirely unempathetic view in culture and, in turn, an inability to separate the fact from the fiction. 

Despite Manga being a largely light-hearted and innocent realm, the reality that it has also embraced the likes of Sagawa illuminates a stark dark side that, if anything, is even more problematic considering the comments the Kobe Cannibal has made about the role culture played in his own crimes. 

At a recent Manga exhibition in Tokyo, BBC journalist James Fletcher confronted curators over cartoon images displaying sex acts with children. “Everyone knows that child abuse is not a good thing,” a representative explained. “But having that kind of emotion is free, enjoying imagining some sexual situation with a child is not prohibited.” You have to question whether everyone truly does gauge the extent of the issue given that Sagawa is a national celebrity while the name of his 25-year-old victim is largely forgotten in the matter. 

It was only in 2014 that Japan finally outlawed the possession of child sex abuse images. Later on, virtual images of a similar nature were brought into question, but Japan decided against making them illegal. This proves alarming given that by Sagawa’s own admission it was merely images of people being eaten in his favourite children’s story Hansel and Gretel that first kickstarted his cannibalistic urges. 

In short, it would seem that very little has been learnt from Sagawa’s crimes from a cultural perspective. If anything, the arts have even furthered the repercussions in not only failing to condemn Sagawa but celebrating his works. With Manga representing an industry heading towards a $4bn revenue, getting the morally obvious things right when it comes to separating art from the artist, and art from reality is vital when it comes to changing the dangerous cultural narrative of male dominance and consumption. 

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