Life on death row is a grim business. Inmates have to learn to handle psychological trauma, solitary confinement and the stark reality of their own impending doom. Such a situation is almost impossible for most of us to imagine and not something to be taken lightly. Not that this has stopped one restaurant in Japan from trying to recreate a tiny part of the death row experience for gutsy diners.
Ningen Restaurant, a pop-up recently launched in Tokyo’s red light district, has a unique offer for customers who want their mealtimes to get a little more morbid. The eatery, which literally translates as “Human Restaurant”, will offer guests the chance to sample the last meals of some of the most notorious death row prisoners of all time.
The menu includes the hamburger, baked potato, boiled egg and three Jack Daniels shots requested by double axe murder Gary Mark Gilmore; the asparagus, broccoli, tomatoes and strawberries chosen by “Black Widow” Judy Buonoano; and a riff on John Wayne Gacy’s infamous KFC bucket, French fries and a pound of strawberries and fried shrimp.
One of the more fascinating menu items revolves around the last meal of convicted murder Joseph Paul Jernigan, who donated his corpse to the Texas Anatomy Board and later became the basis for the Visible Human Project - an experiment designed to digitally map the human body for the first time. Those opting for “The Jernigan” can expect to enjoy two cheeseburgers, a salad and an iced tea, even though Jernigan himself actually refused to eat his food when it finally arrived.
To the casual observer, the idea of immortalising the favourite foods of some of the worst people to ever walk the earth might seem seriously twisted. Whatever the connotations may be, it turns out that there is more going on than morbid curiosity. The pop-up is actually part of a larger exhibition by Japanese guerilla art collective “Chim Pom”. In addition to the restaurant, the two-week event features artwork from Austrian avant-garde artist Hermann Nitsch and performances from local artists, including Aida Makoto and extreme performers “Dengenki Network”. Who’d have thought death row could be so cultural?
The restaurant and other exhibitions are allegedly an expression of the artistic group’s desire to explore our obsession and relationship with the human body. Hosting it in a place where, historically, "people used the sex work industry, bodies, and desire as weapons or ways of consumption to survive" underlines how attitudes to the body and death have fluctuated over time, according to the Chim Pom website. It’s certainly a radical way of thinking about food.
Whatever you might think of the artistic merit of Chim Pom’s first foodie venture, there’s little doubt that it is a restaurant guaranteed to spark a conversation. Drawing attention to how even the most abhorrent members of society can share an an obsession with food certainly gives pause for thought. Whether you agree with the message is another matter entirely.