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Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010

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Illustrator's note: I was very pleased when, during my last days as a teacher in the city of Akiruno on the outskirts of Tokyo, I was invited to illustrate Hillel Wright's gripping murder-mystery story whose pivotal character is a young graphic novelist named Angelica Akahoshi (shown above). I was even more pleased when my editor agreed to let me tap the real enthusiasm for drawing I found among my students and allow them, too, to contribute to the project. We all relished the experience, and extend warm thanks to everyone at Higashi Akiruno Junior High School, and Tommie Shimizu especially, for their support. CHRIS MACKENZIE ILLUSTRATION

The Hour of the Ox

Mystery weaves through this rich tapestry of a tale

At 13 years of age, Angelica Akahoshi was the youngest person ever awarded the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for Literature.

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Angelica at 13. ALISA TEJIMA

To the manga-loving Japanese public, the fact that her award-winning book was a graphic novel only added to the intense curiosity suddenly directed at this cute but reclusive girl with the literary brains, imagination and artistic skills to win this annual award for the best first novel in Japanese.

That she'd kicked the collective butts of writers two and three times her age only heightened that curiosity and made perfect fodder for the tabloids and TV gossip shows. Perfect, too, for boosting the troubled adolescent's already considerable fortune and adding to it the immeasurable burden of fame.

But Angelica Akahoshi just stayed in the same room in the house she'd barely strayed out of for the whole year she spent writing and imaging her graphic novel, "Cloth Monkey."

It was a terrific room. It occupied the south-facing side of the mansion in Tokyo's exclusive Den-en-Chofu enclave, not far from the Tamagawa River, where she lived with her father, American underground comics artist Maxx Powers, and her older brother, Bird Powers.

Actually, Bird was Angelica's half-brother, being the son of her mother, the famous manga artist Fumie Akahoshi, owner of the mansion, and her second husband, Maxx. But Bird was also Angelica's uncle, because Maxx — unbeknownst to any of the parties involved at the time some 30-odd years before — was the father of Jorge Luis Valenzuela, a young Baja California surfer who in his teens had a one-night stand with an older Japanese woman — Fumie — under the stars on a beach in Todos Santos, Mexico. So it was that the Baja surfer became Angelica's father.

When Angelica was only 2 years old, her mother and Jorge Luis both disappeared from Todos Santos on the same day. Officially, Angelica had fallen off a stolen trimaran yacht and presumably drowned. Her passport was found on the drifting boat after it was salvaged by the Mexican Coast Guard off Cabo San Lucas at the southernmost tip of the Baja Peninsula. And officially, Jorge Luis disappeared while making a failed attempt to save the life of a visiting Japanese-Samoan boarder in the Todos Santos surf, and was presumed to have been devoured by one of the great white sharks infamous along that coast.

"Cloth Monkey" — the title referring to U.S. psychologist Harry Harlow's infamous surrogate-mother experiments with infant rhesus monkeys in the 1950s and '60s — was the story of Angelica's life with her mother's best friend and next-door neighbor, Mango Kamishita. A recluse who only rarely ventured out of her spacious Den-en-Chofu mansion, Mango virtually adopted little Angelica as soon as she heard that Fumie had disappeared.

Now, 23 years later, Angelica had just won Japan's most prestigious literary award of all, the Naoki Prize, for her second graphic novel, "Border Town," which was about the real mother with whom she never had a life, and who had recently been declared legally dead.

In "Border Town," Angelica painted quite a different picture from the official fictions presented to Maxx Powers by the Mexican police. And that picture, whether closer to the truth or pure wishful-thinking, had brought her, a young bi-cultural woman in her mid-20s, additional fortune and fame. Additional fortune, yes, because she had already inherited the fortune, Den-en-Chofu mansion and all, of her surrogate mother, Mango, following her untimely death in an unsolved hit-and-run while on her way to Angelica's elementary-school graduation ceremony. That was first time Mango had left her house in more than a decade . . . the mansion where Angelica had lived for 10 years with Mango, the "Cloth Monkey" of her precocious graphic novel. Now she was also the inheritor of the next-door mansion where she had written and drawn that first book while living with Maxx, her legal guardian and somewhat reluctant grandfather who was also the "Wire Monkey" of the novel. However, his grotesqueries as represented in the manga were, if truth be told, grossly exaggerated.

Additional fame, because now, unlike the apprentice recluse of "Cloth Monkey" vintage, she was a world traveler, recently returned from years of searching for her lost mother and father and finally willing to share the story of her hopes, doubts and peregrinations with an ever-curious public through a continuous stream of TV, online, newspaper and magazine interviews.

For the first two years of her eventful life, Angelica had lived with her mother Fumie, her "father" Maxx, and Bird, in the rather quiet and peaceful atmosphere of the Den-en-Chofu mansion she had now inherited from her mother.

Fumie Akahoshi was then the biggest name in the world of Japanese manga. Her chief heroine, Chibi-Hanako-chan (Little Miss Flower Child), was a ubiquitous presence not only in manga magazines and TV and movie animations, but also through spin-off video games, dolls, action figures, plastic cell-phone strap ornaments, and lucky key-chain charms.

Chibi-Hanako-chan was a renegade massage therapist with a radical feminist attitude, hippie idealism and psychic powers. She had, by the time Angelica was born, acquired a kind of cult status in Japan among a variety of subcultures, including the hikikomori — disaffected youths who shun society and rarely ever leave their rooms; young "office ladies" breaking out of their corporate shells, at least in their moments of fantasy escape; and 30-something so-called "herbivorous" salarymen desirous of identifying with a politically correct but still cool electronically generated female role model. There were others, too.

It was when Chibi-Hanako-chan made a guest appearance in another of Fumie's manga serials, "Mangetsu" ("Full Moon"), about a distorted mirror-planet Japan existing in a parallel universe, that things got seriously out of hand.

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Mango Kamishita's mansion in Tokyo's exclusive Den-en-Chofu enclave. YURIKA KUBOSHIMA

In short, meddling in the political affairs of another universe turned out to have disastrous consequences, because, just as Chibi-Hanako-chan is about to uncover a Mangetsuese Imperial coverup of a war-related sex-slave scandal, the Imperial legacy-protectors of the nonalternative-universe nation of Japan — groups of the country's fanatical rightwingers — hired the Kurotombo-gumi organized-crime gang based in Tokyo's downtown Adachi Ward to remove the treasonous creator of such a blasphemous comic book from said nonalternative universe.

"Mr. Chuo," boss of the Kurotombo- gumi, accepted the contract from the rightwingers' "Commander T," and Yutaka Kanzaki, the gang boss's ambitious young chief lieutenant, was given the job. Recently, Kanzaki had already fired two warning shots through the window of Fumie Akahoshi's Den-en-Chofu mansion — for him, an exciting midnight ride on his 750cc Kawasaki motorcycle.

But the actual assassin, subcontracted by Kanzaki, was to be Ika Nanao Moana, a half-Japanese, half-Samoan ex-sumo wrestler and failed K-1 fighter. Moana, known in the sumo world as Komusubi Osanshouo, loved to surf. The first and last known sighting of assassin and target at the same place and approximate time was at a cheap off-the-beach hotel in Todos Santos, the Pacific Ocean surfing town in Mexico's Baja California Sur, not far up the coast from Cabo San Lucas on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula. That sighting was about three days after those first late-night (or early morning) shots had been fired in Den-en-Chofu.

The next 10 years of Angelica Akahoshi's life following her mother's disappearance were spent in the next-door mansion with her beloved "Cloth Monkey," her surrogate mother, Mango Kamishita.

Mango, who lived more or less alone before taking in her best friend's only daughter, had inherited the mansion from her parents. Her father, Akihiro Kamishita, had been an influential broker on the Tokyo Stock Exchange and more importantly, if secretly, the chief money-launderer for the Kurotombo-gumi — reporting directly to Mr. Chuo. Her mother, Masumi had been a leading light in that most vacuous realm of Japan's entertainment hierarchy, that of the terebi tarento (TV talents).


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