The Hour of the Ox

Mystery weaves through this rich tapestry of a tale

by Hillel Wright

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

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.

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).

Both of Mango’s parents had been gunned down, along with 58 Japanese tourists and four Egyptians, at the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt, in a murky 1997 massacre officially blamed on Islamic terrorist elements seeking to undermine Egypt’s economy by attacking its lucrative tourist industry. The real reason, as Yutaka Kanzaki later revealed to Mango, lay elsewhere — and much closer to home.

Mango, needing to pay for the upkeep of this fairy-tale accommodation, as well as the hefty property taxes levied on it, wrote, under a variety of pen names, soft-core porn novels for women. She lived alone except for her personal martial-arts trainer, who she referred to only as “Kung Fu,” and who spent most of his days either in the first-floor dojo that Mango’s father had commissioned some years earlier, or in the impressive Japanese garden fronting the south face of the mansion. Where he spent his nights remains forever a mystery.

When, at the height of her fame — and now with her second husband, Maxx Powers — Fumie Akahoshi moved into the mansion next door, Mango found the female friend and confidante she had longed for all those lonely months and years.

“Cloth Monkey” records the growth of a relationship between the abandoned and essentially orphaned Angelica Akahoshi and the increasingly agoraphobic and reclusive Mango Kamishita. It went from Angelica’s early childhood years, when she was allowed to crawl among the veritable jungle of potted plants Mango had created in one enormous room on the second floor, fronting a huge balcony looking south over the garden, to her entry into kindergarten and elementary school. Since Mango was never known to leave the mansion, little Angelica was met by her brother Bird — “Baado-kun” as he was called in Japanese — on the roadway between their respective mansions, from where he’d accompany her on her walk to school.

Once the children were on their way to school, Maxx Powers drove downtown in his Mercedes-Benz to his studio in a penthouse suite in the fashionable and pricey Roppongi Hills Tower. Still drawing underground comics for an expanding American market in the grip of the Western world’s “manga madness,” Maxx was able to cash in as the tragic widower of the famous Fumie Akahoshi as well as for having been the co-creator with her of a lucrative cross-cultural and bilingual collaboration titled “Old Coot on an Old Scoot Funnies,” featuring the oyaji (dirty old man) Goto-san and his worn-out, air-polluting Yamaha Vino motorscooter and penchant for wearing “bad English” T-shirts, such as “The One & Only Clayboy in Our Hearts.”

With Fumie’s essential input now sadly gone, Maxx concentrated on spinning off each individual panel of the “Old Coot” manga/comics into a profit-making venture, occasionally producing a storyboard for anime film or TV productions, video games, even, in the spirit of 1960s Pop Art large acrylic- on-canvas paintings of individual panels or triptychs from popular episodes which drew exorbitant prices at upscale galleries in America, Europe, Japan and, most recently, China. This alone paid the rent on Maxx’s Roppongi studio, where he spent most of his waking hours, usually about 20 a day. Despite the fact that Maxx gave Mango the money for Angelica’s care — or perhaps because of it — he was known as “Wire Monkey” in Angelica’s graphic novel.

Growing up while living with Mango for 10 years, Angelica had come to learn a little about the secretive Mr. Chuo, boss of the Kurotombo-gumi, for whom Mango’s late father had been investment broker and chief money-launderer. At the time Angelica’s mother went missing, Mr. Chuo had been approaching 70. Surprisingly — amazingly, given his line of work — he was, at the time Angelica won the Naoki Prize for “Border Town,” still alive in his 90s, bearing down on 100.

Mango had, a few years before Fumie Akahoshi moved in next-door, been engaged to Mr. Chuo’s son and heir-apparent, Kouichi Yamasaki, who had died too young and under mysterious circumstances at the age of 24. And even though from that time on she never ventured out of her virtual fortress in Den-en-Chofu, Mango seemed to be in touch with certain members of the Kurotombo-gumi — especially Yutaka Kanzaki, Mr. Chuo’s chief lieutenant.

Mango was both a mother and a big sister to Angelica. There can be no doubt that Mango, Fumie’s next-door neighbor and best friend, and Angelica, Fumie’s baby girl and secret love child, would have formed a material, intuitive and emotional bond. So Angelica slowly matured in a solitary woman’s world of memories, exotic but artificial landscapes, and martial arts.

At age 7, she took her absent mother’s place in the dojo and began to practice karate with the silent, but ubiquitous instructor, Kung Fu. At night, surrounded by stuffed animals, both gigantic and miniature, from the world of animation — a big pink Piglet, a bright-blue Doraemon, a tiny bottle-green Kermit the Frog — Mango would tell her stories from her own past life, real or imagined.

But one day all this happiness and security ended. It was the day of Angelica’s graduation from elementary school. She was 12 years old. Mango was going to attend! In 10 years she had never seen Mango leave her house, not even to stroll in the mansion’s spacious walled garden. Mango breathed the air outside her own rooms only on the long, south-facing balcony overlooking the garden below — the border town between her world and the dangerous world outside.

Mango called in a special hairdresser and put on an elegant kimono, pale gray, with a pattern of bold pink yaizakura (double-blossom cherry flowers). Angelica had gone on ahead to the school auditorium with her best friends, Taeko and Michika. She became increasingly anxious looking for Mango and frantic when the ceremony began, Mango’s seat ominously empty.

After the ceremony, the school principal, Ms. Mejiro, called Angelica to her office. Two police officers were standing there, solemn expressions on their red- and blue-veined faces. Mango was dead. Killed by accident while crossing the two-lane blacktop leading to the riverside school.

There were three eyewitnesses, but they all had different versions of what had happened. Mr. Taito said she’d been struck by a “scooter chick” on a Yamaha Vino. Mr. Setagaya claimed it was “a big foreigner on a mountain bike”; while Mr. Bunkyo blamed it on a pizza delivery boy on a three-wheel motortrike.

Like Jay Gatsby’s, after his clandestine and fatal reunion with Daisy, Mango’s mansion darkened and Angelica moved into her room in the next-door mansion to live together with Maxx and Bird Powers. Day after day she sat with colored inks, pens, and brushes, with reams of drawing paper, attempting to re-create her life with Mango, her cloth monkey. Now, more than a dozen years on, she was back in the same room again for the first time since beginning her decade-long odyssey through the border towns of the world, searching for some sign of her mother.

After fruitlessly following rumors, tall tales and legends about a strange couple — an older Oriental or maybe American Indian woman with psychic healing powers and her younger male companion, perhaps a Hispanic, who always wore a headscarf and loved to surf — from beaches and border towns on one continent to another, Angelica was convinced that she had received one valid clue . . . a cryptic, telepathically communicated message from Fumie Akahoshi: “Follow the river road.”

Shortly after Fumie was declared legally dead and Angelica inherited her mansion, old Mr. Chuo showed up alone on the doorstep and knocked on the imposing oaken front door. “I’ve been expecting you,” said Angelica.

To make a long story short, Angelica agreed to sell Mango’s mansion to Mr. Chuo for 80 Campus-brand notebooks, Mango’s, which “Mr. Bunkyo” — in reality Yutaka Kanzaki — had stolen while young Angelica sat in shock in school principal Ms. Mejiro’s office hearing from the two veiny-faced policemen from the neighborhood Koban (police box) in front of Den-en-Chofu Station, that Mango Kamishita was dead.

Mr. Chuo believed that the ¥1 billion that Mango’s father, Akihiro Kamishita, had embezzled from Kurotombo-gumi — an act which precipitated the murder of 62 innocent people at the Pyramids of Giza — was hidden somewhere in the mansion.

In Campus notebook #47, Angelica discovered Mango’s story of a river road.

Mango’s story: A great number of paths, trails, roads and tracks run parallel, perpendicular or at obtuse angles to the Tamagawa River, which forms the border between the Kanagawa Prefecture city of Kawasaki on the south bank, and Tokyo on the north. It might even do to call this melange of inter- connectedness — and abrupt endings — a maze. Or even, given the will-o’-the-wisp mists of an early winter 3 a.m. — the Hour of the Ox — a mirage.

But the handsome young gangster Yutaka Kanzaki swears he saw her late that night, down by the Tamagawa, in fact on the small wooded island which connects to the Kawasaki side at low tide. And that night he talks about was a shin getsu (new moon). There was a very low tide, the ocean sucking upwellings of the fresh green river, along with the brackish gray waters of Tokyo Bay, into its vast open maw.

She stood in a copse of willow trees, the wreath of burning candles atop her skull lighting up the scene on the fog-bound island in the absence of moonlight. Her loose white kimono, trimmed in blood red, captured particles of refracted light from the droplets of mist and an acrid scent of river mud, rich in clay and minerals, mingled with the salty, fecund ooze of clam-flat left by the retreating tide.

For a fleeting second he could glimpse the hardwood mallet in the woman’s right hand, the elbow bent with the hand holding the mallet at shoulder height. The action of the elbow produced a dark impression of the woman’s unbound breasts against the ghostly fabric of the kimono. Her left hand held a wara ningyo (straw doll).

It turns out that after his big Christmas Eve dinner date with his fiancee, Ai Shimoyanagi, in Yokohama’s Chinatown, Kanzaki had arranged to meet his secret girlfriend, Corazon Jimenez, who was a bar hostess in Kawasaki, at their usual after-hours rendezvous. The broad Tamagawa shoreline offered many hideaways for furtive young lovers.

The tree under which the woman stood was enormous, with three huge limbs branching out like muscular candelabras from the gigantic girth of the trunk, just a few meters above the loamy island earth.

The southernmost and center limbs almost immediately split into two big branches each, while the northern limb divided itself into three. Beneath its armor of bark, the flesh of the ancient trunk was close-grained and hard, and it took all the woman’s power — ratcheted up by love turned to hate, humiliation and jealous rage — to drive the steel nails piercing the straw voodoo doll into the wood.

On New Year’s Eve, just before midnight — the Hour of the Rat — Kouichi Yamasaki, the crime boss’s #1 son and heir-apparent to leadership of the Kurotombo-gumi, died in suspicious circumstances in the gang’s headquarters building in Adachi Ward, Tokyo. Kouichi had been to the same expensive Chinese restaurant with his fiancee, along with Kanzaki and 10 or a dozen other young yakuza honchos with their “official” girlfriends out on the obligatory Christmas Eve dinner date, a postwar tradition of Japanese youth.

The next morning, or rather at noon, Kouichi awoke feeling unwell, but put it down to a hangover. By the evening, when he felt worse, he suspected food poisoning — perhaps a bad serving of hairy crab.

But the gang’s young heir-apparent grew sicker and weaker day by day, all week long. Yamasaki senior, known familiarly as “Mr. Chuo,” the Big Boss, believed his son had been poisoned at the restaurant, but not by accident. After all, much of Kanagawa Prefecture, including Yokohama and Kawasaki, was the territory of the Kurotombo-gumi’s chief rival in the Kanto Region, the ambitious Koizumi-kai. Staging their romantic Christmas Eve party in the enemy’s backyard was an open invitation to disaster. But Kousuke Kobayashi, the gang’s doctor, could not detect the presence of any toxic substances other than dissipating traces of nicotine, amphetamines and alcohol in Kouichi’s tissues, urine or blood.

So when Yutaka Kanzaki, the Big Boss’s protege and personal attendant, whom he referred to as “Mr. Bunkyo,” revealed his sighting of an apparent Ushi no koku mairi (Hour of the Ox cursing ritual), the Boss’s suspicions naturally fell upon the two most significant women in Kouichi’s life. These were, to his knowledge, his fiancee and his secret Brazilian girlfriend, Rosaria Silva, a former bar hostess he had recently set up as operator of her own small bar near Shin Maruko Station in Kawasaki, just across the Tamagawa River from Tokyo.

Mr. Chuo knew that Rosaria resented Kouichi’s engagement because she could see a married yakuza spending less money on his lover than a single one. Kouichi, after all, had given her the bar as a gesture of pre-emptive compensation. Nevertheless, Kanzaki had given him an item he had secreted from Rosaria’s bar: A photo of Kouichi with the words “para morrir” written on the back. The words were Portuguese, meaning “to die.”

What Mr. Chuo didn’t know was that Kanzaki’s lover, Corazon Jimenez — who saw great benefit to herself if Yutaka could be adopted as the Boss’s heir, with Kouichi out of the way — came from Siquijor, a Philippine island notorious for its mankukulam, the Tagalog term for a voodoo expert in spells and curses.

There was one more jealous woman that the Boss, Junichiro Yamasaki, aka Mr. Chuo, failed to acknowledge, and that was his own wife Takako. But would a mother put a curse on her own son? Of course no mother could possibly do so. But, although both Mr. Chuo and Takako of course knew that Kouichi was actually the son of Junichiro’s lover, the Korean-American actress Evelyn Lee, who often came to Tokyo to film TV commercials, Mr. Chuo did not know that his wife also had a secret lover. His name was Yutaka Kanzaki.

So after Corazon Jimenez was run over and killed by a pizza delivery trike on a side street in Tokyo’s Adachi Ward, and Rosaria Silva’s drowned body was found washed up by the Tamagawa River in Kawasaki, Kouichi Yamasaki’s grieving fiancee shut herself up in her late parents’ mansion in Den-en-Chofu. She strongly suspected she was next on the Kurotombo- gumi’s hit list. But she never suspected that her parents’ deaths in the Egyptian desert had nothing to do with their feud with the Koizumi-kai, as she had assumed at the time, nor that somewhere hidden in their luxurious mansion lay ¥1 billion, embezzled by her money-laundering father from Mr. Chuo, his Boss.

Angelica Akahoshi closed Mango Kamishita’s Campus notebook #47.

The story was finished.