The mutilations are frightful — dog, cat, rabbit and pigeon corpses missing heads, tails, limbs, ears. Weekly Playboy magazine reports nearly 40 sightings in the past four months in the Kanto region alone. Who’s out there doing these things? With what thoughts in mind?

Anyone familiar with an old but not forgotten murder case will immediately recall — as Playboy does — “Seito Sakakibara,” aka “Boy A,” who, after a childhood history of torturing cats, killed two children in Kobe in March 1997. When police finally caught up with him three months later, they were astonished to find themselves dealing with a 14-year-old. His obvious intelligence, and the depth of his perversion, suggested adulthood at the very least.

Boy A is not a boy any more; he’s 32 and at liberty somewhere under a new and secret identity, having been pronounced rehabilitated in 2005. This past June he surfaced, to the extent one can surface anonymously and invisibly, as the author of an autobiography, in which he describes at length the quasi-sexual thrill he got as a child from tormenting helpless animals. Tortured cats, he writes, scream like newborn babies.

Might the current wave of animal torture be spreading under his unwitting influence? It’s possible, Playboy hears from clinical psychologist Yo Yahata. Yahata sees Boy A as, to some, a kind of “dark hero.” Such is celebrity. It tends to be morally neutral. The mere fact of being known invests a person with a kind of charisma.

There’s another celebrity, one whose star flared, all too briefly, as brightly as Boy A’s shone darkly, whose current invisibility rivals and even surpasses Boy A’s. Where is she? asks Shukan Gendai magazine of Haruko Obokata, the biologist whose breathtakingly simple — too simple, as the world now knows — technique for generating stem cells (STAP is the iconic acronym that tells pretty much the whole story, long after what it stands for — stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency — has been generally forgotten) now seems synonymous with dashed hope, broken promise and scientific bungling, if not pseudo-scientific fraud.

Where is she? The house she grew up in, in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, is dark and deserted; likewise the apartment she’d occupied in Kobe near the Riken Center for Developmental Biology where her research unfolded.

She grew up the family treasure, says Shukan Gendai, the pride of her parents and the two sisters she overshadowed. She was brilliant. From Waseda she went to Harvard, from Harvard back to Waseda for a Ph.D., then on to Riken, where at age 31 she seemed to have pulled off the scientific discovery of the century, its vast medical implications rivaled by possible philosophical ones — not the answer, of course, but maybe a step along the road to an answer, to that question of questions: What is life?

What is life? Four categories come to mind: cell, plant, animal and human. Obokata’s quest was to turn one kind of cell into another, more useful kind. Of plants nothing need be said here. Animals affect humans in various ways. An urge to torture them seems evil or sick, maybe both, and yet, Niigata Seiryo University psychologist Mafumi Usui tells Playboy, most small children go through a phase of crushing ants underfoot or tearing the wings off dragonflies. The phase precedes compassion, which develops later — or doesn’t. In Boy A it didn’t. Was it an attitude problem, or were his brain cells faulty? His abuse of animals seems to have been sex by another name, but Usui doubts the same is true of whoever is perpetrating the latest outrages. Boy A performed his rites in secret. Boy(s) and/or Girl(s) B, C and/or D make sure their work is seen, even if they themselves are not. That speaks of grudges, symbolic revenge or maybe just confusion in confusing times of runaway technology and random mass terrorism. Maybe it’s meant as a warning?

On the borderline of life and nonlife stands, of course, the robot. Are humans evolving into robots as the difference between them narrows? Spa! magazine, in a feature on a “new wave” in the age-old erotic entertainment industry, introduces a novel sexual adventure — not a robot who is so like a sexy woman you forget it’s a robot (which is hardly new any more), but the reverse: a sexy woman who is so like a robot you forget she’s a woman. She’ll be perfectly machine-like in her docile inanimateness, if that’s what you want; or, if you prefer, she’ll be humanoid, like the modern sensor-laden robots who display varying degrees of human-like, but not quite human, behavior and comprehension. What’s the advantage?

“Since she’s a ‘robot,’ you can be comfortable with her even if you have no skill in communicating with women,” Spa! explains. And if there are any kinky little special services you’d like but are ashamed to ask a live woman for — ask away, she won’t mind, she’s just a robot — and yet a woman for all that! Take note, however, that exoticism on this level isn’t cheap: ¥21,000 to ¥30,000 an hour, on average.

Obokata’s discovery made her a celebrity. Journalists invaded her quiet suburban Matsudo neighborhood, hungry for scraps, anything, any little reminiscence of her as a child, as an adolescent — and family members and neighbors, far from resenting the intrusion, were delighted to be extras in such a marvelous drama. It was dramatic on several fronts — scientific of course but also social: A woman was shining in a man’s world; maybe science would cease to be a man’s world, and if the barriers can come down in one field, why not across the board?

That’s all over now, Shukan Gendai laments. The Matsudo house is deserted — where has the rest of the family gone? Obokata’s mother is a scientist herself — she teaches psychology at a university, and is more visible than other family members, but gives no interviews and answers no questions. The Kobe apartment likewise shows no sign of life. The last sighting of her in that neighborhood, apparently, was a TV reporter who saw her emerging from a beauty parlor with a new hair style. He approached her. She fled.

How is she living? Shukan Gendai wonders. A lawyer who has acted for her says his client still believes in STAP and is determined to pursue her research, but, stripped as she has been of her doctorate — or even with a doctorate — what lab would hire her?

Might one hope that some day she will be vindicated, that she’s working in secret somewhere and will eventually emerge — perhaps old, wizened and scarcely recognizable — with the triumphant proof that she’d been right all along, that her errors the first time round were nothing really, just youthful over-enthusiasm. And — see, look — STAP cells exist after all!

A fairy tale? The world’s in sad shape. It needs one.

Michael Hoffman’s new book, “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan,” is out now.


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