Comparing to the slapdash selection of stories of the first few episodes, episode 7 demonstrates that Junji Ito Collection may have finally hit its stride. These two segments have a clear theme in common that is not immediately apparent when separate. But, together, they strike at a real societal horror.
Up until now, I’ve been careful to leave out some of the better twists in my reviews, but I feel that to really discuss this episode’s themes, I will have to give full synopses of the two tales. Therefore, this is your SPOILER WARNING.
In “Honored Ancestors,” Risa has suddenly developed a case of amnesia. Her boyfriend, Makita, seems caring and patient, especially when she has nightmares of a giant caterpillar in her room. He takes her to his house, hoping to jog her memories, where she is reintroduced to Makita’s father, a sickly former writer who crab-walks in and out of the room, presumably due to his debilitating illness. The father reminds Risa that she had agreed to marry his son prior to her memory loss.
Risa soon discovers the reason for her nightmares and her amnesia: she stumbled into the elder man’s room and saw that his head is the latest link in a long, snaking chain of connected craniums and brains of his ancestors. Not only that, Makita is the last of the family, is fated to join the collective minds once his father dies, and needs an heir to keep the grotesque legacy going. The shock of this revelation had wiped Risa’s mind, and seeing it once again brings her memories back.
Suddenly, the father dies, his cranium detaches from his body, and the ancestors attach to Makita’s head. The episode ends with Risa paralyzed with madness and fear, Makita screaming about this being his last chance at producing an heir, and the voices of the ancestors demanding a wedding ceremony on the spot.
There are little touches of foreshadowing in this tale that seem innocuous on first viewing. Makita muses on Risa’s amnesia, commenting how horrible it would be to lose his memories. It seems like a sympathetic comment until you know his true mindset. Makita says his mother died soon after his birth. Was she an unwilling victim like Risa? Did Risa and Makita really love each other enough to consider marriage at such a young age? (The show omits the manga’s references to them being high school-aged, presumably because of the implied rape.) Or are Makita and his family gaslighting her?
Yes, the visuals are disgusting, the setup is strange, the twist is Lovecraftian - all hallmarks of a Junji Ito story. It was easy for me not to see past that when I first read this story. However, the anime adaptation makes clear that the true horror is Risa being treated as a means to an end. Makita is never shown to be unwilling to join the brain chain, nor is he ever shown to care about what Risa wants. She is not a person to him or his family. She is a tool to perpetuate and appease their obsession with their own monstrous legacy.
Which brings us to the next segment, “Here Comes the Circus.”
A young boy is overjoyed that a circus has come to his small town. As he and his friends watch the show, performers keep falling to their deaths. The boisterous ringleader brushes it off as part of the show while hissing to the surviving clown to hurry up and remove the bodies. Still, the boy is enraptured by the increasingly dangerous stunts, and then she appears. He and his friends have been smitten by sad, beautiful, foreign-looking girl that they’ve recently seen around town. It turns out she is Lelia, the tightrope walker. The entire audience is entranced by her, and the male circus performers are disregarding their own safety for her sake.
The knife thrower, the first performer to show any skill or competence, reveals that he, along with all the others, wants to prove himself to be the star of the show and win Lelia. Although his aim has been true up to this point, a stray knife kills another performer. In desperation to get back in the ringmaster’s good graces, he performs another stunt that leads to his own death. More horrible deaths occur while the ringleader chuckles and makes bad jokes.
A further revelation comes when Lelia’s boyfriend and partner, Mario, readies himself for their trapeze act. She begs him not to do it, saying that the ringleader is a demon. He has been using her to lure men to join the circus, then causing accidents to collect their souls. Mario ignores her, and, predictably, the trapeze breaks.
The ringmaster cries crocodile tears over the fallen Mario and offers Lelia’s hand in marriage to any audience member who joins his circus and becomes its star. The episode ends with the young boy and the ringleader, both smiling obsessively.
Lelia, like Risa in the previous story, is a woman imprisoned. Risa’s fate is to be raped by Makita’s family until she gives birth to its next iteration. Lelia is the virginal damsel in distress who spends the episode on a literal pedestal. The demon ringleader and the performers objectify her as bait for souls and a prize to be won, respectively. The genius of pairing these two tales is that they both evoke the real-life horror that occurs when women’s autonomy is taken away. Risa and Leia have become tools, dehumanized and made powerless by the obsession of monstrous men.
I’m trying something new for the preview this week. I have been able to find Japanese chapter titles from the 2011 Junji Ito Masterpiece Collection, but even these seem to be shuffled somewhat and do not follow the episode numbering. My wrong clock of Horror World of Junji Ito has struck sort of right twice. Therefore I will list both possibilities:
Next episode lists No. 072, which could be “Near Miss!” or “Supernatural Transfer Student”. No. 058 might be “Hallucinations” (Unlikely since it’s the 1st Oshikiri tale, and the 5th one was No. 040.) or “Memory”. I’m in the process of figuring out this puzzle, and each episode gives me another piece.