Halloween is just around the corner, which means you’ve probably already begun your horror movie marathon, but there’s still time to make some additions to your viewings. With that in mind, here is my list of essential J-horror, or Japanese horror movies. There are quite a few, so I’ve broken them down into 3 categories for easier selection: Ghosts, Artistic Movies, and Psychological Torture. Enjoy!
Part 1: Ghosts
Ghost stories form the backbone of the Japanese horror industry (for better or for worse). Odds are that if you haven’t seen any of these films, you haven’t seen J-horror. Some of them have even spawned Hollywood remakes (usually for worse).
Ringu / Ring (1998)
If you’re new to J-horror, this is where to start. A mysterious cursed videotape surfaces in a cabin in Izu, and everyone who watches it dies within seven days. Reiko Asakawa, a reporter, tries to uncover the secret behind the cursed videotape in time to save her life. Ringu is the film that made J-horror a household word overseas and changed the genre forever. It spawned numerous sequels and its remake launched the Hollywood obsession with Asian horror remakes. This film introduces the famous ghost girl Sadako, who has spawned numerous spin-off movies herself, and launched the long-haired-crawling-girl-dressed-in-white trope that has become universal in horror today.
Ringu 0: Birthday (2000)
A teenaged Sadako Yamamura struggles to control her strange psychic powers while people die mysterious deaths around her. A reporter, convinced Sadako is responsible for the deaths, hounds her until all hell breaks loose, somewhat reminiscent of the bullying students in Carrie. This prequel to Ringu is less-known in the US outside of J-horror circles. For people interested in learning more of the mythology behind Sadako and her powers, as well as how the curse of the videotape came to be, this movie expands upon the story and refers back to a number of points in the first movie, making it a very interesting addition to the Ring story. It also features the now-ubiquitous star Nakama Yukie in her first film role.
Ju-on / The Grudge (2002)
When someone dies in a sorrowful or violent way, it leaves a stain on the place and it affects and consumes anyone who visits the place. Little more can be said about this film, which is a collection of intertwined stories about people who die horribly in connection with a haunted house and its ghosts. For those who can manage to watch it and still want more, there are a number of prequels and sequels that add background and flesh out the story of the house and its inhabitants. Low on gore and cheap scares, high on tension and psychological terror, this is my personal favorite Japanese horror movie and my vote for Scariest Movie of All Time.
Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara / Dark Water (2002)
A single mother and her daughter move into an apartment building with a history… and a ghost. Dark Water continues in the creepy-little-girl-ghost tradition, but does an excellent job without feeling forced. There is a lot of suspense in this movie, and while low on gore and violence, it turns the psychological horror up to 11. Written and directed by Nakata Hideo (of Ringu fame), this movie is an excellent example of one that uses atmosphere and mood to their maximum potential.
Chakushin Ari / One Missed Call (2005)
A mysterious ringtone and a voicemail from yourself, dated from the future, sounding as if you are dying horribly make up the central theme to this story. It is veteran filmmaker Miike Takashi’s foray into the nappy-haired-ghost-girl genre of J-horror, and it is considered by many to be one of the scariest, if not the scariest Japanese horror movie. Personally I find it a little bit stale, as it relies too heavily on established tropes (especially from Ringu and Ju-on) without improving upon them. At 112 minutes it feels a bit too long and the scares a bit too forced. Still, it is a solid movie and far superior to the countless spin-offs in the genre, but it’s not as solid as the movies mentioned above. I wouldn’t normally include it in a list of my favorite horror movies, but because it is so well-known it deserves at least an honorable mention.
Kowai Onna / Unholy Women (2006)
Three short stories unconnected to each other, this mini-collection of horror is a refreshing change of pace. SinceChakushin Ari, there have been so many poorly produced, identical clone movies capitalizing off of Ringu’s and Ju-on’ssuccess that the Japanese ghost story seemed like a dead genre. But Kowai Onna has some delightfully weird and creepy twists on familiar concepts that make these stories feel fresh and entertaining. If you’ve grown jaded from all of the bad spin-offs, this movie will rekindle your love affair with terrifying, dead Japanese women.
Part 2: Psychological Torture
No, these aren’t movies about psychological torture; these are movies that people have called psychological torture. They mess with your mind in ways that you least expect and stick to your psyche the way gum sticks to hair — impossible to remove without a sharp object. If you like movies that are weird, twisted, or disturbing, don’t miss these!
Aoyama, a middle-aged widower, decides it is time to begin dating again, and sets up a mock audition for a fake film in order to “audition” young women for the “role” of his new wife. He finds what he thinks is the perfect woman in Yamazaki Asami. Asami is beautiful, sweet, and quiet, and utterly devoted to Aoyama. Despite the warnings from his friend about Asami’s mysterious past, Aoyama falls head over heels in love with Asami too, to his own peril… If Ju-On is my favorite horror story of all, Audition is my favorite non-ghost horror story. The movie strings you along by pretending to be a romantic film with a hint of strangeness for most of the movie, and then exploding into all-out psychological terror at the end. This movie proves that the only thing that can be scarier than a vengeful, murderous ghost is an actual, living person.
Jisatsu Circle / Suicide Club (2001)
A wave of suicides washes over Japanese youths, and police and adults are powerless to stop it or to even understand why it is happening. Not so much scary as creepy, this movie focuses on themes such as detachment from society, alienation and connection through technology, and the inability for the older generation to understand their children. Plus it has a lively, young, kawaii pre-teen girl-band which delivers subliminal suicidal messages! This comically bloody celebration of death and gore will make you laugh and want to cry at the same time.
Kairo / Pulse (2001)
A strange website asks viewers, “Do you want to see a ghost?” People mysteriously begin to disappear, and a cloud of depression descends upon Tokyo. If depression is one of the main themes here, Kairo makes Jisatsu Circle look absolutely manic. While it is very slow-paced and not the easiest to follow (particularly when reading subtitles), the aura of dread which pervades this movie is palpable through its entire 118 minutes. It deals with themes of loneliness and disconnect due to technology, and depicts a world where ghosts have learned to contact the living via the internet and suck every bit of happiness from the world. If you want shocks and gore, stay away, but if you like moody, atmospheric, choking clouds of dread, Kairo is one of the best examples out there.
A filmmaker obsessed with fear and death journeys into a strange world located beneath the Earth’s surface. There he discovers an underworld race of human-like creatures and finds a strange, naked woman whom he takes back to the surface with him and keeps as a pet. Later he discovers that she only feeds only on blood… Marebito is truly a weird movie, and will keep you scratching your head wondering what you just saw even after it’s over. If you like your movies to have a clear resolution at the end, this one will leave you disappointed. On the other hand, if you like psychological horror movies dealing with sanity, the paranormal, and the weird, you will probably love this quirky film by Ju-on director Shimizu Takashi.
Part 3: Artistic Movies
I don’t mean artistic as in pretentious or hard to understand, I mean artistic in that these movies have a certain magical quality to them that makes them very special. What they lack in special effects or extreme scares they make up for in beautiful cinematography, acting, and artistry.
Kaidan / Kwaidan (1964)
Kaidan consists of four separate stories based on the writings of Lafcadio Hearn. Despite being made in the 1960’s, the movie feels fresh and spooky even today. It is shot in a style that mimics theater, with carefully constructed sets that feel like stages, yet immersive and realistic. Kaidan relies heavily on colors to create an atmosphere of otherworldliness. The movie is very expressionist in its presentation, and employs slow, suspenseful buildups of tension to create a truly beautiful film that feels like a fairy tale. Plus, the stories it tells are based on old Japanese ghost tales, rather than original stories, and so you get a slice of traditional history and culture with this film too. While old, it does not feel dated at all, and ranks very high on my list of favorite Japanese movies, horror or otherwise.
Yokai Daisenso (1968) / Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare
Back before Miike Takashi’s The Great Yokai War, there was a trilogy of monster movies based on traditional Japanese monsters known as yokai. This film is a visual extravaganza of tokusatsu special effects and tells the story of a Babylonian demon who comes to Japan and starts a war with the local monsters. Anyone who is a fan of yokai and traditional Japanese spirits will love this movie, especially if (like me) you are also a fan of retro, 60’s and 70’s action films with rubber-suits and pyrotechnics (Think Ultraman, Godzilla, or Power Rangers). Yokai Daisenso has the feeling of a kid’s movie but is a lot scarier and darker than anything you’ll see for kids today.
Uzumaki / Spiral (2000)
The small town of Kurouzu becomes haunted, or cursed, by spirals. Weird things begin to happen, all of them connected with the spiral shape, and soon everything in the town is overrun by this curse. Based on the manga by Ito Junji,Uzumaki plays with shape and color to create a visual masterpiece of eerieness. There are no sharp scares, shocks, or pools of blood in this film, but the gradual deformation of this small town as a result of the weird spirals will leave you grinning from ear to ear, and around and around again.
While not related to the earlier film of the same name, Hideo Nakata’s Kaidan has a similar feeling. It is set in old Japan during the Edo period, and features beautiful costumes and sets that take you to a different world. It revolves around a romance between two young lovers, and a number of ghosts which haunt them and ultimately spell their doom. It has all of the elements of an Edo period ghost story, and will appeal to fans of history and folklore, in addition to being a visually spectacularly period piece. No real gore or big scares are found, but a beautiful atmosphere and haunted feeling pervade this film.
There you have it! Fourteen movies is a lot of ground to cover, but these are the J-horror films I find most interesting, even if not the scariest… There are many other great movies that didn’t get included in this list (and far more not-so-great movies that also didn’t make the cut), but consider this a decent cross-section of what the genre has to offer. I hope there is enough variety here for you to find something you like, and perhaps something you haven’t seen before.
Do you have any favorite J-horror movies that aren’t in this list? Let us know in the comments! Happy haunting!