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13 must-see Japanese horror films

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Jan 25, 2021, 3:50 PM EST (Updated)

Female ghosts with long, stringy black hair, pale white skin, and dead eyes … The Japanese sensations Ringu (1998) and Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) precipitated a scary wave of “J-horror” movies that spread across the globe like a virus at the beginning of this century. Respecting the old Japanese literary and cinematic traditions of kaidan eiga (ghost stories) that chilled previous generations, this movement refreshed established templates of creeping, slow-measured terror, as spirits with axes to grind (and not always metaphorically!) persecuted the living.

As producers on both side of the Pacific began repeating themselves with countless Ringu wannabes, the once-promising J-horror craze succumbed due to a dearth of fresh ideas and soon petered out by the end of the first decade.

Every day this month we're bringing Top 13 lists tied to the world of horror. You can follow them all here.


Kwaiden (1964)

Director Masaki Kobayashi planted the seeds of the modern Japanese horror film in this medieval-period anthology movie, a sterling combination of cinematography, art direction, music and sound FX. The quartet of leisurely-paced stories won’t please splatter fiends, but intrepid genre scholars will appreciate Kwaidan’s refined rewards. Our favorite: the epic tragedy “Hoichi the Earless” segment (about a blind minstrel bewitched by spirits).


Kuroneko (1968)

Written and directed by Kaneto Shindo, Kuroneko seems to have been unfairly overshadowed by the more famous Kwaidan and Onibaba (the later also helmed by Shindo). Brutal samurai warriors rape and slay a woman and her daughter-in-law, but the victims return as willowy ghosts to exact revenge. So the local rulers task a heroic warrior to put the femmes fatales to rest. The black-and-white Kuroneko unfolds like a dream, and at the same time, Shindo infuses the film with a scathing political subtext.


House (1977)

One (acid) trip of a movie, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (Hausu) follows seven vivacious teenage school girls during their stopover at an aunt’s house. Unfortunately, Auntie’s dead—but still hanging around in spirit—and her home literally comes alive to assault the heroines in extremely bizarre fashion that must be seen to be believed. Butt-biting severed heads, carnivorous pianos, monstrous mattresses … the movie presents an unequalled psychedelic parade where anything goes. You’ll want to visit this House more than once.

Tetsuo-The Iron Man (Trailer)

Tetsuo, the Iron Man (1989)

Recalling early Sam Raimi and David Lynch’s Eraserhead, the hyperactive Tetsuo, the Iron Man rates as the nuttiest midnight movie ever exported from Japan. Directed by Shin’ya Tsukamoto, the multi-hyphenate who also wrote, produced, shot, edited and appears in the movie, Tetsuo tells the tragic tale of a salaryman who slowly morphs into an ambulatory heap of scrap metal. This B&W cyber nightmare, which clocks in at a caffeine-fueled 69 minutes, never met a Steadicam shot it didn’t like. Not for every taste, the influential Tetsuo bred two equally-gruesome and deliriously nonsensical sequels.

Perfect Blue Trailer HD (1997 Anime Film)

Perfect Blue (1997)

If Italian horror maestro Dario Argento ever tried his hand at anime, it might look like this movie, based on the novel of the same name. Directed by Satoshi (Millennium Actress) Kon, Perfect Blue finds young pop star Mima abandoning her music career to pursue acting. But after suffering various job-related sexual indignities, her personality splits into good and bad halves and those who wronged her wind up slashed to pieces. As the plot takes a few Hitchcockian turns, a stalker also sets his sights on Mima. If you thought an animated film couldn’t scare you, think again; Perfect Blue will have you turning white from fright.


Ringu (1998)

The one that started it all, Ringu (Ring) remains one of the scariest—and most influential—horror films of all time. A pretty reporter (Nanako Matsushima) investigates the urban legend behind a cursed videotape (remember those?), whose victims (including her niece and ex-husband) suffer horrible fates after playing the strange cassette. When the woman’s adolescent son becomes marked, it’s a race against the clock to save the boy and solve the mystery of bitter ghost Sadako. Creating drop-dead terror from the get-go, director Hideo Nakata runs rings around his American counterparts with this dread-inducing slow-burner, ending the yarn with a jolt that will rocket you to the ceiling. The movie launched a franchise in its country, plus various US (and Korean!) rehashes. 

The Black House (Trailer)

The Black House (1999)

Though not as well known as some of the other Nipponese winners on this list (in English-speaking countries at least), The Black House exposes the perils of the insurance industry, and we don’t mean high premiums. A timid agent receives an odd call from a woman asking if the company pays out on suicides. When the man fears that the lady may be in danger, he unwittingly enters her house of horrors and uncovers a history of serial murders and other psychotic pathologies. A bowling-bowl murder scene will scare the tenpins right out of you. Surprisingly, The Black House never spawned a US redux, but South Korea took a shot in 2007. Unfortunately, we can't find any trailers for this online (if you find one, shout in the comments). 


Audition (1999)

The unstoppable Takashi Miike has directed nearly 100 TV and film projects since 1991, with no end in sight. Most consider this skin-crawling (and stomach-emptying) shocker his masterpiece. Middle-aged widower Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi of The Grudge) agrees to help his friend hold phony auditions so the two can land new girlfriends. When Aoyama begins dating Asami (Eihi Shiina), he never suspects she’s not quite right in the head. Then Asami turns all Fatal Attraction on his ass in the film’s torture-filled final section that prompted weak-kneed audience members to stumble for the exits. After a leisurely start, Audition closes as a frightening endurance test that separates the men from the boys. Miike takes no prisoners.


Battle Royale (2000)

The Hunger Games franchise needs to write this controversial film a big fat residual check. The initial scenario of Suzanne Collins’ series shamelessly ripped off the plot of Battle Royale (also based on a book), where government baddies drop teams of high school kids on a booby-trapped island and force them to fight to the death. Outrageous scenes of carnage unspool, with adolescents mowing down, bludgeoning and slicing up their fellow ninth graders. Shockingly, none of this comes across as crass exploitation, as the movie’s classy production values and assured direction by veteran Kinji Fukasaku enable us to overlook the subject matter’s questionable taste. Attempts to ban the film in Japan, Germany and other countries proved fruitless, though it took 12 years before Battle Royale emerged on DVD for us Yanks.

Kairo, Pulse (2001) ㅡ Trailer

Kairo (2001)

This mind-blowing, apocalyptic J-Horror epic combines modern technology with the supernatural. When a group of students investigates the suicide of a friend, they discover a haunted website. Disaster looms for our heroes as the veil between our world and the ghost world grows thin. With Kairo (a.k.a. Pulse), director Kiyoshi Kurasawa leisurely builds a palpable sense of anxiety, while also weaving in pertinent themes of loneliness and isolation. Keep an eye out for Kurasawa’s latest effort, the super-creepy Creepy, about a retired detective investigating a family’s disappearance.


Dark Water (2002)

No one-hit wonder, Ringu director Nakata derived another atmospheric, eerie picture from a book by Ringu author Koji Suzuki (dubbed Japan’s Stephen King for good measure). A divorced mother and her 6-year-old daughter move into a dilapidated apartment building, where the cheap rent buys you leaky ceilings, phantom water spots, moldy hallways and spirit girl visitations. Nakata once more effectively generates a stream of unanticipated shivers with Dark Water. Jennifer Connelly starred in the ho-hum American version, which relocated the story’s action to New York City’s Roosevelt Island.


Ju-on: The Grudge (2002)

This popular franchise began life on Japanese TV before making the successful transition to the big screen and inevitable US updates. Busy writer/director Takashi Shimizu shepherded Grudges on both sides of the globe, though this first theatrical edition stands above the rest. Ju-on shifts between the past and present to depict the tragic outcome for all those who wander into a cursed home. A murdered mother and her little son haunt the average-looking abode, where no one escapes their clammy clutches. These vengeful spirits—Kayako, whose spastic movements look positively unearthly, and child Toshio with his cat-like wails (he ain’t no Casper!)—will scare the yell right out of you. In Japan, the Ringu and Ju-on specters face off in the film Sadako vs. Kayako!


One Missed Call (2003)

Audition master Miike owes a debt to Ringu with this supernatural tale, though he brings his own unique, crazy style to the cell-phone-centered proceedings. Our reliance on these modern gadgets spells doom for all those who retrieve blood-curdling voicemails from their future selves. All suffer a horrible death occurring on the date of the time stamp. Miike makes each murder more outlandish than the last, and One Missed Call moves at a much faster (and more fearsome) pace than most conventionally-subtle J-Horror chillers. Take the time to answer this Call.

Keep indulging your J-Horror yen with the anime swashbuckler Vampire Hunter D (1985); Kiyoshi Kurasawa’s Cure, a gory puzzler about serial killings; the manga-movie Uzumaki (a.k.a. Spiral, 2000); Norio; Tsuruta’s Premonition (2004), where a newspaper predicts horrifying deaths; and Sion Sono’s madcap Exte: Hair Extensions (2007), about killer tresses! 

Anything we missed? Tell us below.

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