Looking for a horror flick but bored of seeing the same Hollywood clichés play out again and again? Then the weird and wonderful world of Japanese horror (often abbreviated as J-horror) might be something you'd enjoy.
Whether you want something creepy, gory or just outright campy, the land of the rising sun has produced some of the most creative horror films ever made.
This list takes a look at ten must-watch J-horror movies.
10 Amazing J-Horror Films You Need to Watch
- Ringu (The Ring)
- Ju-On: The Grudge
- Battle Royale
- Uzumaki (Spiral)
- Kairo (Pulse)
- Dark Water
- Hausu (House)
- Tetsuo: The Iron Man
1. Ringu (Ring)
Directed By: Hideo Nakata
Release Date: 1998
Following her niece's unexplained and unusual death, journalist Reiko Asakawa investigates rumours of a cursed videotape that is said to kill anyone who views it seven days later. But, of course, she only goes ahead and watches the darn thing before discovering that the curse is very much real.
Matters only get more complicated after her ex-boyfriend and son watch the tape as well. Soon, Reiko finds herself in a race against time to break the curse and not only save herself and her family but potentially countless others as well.
Based on the book by Haruki Suzuki, The Ring is the film that set the standard for all J-horror films and opened the eyes of Western audiences to the genre. It also led to a host of (mostly bad) American remakes of Japanese horror films. As a result, it's also been the basis for countless rip-offs, spin-offs, sequels and remakes (of which only the original American film is truly worth your time).This has tarnished its legacy somewhat, but the film still stands as a decent horror-mystery and an excellent primer for the genre.
2. Ju-On: The Grudge
Directed By: Takashi Shimizu
Release Date: 2002
Years ago, Takao Sakei murdered his family in a jealous rage before committing suicide after discovering his wife's love for another man. So horrific was the act that it created a curse that lived on inside the house, one that revives the family as vengeful spirits should anyone enter it. Those unfortunate enough to come into contact with these spirits are themselves consumed by the curse, which then spreads to the place they die.
Ju-On: The Grudge is actually the third film in a series of movies known as Ju-On, following on from Ju-On: The Curse and Ju-On: The Curse 2. Whereas the first two films were straight-to-video releases, Ju-On: The Grudge was the first in the series to bring Takashi Shimizu's vision to the big screen.
If you're looking for a story, you might be disappointed with this one as the narrative is essentially an anthology of hauntings related to the Sakei curse. Instead, The Grudge is a film primarily concerned with creating atmosphere, and this film has it in spades. Not only that, but the vengeful spirits of the Saeki family are some of the most terrifying phantoms ever put to film, especially the disfigured and wide-eyed Kayako and her unsettling death rattle.
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3. Battle Royale
Directed By: Kinji Fukasaku,
Release Date: 2000
The middle schoolers of class 3B thought they were going on a field trip. Instead, they've woken up on a remote island with explosive collars around each of their necks.
It turns out that their totalitarian government has selected them for the annual 'Battle Royale', a game in which students must kill each other until only one is left standing. With only three days until the collars explode and escape seemingly impossible, the classmates must either find a way to fight the system or fight each other to the death.
The premise of Battle Royale has now become something of a cultural phenomenon, inspiring movies, books and a whole plethora of video games. None, however, have presented the idea with quite the same level of violence and intensity this film does.
While it is first and foremost a violent thrill-ride, the film isn't without depth either, as it tackles themes such as authoritarianism, suicide and human nature.
4. Uzumaki (Spiral)
Directed By: Akihiro Higuchi (under the alias Higuchinsky)
Release Date: 2000
The residents of a small town all begin to lose their sanity when mysterious spirals start appearing everywhere. The spirals torment some, whilst others become unhealthily obsessed with them. In either case, death by misadventure or suicide soon follows, and things only worsen as the number of spirals grows.
If the premise of Uzumaki sounds weird, then that's because it is. But, it is also one of the most visually startling films you are ever likely to see.
Based on a series by Junji Ito, the king of horror manga, Uzumaki is probably more likely to make you laugh than outright scare you due to how absurd the thing is. However, it's still an absolute must-watch for horror fans due to its creepy and otherworldly effects and sound design.
Overall, Uzumaki is an experience that will leave an impression that lasts long after the end credits roll.
Directed By: Masaki Kobayashi.
Release Date: 1965
Kwaidan is a film adaption of four Japanese folk tales.
A samurai's decision to choose money over love leads to tragic consequences in 'Black Hair'. An icy spirit saves a woodcutter, but there may be a cost in 'Yuki the Snow Maiden'. Ghosts force a blind musician to play for them in 'Hoichi the Earless'. Finally, a samurai observes a mysterious face reflected in his tea in 'In a Cup of Tea.'
This anthology series is a stunning film to look at despite being made well over 50 years ago. Even the few shots where the film does show its age only seems to add to its unique allure.
The stories themselves, which have their basis in a 1904 book of collected folk tales, possess a sinister fairytale-like quality.
If nothing else, Kwaidan is fascinating to anyone remotely interested in Japanese folklore and mythology.
6. Kairo (Pulse)
Directed By: Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Release Date: 2001
Two groups of people bear witness to the strange happenings within Tokyo as bizarre videos begin circulating the internet and a spate of suicides grips the city. The evidence seems to suggest that spirits are invading the world through computers, bringing untold sadness and loneliness with them. Hopelessly watching their loved ones lose their will to live, the survivors must come to terms with the reality of their situation and their own feelings of isolation in the modern world.
Many of the movies on this list received Hollywood remakes that managed to completely miss the point and feel of the films they were copying. None, however, were quite so off the mark as 2006's Pulse, which employed special effects and jump scares in an attempt to get Western audiences into the theatres.
The original 2001 Pulse, on the other hand, is a brooding and atmospheric dystopian-horror that tackles the effects the internet has on human communication and behaviour. The film is perhaps more relevant than ever with the subsequent rise of social media. What is certain is that the film's ghosts are still as unnerving as ever.
7. Dark Water
Directed By: Hideo Nakata
Release Date: 2002
Whilst going through some difficult divorce proceedings, Yoshimi Matsubara moves into a run-down apartment with her daughter, Ikuko. Unfortunately, there's a leak in the ceiling there that appears to be getting worse. Yet the building's superintendent does little to resolve the issue and attempts to contact the occupants of the apartment above yield no results.
Strange events begin to occur in and around the apartment, and Yoshimi begins uncovering the mystery of a young girl who disappeared a year ago.
Dark Water is another film based on a Koji Suzuki story directed by Nakata. The film sticks closely to the tropes established in earlier J-horror flicks such as Ringu and the Ju-On series. It relies heavily on atmosphere and a mounting sense of dread (and features yet another dark-haired phantom).
However, the real trick up this film's sleeve is in the relationship between Yoshimi and Ikuko. It's almost impossible not to feel for (and fear for) these two. They struggle against not only the supernatural forces invading their apartment block home but also against more relatable problems derived from their poverty and isolation.
The child custody subplot involving Ikuko's father only pulls on our heartstrings further, leaving the viewer desperate for a happy conclusion. Such a thing seems all but out of reach, though, as things inevitably head towards a watery conclusion.
Directed By: Takashi Miike
Shigeharu Aoyama is a middle-aged widower who decides to search for love once again after some persuasion from his son. Not feeling too hot about returning to the dating scene, though, Aoyama and film producer Yasuhisa Yoshikawa hold a mock "audition" in the hopes of finding the perfect wife.
It is through this audition that Aoyama falls for one Asami Yamazaki. Something isn't entirely 'right' with Asami, though, and her mysterious past and strange actions lead to questions regarding her mental state.
This cult classic from the twisted mind of author Ryu Murakami (yep, it's another film based on a book) might well lure you into a false sense of security with its slow-burn pace. Still, you will do well not to let your guard down with this one because it all leads to a final act of inhumane cruelty and depravity.
We've talked a lot about ghost stories and hauntings on this list, but this is a whole different beast that showcases J-horror's morbid fascination with authentically shocking violence.
9. Hausu (House)
Directed By: Nobuhiko Obayashi.
Hoping to avoid spending too much time with her father and his strange new lover, a schoolgirl named Gorgeous invites her friends Prof, Melody, Mac, Fantasy, Kung Fu, and Sweet to join her on a trip to her aunt's house. Once the girls arrive at the house, though, a series of supernatural events begin to occur almost immediately as the place comes alive with evil spirits.
Primarily inspired by the imagination of director Obayashi's daughter, this horror-fantasy was critically panned in Japan upon its release despite a decent showing at the box office. It was only many years later, when the film made its way to the West, that it gained cult status. Its gorgeous set pieces, child-like animation and bizarre plot ultimately struck a chord with audiences who had never seen anything quite like it before.
Playing out like a fever-dream and full of violent imagery despite its strangely cheerful demeanour, House is a film that simply needs to be experienced.
10. Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Directed By: Shinya Tsukamoto
A man with a strange fetishism mutilates himself by embedding metal into his flesh. He is driven mad (or madder) after discovering maggots wriggling around in a wound he has made on himself. The man runs out into the night, where a car hits him.
The car's occupants, a salaryman and his wife, bury the body and try to move on with their lives. However, the salaryman soon discovers that he is cursed as his body transforms into a metal monstrosity.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man is another film that is almost certainly unlike anything you've seen before. This surprise hit is as terrifying and creepy as it is absurd, not least because of the development of a more than "suggestive" giant drill on the salaryman's body.
There's no denying the film's uniqueness, though, in its concept and execution. That Tetsuo was achieved on a minuscule budget which saw much of the film being shot in the director's own apartment, is something that can't be understated either.
Tetsuo has since spawned two sequels and has clearly inspired equally insane films such as Tokyo Gore Police. With its crude comedy and oddball nature, this is unlikely to be everyone's cup of tea. With a runtime that goes just over an hour, though, it's not worth knocking till you've seen it yourself.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Mike Grindle