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The Deadliest Killers in Japanese Horror Films

Geek, gamer, writer, graphic artist. Ced's favorite shows and adventures are those that allow him to enjoy the world from his bedroom.

The murderous kings and queens of Japanese horror films.

The murderous kings and queens of Japanese horror films.

Names like Freddie, Jason, and Chucky are familiar to all fans of Western horror movies. But do you know that Japanese horror cinema has its own army of nasty killers, many of which with supernatural abilities that will make even Freddie Krueger think twice before attacking?

Many of these figures are, curiously, also female, which to discerning viewers would suggest something about Japanese gender stereotypes. But that is something you certainly will not be fussing over if you’re unlucky enough to meet any of these monstrosities in real life.

Without further ado, here are the deadliest killers in Japanese horror films, also known as J-horror. Before reading, do note that some of them are inspired by actual urban myths. In other words, there is that slight chance that they do exist.

She looks harmless when standing still this way. But don’t be mistaken. Sadako is the undisputed queen of Japanese horror movies.

She looks harmless when standing still this way. But don’t be mistaken. Sadako is the undisputed queen of Japanese horror movies.

1. Sadako

A female ghost living in a well, badly in need of a good hairstylist, hardly sounds like anything frightening. But if you’ve watched any of the Ring movies, particularly the newer ones, you’d know that this is one Onryō, i.e., Japanese vengeful ghost that needs a whole team of Anime superheroes just to drive away.

Repeat: Just to drive away.

Renamed as Samara in the American adaptations, and based on the classic folktale of Okiku, Sadako Yamamura’s lineage in the movies differs from the novels they are based on, but in all versions, she possesses superior psychic powers from a young age. After she is severely wounded and dumped into a well, she miraculously survives for 30 years too before dying. This, by the way, is the premise for her infamous cursed VHS tape, a supernatural murder weapon that has to be one of the deadliest and more unique in history.

Worse, Sadako displays a variety of powers throughout the movies. This includes the ability to emerge from a television screen, having snake-like hair, displaying supernatural strength, and of course, the ability to kill anyone who has watched her cursed tape seven days later.

In the crossover Sadako vs. Kayako flick, she even shortened her death deadline to a mere two days. In that chaotic showdown, she also proves capable of fighting Kayako (see below) to a standstill, and later, to digitalize her deadly curse.

In summary, there is probably no other Japanese vengeful ghost as mighty as Sadako. Or as deadly. Or as terrifying.

Her known kill count isn’t particularly high, at least not when compared to those of Western slashers like Jason. But if you consider her method of killing, you can conclude that the films have only shown you a fraction of her victims, or what she can do.

The ability to appear in the most unexpected places is but the least of Kayako’s many terrifying ways.

The ability to appear in the most unexpected places is but the least of Kayako’s many terrifying ways.

2. Kayako

After Sadako, Kayako of the Ju-on series is the one name most worthy of mention as far as deadliest killers in Japanese horror films is concerned. Actually, her fans would insist she wins first place as J-horror’s slasher queen. They will curse you silly if you disagree.

A neglected and severely depressed child in her younger days, Kayayo had a brief chance at happiness when she married a man named Takeo Saeki and bore him a son. Her obsession with a university schoolmate, however, soon drove Takeo insane with jealousy.

The crazed Takeo then brutally murdered Kayako at their Nerima home, twisting her head 90 degrees as she crawled down the stairs to escape. He later also drowned their son Toshio. Even Toshio's pet cat was not spared a violent death.

Transformed into a fearsome Onryō thereafter, Kayako then haunted the Saeki House, viciously killing any who foolishly enters. While she hasn’t displayed any notable psychic abilities the likes of Sadako, she has shown herself quite capable of manifesting outside the Saeki House in the oddest of ways. Always with long black hair, a chalky white appearance, and inhuman twisting motions. Grotesque twitches and jerks accompanied by the sounds of crunching bones and a death rattle.

What’s more, her unfortunate son, Toshio, acts as her harbinger of sorts. He often appears right before Kayako strikes, looking just as ghastly if not worse. In the original Japanese films, Toshio does little more than spook victims or spirit them away. However, in the Sadako vs. Kayako crossover, he displays ruthlessness quite worthy of his mother.

One thus wonders whether the ghostly boy could surpass his mom as far as sadistic inclinations are concerned. Once he supernaturally grows up.

The missed call is in fact, just the prelude to a gruesome death.

The missed call is in fact, just the prelude to a gruesome death.

3. Nanako/Mimiko

If there’s one thing that’s more terrifying than a vengeful female spirit, it’s a vengeful female child spirit. Worse, one who was already evil when alive.

Without giving away the story of One Missed Call too much, this child spirit will send even Toshio scampering back to his mom, bawling, after five minutes of play. Were you to just sit through the first half of the original 2003 Japanese horror flick, you’d also realized that unlike many older ghosts in Japanese horror films, this vile spirit actively seeks her victims. She doesn’t place you in the crosshairs because you stepped into her domain or watched her cursed object. Her modus operandi is one that actively creates new victims by itself, and is even able to do so overseas.

In fact, given her preferred tools of operation are cellphones, isn’t it reasonable to say this is one killer who can wipe out an entire city?

More horrifically, the movies strongly imply that she is capable of a variety of reality-bending powers too. This is one monster that Death himself from the Final Destination series would pay respect to.

The Kuchisake-Onna doesn’t wear a mask for social-distancing purposes.

The Kuchisake-Onna doesn’t wear a mask for social-distancing purposes.

4, The Kuchisake-Onna

Like many other countries with an abundance of densely populated cities, Japan has many urban legends perfect for horror movie adaptation. Among all, the most terrifying is arguably that of the Kuchisake-Onna or slit-mouthed woman.

So the original legend goes, a woman was horrifically mutilated, resulting in her mouth being slit from ear to ear. (A Glasgow Smile, in other words) This happened either because she was punished by her husband for infidelity or because of a bungled cosmetic operation.

Morphed into a vengeful Onryō, the wretched woman then goes about the cities with a mask on, confronting strangers with the enigmatic question, “Am I beautiful?” If you say yes, she removes the mask and repeats the question. If you still say yes, she attacks and slits your mouth the same way.

Should you say no at the first or second instance, she instantly attacks with her weapon, this usually described as a huge pair of scissors. Either way, there is no possibility of surviving any encounter. That is, unless you yourself possess some sort of superpower.

Coming to the 2007 J-horror movie adaptation of this awful urban legend, the Kuchisake-Onna receives a power upgrade. Rather than a fixed entity, she is fluid and highly “adaptable.” Let’s just put it as that to avoid spoilers.

More distressingly, she displays a strong predilection for child victims in this cinematic version too. Though when the need arises, or when she feels she should, she certainly has no qualms about butchering adults too.

Without a doubt, one of the nastiest and deadliest killers to ever appear in Japanese horror films. If watching the 2007 movie, remember too that the Kuchisake-Onna myth has been around since the 19th century. Who knows whether she indeed lurks in the alleys of Japan?

You’d do more than scream when targeted by Kagutaba, hands-down the most malicious demon in J-Horror.

You’d do more than scream when targeted by Kagutaba, hands-down the most malicious demon in J-Horror.

5. Kagutaba

Demons are near always nasty business in horror movies, especially when they go around possessing innocent people ala The Exorcist.

The worst ones could also possess multiple victims and go about serial killing. This, by the way, the framing story for The Exorcist 3.

The obscure demon Kagutaba from Noroi: The Curse does both of the above, and kicks it several notches higher by making victims kill each other and themselves. His summoning ritual is itself equally nasty, and notably, has claimed different victims too.

Far worse, this is one demon who need regular rituals just to appease. He can also manipulate via dreams. Nothing in the movie furthermore gives hint as to how he could be thwarted.

And then there is the ending of the movie, which shows Kagutaba in aloof splendor as he massacres the pesky humans bothering him. A word of warning about this ending, if watching, turn down your volume. The climactic note of it is something you do not want in your dreams.

Don’t let his boyish demeanor fool you. Light Yagami will snuff you the moment he feels you’re not worthy to live.

Don’t let his boyish demeanor fool you. Light Yagami will snuff you the moment he feels you’re not worthy to live.

6. Light Yagami

If you’re a fan of Japanese manga or anime, you were probably waiting for this name.

One of the two protagonists of the Death Note movies, the supremely intelligent Yagami chanced upon the notebook of a god of death and quickly learns how to use it to kill anyone he wishes. Determined to reform the world, which he feels is disintegrating under rampant crime, he then uses the notebook i.e. the Death Note to slay any he feels is not worthy of living.

A side “note” here on the usage method of the supernatural notebook, if you’re unfamiliar. Yagami simply needs to look at a victim, write the victim’s name and death method in the Death Note, and the deed is done. The victim will drop dead at the specific time Yagami wants.

Without surprise, the cold-blooded killings soon attract the attention of the story’s other protagonist i.e. L, a brilliant albeit idiosyncratic detective. The bulk of the two Death Note movies then revolves around the many battles of wits between the two geniuses.

With his determination to win eventually overwhelming him, Yagami also ends up being a worse monster than any of the criminals he killed. To continue his quest, he even targets the people closest to him.

In the movies, Yagami ultimately dies when betrayed by Ryuk, the original owner of the Death Note. Through Ryuk, it is also revealed that Yagami, as punishment for using the Death Note, will spend eternity in “nothingness.”

But given this is a supernatural story in and out, it is reasonable to assume Yagami can be resurrected. One can be sure too that if he does return, and comes into possession of another Death Note, his new killing spree will be far worse.

When that happens, even L might not be able to help.

Creative overkill is the specialty of the eponymous house from Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 horror-comedy.

Creative overkill is the specialty of the eponymous house from Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 horror-comedy.

7. The House

For this final entry, I was of half a mind to list the sinister trap-setting killer from 1988’s Evil Dead Trap. In the end, I felt that slasher pales in comparison to the House. As in the bizarre, murderous mansion from Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 horror-comedy, House.

After all, this is a house that “eats” unmarried girls. Where everything from the grand piano to the grandfather clock, to even the mattresses, are accomplices and tools of murders.

Where even you, as the viewer, will not be spared because half the time you’d have no clue as to what is going on, but you just can’t stop watching because there are few other Japanese horror films so enthusiastically bizarre.

What’s more, House never makes it clear as to who exactly is behind the killings, or should I say, feastings? It is one of the cast? Is it the work of malignant spirits in the mansion? Or is it the cat?

One of the loopiest productions ever in Japanese horror cinema, House easily qualifies as one of Japan’s weirdest movies. Its irresistible psychedelic flavor, though, will seductively draw you in. You wouldn’t be able to stop watching, the moment you’re willing to give this zany kill fest a try.

Further Reading

7 Hong Kong Exploitation Movies From the 80s That You Might Want to Avoid
The nastiest horror and exploitation movies in 80s Hong Kong cinema.

Film Buffs: 66 Horror Movie Locations That You Should Know
Do you consider yourself a horror movie expert? How many of these locations are you familiar with?

The First 10 Horror Films in Recorded History
Believe it, or not, horror movies appeared as early as 1896

© 2021 Ced Yong