Horror fiction in Japan runs much deeper than the renowned J-Horror filmmaking boom at the end of the 1990s, and even longer than film history in general. Dating back to the Edo period from 1603-1868, “kaidan” — a type of folkloric ghost story — became popular, while fiction about ghosts has been around in Japanese literature since at least the Heian period (794-1185). Traditional Japanese theater, particularly kabuki and noh, also depict themes of revenge and ghosts. Needless to say, the Japanese horror tradition is a long one, and it’s undoubtedly what accounts for the genre’s quality and innovation throughout time.
On the topic of cinema a clear line can be traced from traditional kaidan movies, particularly from the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema in the ‘50s through to recent psychological horror and gore sub-genres. For a J-Horror novice the sheer quantity of films and diverse sub-genres might initially seem overwhelming, so we’ve broken down the 20 essential movies to watch as an entry point into understanding Japan’s horror canon.
Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan [The Ghost of Yotsuya] (1959)
Director: Nobuo Nakagawa
Based on a 19th-century kabuki theater play titled Yotsuya Kaidan, The Ghost of Yotsuya falls under the Edo Gothic style of Japanese horror. This sub-genre was popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s and concerns traditional Japanese folktales about ghosts, otherwise known as kaidan.
This particular story was adapted numerous times, with The Ghost of Yotsuya widely held to be the best adaptation. It deals with themes of greed, adultery, and karma, and features yūrei (ghosts), which are common in kaidan stories.
Ringu [Ring] (1998)
Director: Hideo Nakata
Ring is undoubtedly the most well known J-Horror film to Western audiences, but it’s influence is even more profound in its native Japan. For the uninitiated, Ring is about a mysterious videotape that kills anyone who watches it within seven days. It’s based on a novel by Koji Suzuki, and garnered instant success in Japan upon release, before spreading internationally. This resulted in numerous sequels, Hollywood and Korean remakes, and a horror filmmaking revival in Japan.
Beyond being an excellent film, no less a genuinely scary and well-executed horror, Ring’s success came from its ability to tap into prevalent themes in Japanese society (the mark of all great horror movies). It dealt with Japan’s increasingly modern culture where women were enjoying freedom from conventional gender roles, and the dissonance this had with Japanese tradition, literally embodied through Samara, an onryō (vengeful ghost) from kaidan folklore.
Ōdishon [Audition] (1999)
Director: Takashi Miike
Started by production company Omega Project in order to capitalize on the success of Ring, Audition, based on a novel by Ryu Murakami, was chosen for its differing style of horror. The film revolves around a widower who wants to find a new wife, prompting him to hold a fake film audition. He meets meek Asami, whose dark past begins to emerge.
At the time of production prolific director Takashi Miike was not known for directing horror films, however, he’s since become notorious for highly violent movies including Ichi the Killer and Gozu. But despite Audition’s reputation for extreme violence, which made it a strong influence on torture porn movies such as Saw and Hostel, its searing depiction of psychological horror related to child abuse and women’s treatment in society gives it a gravitas that others in the genre lack.
Jigoku [Jigoku: The Sinners of Hell] (1960)
Director: Nobuo Nakagawa
Well known for directing kaidan films such as The Ghost of Yotsuya, Nobuo Nakagawa also directed Jigoku, a visually stunning film that doesn’t quite fit into other J-Horror sub-genres. It begins as a type of crime drama revolving around Shiro, a theology student, before changing abruptly into an experimental musing on hell.
It was produced by Shintoho, one of the major film studios from the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema, however, they declared bankruptcy shortly after Jigoku’s release. The film has become a cult classic and is noted for its unique visuals in the Japanese horror canon.
Noroi [Noroi: The Curse] (2005)
Director: Kōji Shiraishi
Under the pretense of a found footage horror film disguised as a documentary, Noroi attempts a sub-genre that’s been done to death in Hollywood, but feels justified and successful here. The grainy, lo-fi visuals and mixed media approach add unease, as paranormal investigator Kobayashi attempts to uncover strange happenings in a small town.
Director Kōji Shiraishi frequently works in the horror genre, but Noroi is his most original take. It’s known for having a long running time and extensive cast of characters compared to other J-Horror movies, yet despite the complexity it’s popular with both audiences and critics alike.
Ju-on: The Grudge (2002)
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Ju-on: The Grudge is another movie that Western audiences will recognize from its Hollywood remake, which was also directed by Takashi Shimizu. The third film in the Ju-on series, of which the first two were straight-to-video efforts, The Grudge was released in theaters and garnered enough attention to become a successful franchise, including multiple US remakes.
The film centers around a house that’s haunted by onryō that take revenge on anybody who enters. It’s not necessarily a groundbreaking story and the film’s episodic structure has been criticized for not allowing enough character development, but the creepiness is top notch and The Grudge remains a classic of J-Horror’s new wave around the turn of the century.
Kurutta Ippēji [A Page of Madness] (1926)
Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa
The oldest film on this list, A Page of Madness is arguably not pure horror, but rather an experimental silent film that succeeds in delivering surreal, nightmarish atmosphere. It revolves around a janitor working at a mental asylum, whose wife is being treated as a patient at the clinic. Originally the film would have been live-narrated by a benshi or storyteller, undoing the need for intertitles, which makes the story somewhat difficult to follow today.
After being lost for 45 years, A Page of Madness was found by the director in 1971 in his warehouse. It’s received positive acclaim as one of Japan’s earliest progressive filmmaking efforts, and remains an enduring influence on Japanese horror.
Kairo [Pulse] (2001)
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Kiyoshi Kurosawa has made great films that straddle both J-Horror and psychological thriller genres. The premise of Pulse may sound nonsensical — ghosts attempt to invade the world of the living through the internet —but Kurosawa’s brilliant execution results in a creepy horror that’s truly unnerving. The film garnered a Hollywood remake co-written by Wes Craven that also spawned two sequels.
Other horror-leaning Kurosawa films to check out include Cure, about a police detective investigating a series of bizarre murders, and Séance, about a couple haunted by a ghost. Beyond horror, Kurosawa’s measured and intelligent approach to filmmaking also includes some excellent science fiction films.
Director: Kaneto Shindo
Onibaba defies clear categorization, with some scholars labeling it horror, while others as period drama. It certainly fits both genres with a story set in 14th-century Japan during a period of civil war, where two women kill soldiers in order to make a living by selling off their belongings.
Elements of Onibaba were inspired by a Shin Buddhist parable about a “mask with flesh attached,” which the director explained was symbolic of the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings – a theme that was often explored in Japanese cinema, particularly horror, in the postwar decades.
Jisatsu Sākuru [Suicide Club] (2001)
Director: Sion Sono
Suicide Club is a controversial film by provocative director Sion Sono. It follows a police investigation into a series of seemingly unrelated suicides that are sweeping Japan. The film is intentionally ambiguous, even as a satire, leaving the audience to raise their own questions while answering very few.
Sono envisioned Suicide Club as part of a trilogy, however, only the prequel, Noriko’s Dinner Table, was ever realized. Sono also wrote a novel titled Suicide Circle: The Complete Edition that attempts to bridge the gap between the two films. A prolific director working across many genres, other notable horror movies by Sono include Strange Circus, Exte, and Tag.
Matango [Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People] (1963)
Director: Ishirō Honda
Produced by Toho, the studio that gave the world Godzilla and other kaiju (giant monster) films, Matango is darker and more serious in tone, despite its quirky premise about a group of strangers shipwrecked on a deserted island who mutate into mushroom people. It was partially based on a short sci-fi story titled “The Voice in the Night,” while director Ishirō Honda revealed decades later that it was a comment on increasing drug addiction in Japan.
Matango would sow the seeds for Japanese cyberpunk movies of the ‘80s that featured body horror and gore elements, yet despite the film’s enduring influence, it was nearly banned in Japan upon release. This was due to the similarities between the special effects makeup of the mushroom people and facial disfigurements of victims of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Honogurai Mizu No Soko Kara [Dark Water] (2002)
Director: Hideo Nakata
Helmed by Ring director Hideo Nakata, Dark Water is similarly based on a Koji Suzuki story. The plot concerns a single mother and daughter who move into a rundown apartment where strange occurrences happen, such as water leaking from the apartment above and appearances by a strange girl.
As with Ring, the film delivers commentary about women's role in modern Japan, with family relationships a central theme. Alongside its scare factor, Dark Water also offers genuine emotional storytelling. As with many other J-Horror films from the early ‘00s boom, Dark Water received a Hollywood remake.
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
If Kwaidan sounds familiar, it’s because its title is an archaic transliteration of kaidan (ghost story), an integral aspect of the Japanese horror tradition. That said, Kwaidan is not particularly scary and its director, Masaki Kobayashi, allegedly didn’t view it as a horror film. However, this visually stunning anthology of four stories based on Lafcadio Hearn’s take on Japanese folk tales is important in its contribution to the Edo Gothic sub-genre.
Kwaidan won the Special Jury Prize at 1965’s Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Roger Ebert once said it was “among the most beautiful films I’ve seen,” and he wasn’t wrong – Kwaidan feels like a dream.
Jabu No Naka No Kuroneko [Kuroneko: A Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove] (1968)
Director: Kaneto Shindō
The 1960s brought about a genre in Japanese cinema called “pinku eiga” or pink film, which broadly speaking covered any film that featured nudity. Subsequently, further sub-genres of pinku eiga began to form, including kaidan pinku eiga – traditional ghost stories with sexual themes. Kaneto Shindō’s Kuroneko, as well as his earlier film Onibaba, are both made in this style.
Kuroneko features another folktale adaptation about two women, however this time, the women are brutally raped and murdered by a group of soldiers, only to become vengeful ghosts out for revenge. The high-contrast black-and-white cinematography is particularly stunning.
Kyōfu Kikei Ningen: Edogawa Ranpo Zenshū [Horrors of Malformed Men] (1969)
Director: Teruo Ishii
Teruo Ishii’s Horrors of Malformed Men is an exploitation film that was a precursor to a new sub-genre of pink films called “pinky violent.” These films were produced by the major studio Toei and combined erotic elements with violence and torture themes, often with a comedic overtone.
Adapted from two novels by Edogawa Rampo, Horrors of Malformed Men is an absurdist tale about a medical student who’s lost his memory and is framed for murder. There’s more to its convoluted plot, but the film’s bizarre, hallucinogenic quality is what makes it a cult classic.
Tokugawa Onna Keibatsu-shi [Shogun’s Joys of Torture] (1968)
Director: Teruo Ishii
As with Horrors of Malformed Men, director Teruo Ishii predated the pinky violent sub-genre with this "ero guro” (erotic grotesque) exploitation film. An anthology of stories set in Japan’s Edo period, Shogun’s Joys of Torture is a visceral foray into extreme violence, often sexual in nature.
It’s lasting influence comes down to its role in further loosening censorship boundaries. A sequel titled Shogun’s Sadism was released in 1976, however, it wasn’t directed by Ishii himself. It took Ishii’s ero guro vision and pushed it to splatter and gore territory, providing the link for later, more extreme physical violence in J-Horror.
Ginī Piggu 2: Chiniku No Hana [Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood] (1985)
Director: Hideshi Hino
The Guinea Pig film series consists of six movies, of which Flower of Flesh and Blood is the second. Hideshi Hino directed two of the films, intending to make film versions of his horror manga series, and the result is some of the goriest splatter horror ever committed to celluloid. The plot of this particular film concerns a man dressed as a samurai who kidnaps a woman and proceeds to slowly dismember her. The special effects were so real that, amid fears it was a genuine snuff film, Hino was forced to reveal his filming secrets in court.
The series is notorious for being found in serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki’s personal videotape collection (specifically the fourth film). American actor Charlie Sheen was given a copy of Flower of Flesh and Blood in the early ‘90s and, convinced that it was a real snuff movie, contacted the FBI, who explained that Hino was already under investigation by Japanese authorities. Needless to say this brand of extreme violence isn’t for everyone, but the series proved an influence on cyberpunk body horror movies made in Japan in the late ‘80s and ‘90s.
Tetsuo [Tetsuo: The Iron Man] (1989)
Director: Shin’ya Tsukamoto
Tetsuo is a bizarre, low-budget indie about a metal fetishist and a salaryman who begins turning into a man-metal hybrid. His debut feature film effort, Shin’ya Tsukamoto wrote, directed, acted, and edited the film using money he’d saved from his regular job. It was shot over 18 months, with most crew leaving the project in that period due to difficulties on set.
The film’s unique blend of body horror and cyberpunk was a comment on growing fears of technology in Japan (a topic that surfaced in other J-Horror films of the ‘90s). After screening at a horror film festival in Italy and winning best film, Tetsuo found its audience among fans of weird cinema, resulting in limited theater runs in Japan and the US. It’s since amassed a cult following and even spawned two sequels.
Hausu [House] (1977)
Director: Nobuhiko Ōbayashi
House’s backstory is almost as absurd as the film itself. Wanting to capitalize on Jaws and similar horror films of the period, Studio Toho asked Nobuhiko Ōbayashi to develop something similar. Ōbayashi asked his pre-teen daughter Chigumi what was scary to her, with the young girl revealing outlandish ideas that only a child could dream up. The result is House, a vividly bright and bizarre film about six schoolgirls who visit one of the girls’ aunts, only to be individually killed off by her evil house.
As with many J-Horror movies, House included themes related to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as Ōbayashi, a Hiroshima native, lost all of his childhood friends in the attack. While the film wasn’t a hit with critics, it was an audience favorite upon release and has continued to build a cult following internationally.
Kimyō Na Sākasu [Strange Circus] (2005)
Director: Sion Sono
Provocateur Sion Sono topped his earlier film Suicide Club with an even more disturbed horror about incest, murder and mental breakdown. Strange Circus is a trippy tale about a writer working on a story of sexual abuse and family incest, until her editor begins to investigate if the work is actually one of fiction.
Sono really pushes the limits on this one, but despite the dark subject matter the film has some stunning (and nightmarish) visuals. Its blend of extreme sexual horror has made it an ero guro for the modern age.