Unlike in the West, where the spookiest time of the year is Halloween, in Japan, you’re more likely to watch a horror movie in the summer. This is because of Obon, an ancient Buddhist festival to honor ancestors. Although the seasons are different, the reasons for the spooky atmosphere are similar—it’s when ghosts return to the land of the living.
Traditionally, July and August—the time when Obon festivities are held around the country—are also very hot. Thus, people shared spooky stories to feel a chill. Today, watching scary movies serves the same purpose.
And it’s not just hocus pocus. “When you feel fear, one reaction is for your body to pump blood to your internal organs and constrict flow to the blood vessels closer to your skin, making you feel cold all over,” said Yasuko Miura, a researcher, in an article in The Guardian.
Whatever your reason for watching, summer is prime ghost time in Japan. While there are heart-stoppingly scary films released every year, there’s something to be said for the classics. Here then are five Japanese ghost movies that will give you goosebumps.
The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959)
The Ghost of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan in Japanese) is based on one of the most famous ghost stories in Japan. A brutal tale, it follows along with ruthless social-climbing samurai, Iemon Tamiya, who will stop at nothing to better his status. This includes murder, naturally, as well as poisoning his long-suffering and loyal wife, Oiran.
The story has been done as kabuki and film countless times. The best is undoubtedly Nobuo Nakagawa’s 1959 fever dream version, which finds countlessly inventive new ways for ghosts to pop into frame and scare us.
With her peeling face and long, stringy black hair, Oiran is the original Sadako, and The Ghost of Yotsuya is the inspiration for The Ring and countless other Japanese tales of the revenge of the downtrodden.
2. Jigoku (1960)
Most ghost movies show us what happens when the dead come back to the land of the living. Very few go the other direction and take the cameras into hell itself. But that’s just what 1960s Jigoku did, and it’s unrelentingly—and gleefully—horrible.
Jigoku tells the story of a small town in the Japanese countryside that, through a series of unfortunate events, all end up dead and in hell at the same time. As a Buddhist temple mural of the sufferings of hell come to life, a good portion of the film’s runtime depicts in gory details all the ways that people are tortured in the netherworld. While it’s tame by today’s standards, it can still find ways to be shocking even to modern eyes.
Jigoku was directed by Nobuo Nakagawa, the same mad genius behind The Ghost of Yotsuya. The film remains a spooky testament to one man’s desire to really scare Japan.
3. Kwaidan (1964)
Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 Kwaidan is not just one of the best ghost stories ever put on film, it’s one of the best films ever made, period. Based on the work of folklorist Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan is both high art and terrifying filmmaking and an absolutely must-see movie.
Kwaidan is an omnibus film, containing four separate stories. Each is unique and memorable in its own right yet they work together to create an overall mood of terror.
A triumph of atmosphere and dread, Kwaidan will have you gripping your couch cushions in fear. The nail-biting avant-garde soundtrack by Toru Takemitsu is the curdled cream on top.
4. The Discarnates (1988)
Nohuhiko Kobayashi may be best known in the West for the bonkers Hausu, another ghost-themed movie that you really should see, but most of the time he made unique, nostalgia-tinted dramas. However, he took a brief return to the world of ghosts for The Discarnates in 1988, a movie that trades scares for complex, adult feelings of loss and memory.
A man having a mid-life crisis, Harada finds solace in the home of two strangers who look remarkably like his parents who died when he was 12 years old. The only other tenant in his apartment building, a woman named Kei, has her own charms, but Harada soon realizes that his face is turning an ashen color. Could any of them be ghosts draining him of his life force?
A unique take on horror, The Discarnates will have you longing for the past.
One of the most beautiful movies ever made, Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 film is another ghost movie that trades scares for subtler emotions. Set during Japan’s Warring States era (1467-1615), it tells the story of peasants caught up in forces beyond their control. Many of those forces are war but at least one is death, with farmer Genjuro seduced by a ghost.
Ugetsu has more to say about the human condition than most films, ghost stories or not, and deserves its reputation as one of the best movies ever made. It may not give you chills but it will leave you shaken.
What are some of your favorite Japanese ghost movies? Let us know in the comments.