Even in the days of black-and-white filmmaking, Japanese filmmakers were leaders in the field of making audiences scared, uncomfortable and at times just plain perplexed. Japanese filmmakers have distinguished themselves to the degree that Japanese cinema is somewhat synonymous internationally with horror. Outside animation, horror has been their only other successful media export internationally.
So to help make your movie choices easier this Halloween, I’ve compiled this list of fantastic horror films from the 60s to now for you to freak out over on October 31.
1. Noroi: The Curse (2005)
Found footage was a short-lived phenomenon in the West that spawned a few unforgettable movies and many more forgettable ones, however, it may shock you that in Japan, a few dedicated filmmakers are keeping the genre alive and kicking. Foremost among these is Koji Shiraishi’s seminal work Noroi (curse). Noroi is the story of the disappearance of Kobayashi Masafumi, a paranormal researcher who was making a film on curses and demons before disappearing.
Noroi’s horror is in its camera angles, as the movie is composed of shots designed to imitate a Japanese investigative documentary. In the film’s numerous wide shots, viewers will be compelled to search every inch of the screen for hints, leading to chilling moments of realization and discovery.
With interesting characters and a twisting narrative that explores unique folklore and cultural history, Noroi is an easy must-watch this Halloween.
2. Occult (2009)
You might think that having two movies by Koji Shiraishi on this list is favoritism, and it is. In another found-footage film, Shiraishi tells a completely different story from Noroi, Occult features a fictionalized version of Shiraishi as a filmmaker who creates a documentary about a survivor of a mass stabbing who claims to be a medium for a god-like being.
Unlike Noroi, which had the more intimate focus of a small town’s unique folk history, Occult is loosely inspired by HP Lovecraft’s Mythos, which translates into a more existential and psychologically disturbing horror film. The movie is less concerned with scaring you outright and more focused on building an atmosphere of dread and evoking intense feelings of anxiety. Occult is the movie for you if you’re looking for a more unorthodox and experimental approach to horror cinema.
3. One Missed Call (2003)
What is it with horror movies and phone calls? Unlike its predecessors, One Missed Call doesn’t have the call coming from inside the house, but instead from the future. This hook acts more as a story device to remove characters, whereas the real guts of One Missed Call can be found in the investigation that quickly becomes the narrative’s focus.
One Missed Call engages audiences and makes them a part of the mystery, begging you to create your theories as to why people are dying and as the mystery of the phone calls unravels, I promise the answer won’t matter. After all, as it is with all parts of life, One Missed Call is about the journey and not the destination.
If you’re a fan of media like Se7en or True Crime documentaries, then this will satisfy your amateur sleuth.
4. Kuroneko (1968)
Infamous Japanese filmmaker Kaneto Shindo’s most well-known horror film is Onibaba (1964). This attention draws viewers away from his oft-overlooked, grim masterpiece, Kuroneko (black cat). Kuroneko, much like Onibaba, is set during the warring states period of Japan. The beginning is brutal, with a soldier’s wife and her mother-in-law living in isolation, when a group of samurai attack them savagely and burn their home to the ground with them inside, causing the two women to return as ghosts searching for vengeance.
Unlike Onibaba, Kuroneko is grounded entirely in the supernatural. Stage elements of kabuki and noh theatre, such as the use of spotlights and mist in the mise-en-scene, enhance the eeriness of each setpiece. Kuroneko offers a complex narrative that capitalizes on the relationships between characters both alive and dead, which you barely ever see in ghost movies. Its writing never feels stilted and tells a one-of-a-kind story that still holds up today.
If you want a blast from the past this Halloween, you’d miss out if you didn’t give Kuroneko a chance.
5. Cure (1997)
Cure by Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a neo-noir horror film. This means you should expect a tense yet beautifully crafted atmosphere set primarily in a hopeless world. It tells the story of Keichi Takabe, a detective, investigating a rash of killings that all have a single man in common. Along the way, the movie explores mysticism and how society treats those who are mentally unwell. These themes keep the narrative grounded in realism and provide the movie with a verisimilitude that is unique among films of both horror and neo-noir genres.
The characters are relatable, particularly in the context of overwork culture, which makes their struggles sympathetic, as it makes their inevitable suffering impactful to a sympathetic audience. This is all the more impressive considering that the score and lighting create an atmosphere of lingering pessimism. All in All, the brilliant storytelling of Cure will leave a bitter taste in your mouth, but it’s a taste you won’t regret.
So there you have it, five Japanese horror films to check out this Halloween. Two are found footage, one a black-and-white classic and the others are thrilling mysteries to unpack.
Take your pick and let us know which one is your favorite in the comments below!