For those who may not know, J-horror is the umbrella term used for any and all Japanese horror movies. The horror genre has deep roots in Japan’s cinema reaching all the way back to the 1960s and it is just as popular a genre now as it was then. In many ways, J-horror seems to have reached its peak in recent years both here in Japan and in the West, most notably through films like The Ring and Dark Water. If you haven’t seen either of these, you’re missing out!
The popularity of these movies though has (for me at least) created a stereotypical Japanese horror movie; a story that revolves around people encountering ghostly spirits that manifest themselves as pale, disturbing children—and that inevitably ends in death.
Now, I have nothing against this type of movie, in fact, some of the best J-horror films ever made fit into this formula exactly. But in some ways, these super popular movies have distorted what J-horror really is; a unique genre that pushes the boundaries and influences cinema around the world.
The list I have created below is not necessarily the best five horror movies Japan has ever produced, but movies that show the variety and uniqueness of the J-horror genre.
Onibaba is the oldest movie on this list and one of the oldest horror movies ever made in Japan. Released in 1964, the movie tells the story of two women: a mother and daughter-in-law left to fend for themselves in feudal Japan after the son/husband is forced to join the army. How they manage to do this, and the repercussions of their actions is what makes Onibaba a horror movie.
Onibaba is a movie completely removed from what we may think of as horror today. There are no ghosts, monsters or zombies and there are few outright scares. What there is, though, is a disturbing story, dripped in suspense with a tone that unsettles you more and more as you watch.
Where to watch: There’s an English subbed version of Onibaba on YouTube.
House is really like no other film on this list. In many ways it doesn’t even resemble a horror movie and you certainly won’t remember it for that reason after you watch it. I remember it for the piano that eats people, for the flying head that bites a girl in the ass and for some of the most ridiculous scenes I have ever seen in any movie, ever.
While the story is one you have seen a hundred times in other movies—five girls go to a house in the woods and bad things happen to them—you will never see another movie like House. It’s a bloodbath, but a cheerful, goofy one. It’s uneven, the special effects have dated horribly and yet none of this matters because it works. House is a cult classic; a fun, scary, gory cult classic.
Where to watch: House is available on Amazon Prime.
Of the five movies on this list, I found Audition to be by far the most unsettling to watch. The plot revolves around a widower television producer that uses a fake audition to find a new girlfriend. It isn’t spoiling too much of the plot to say that the woman he chooses is not all she seems and that things only get worse for him from there.
Audition is a tense, unnerving movie that builds to a graphic, gory, extreme and completely unique ending. It will not be for everyone but it is a very well made film and the director, Takashi Miike, takes you from zero to petrified step by step until the grisly climax. Often listed as one of the best Japanese horror movies ever made, you won’t regret watching Audition for its quality, but may regret watching it for its effect on your sleeping patterns.
Where to watch: You can rent or buy Audition over at Amazon Prime.
No list can be complete without a zombie-themed movie in the mix and Infection is the best J-horror has to offer. Taking place in a hospital, this movie is centered around a patient that is mistreated who then shows signs of a deadly infection. Infection is not your average zombie movie (if you are looking for a Japanese version of The Walking Dead, you should check out the recent cult hit One Cut of the Dead). It has ghostly and psychological aspects to it, but for zombie fanatics, it also has its fair share of gore and green ooze.
The ending will leave you either loving or hating the movie and truth be told I’m still not sure exactly what happened, but Infection is certainly one to watch.
Where to watch: You can find an English subbed version on YouTube.
5. The Grudge
Up until now, I have purposefully stayed away from the mainstream, stereotypical J-horror movies, but to not acknowledge them at all would be wrong. These movies are some of Japan’s most popular cinematic exports and the very best, in my opinion, has to be The Grudge. The plot revolves around a house haunted by the spirits of a mother and son that were killed by the husband and father.
The Grudge scares you not through gore but through a chilling tone that pulls you along throughout the film. The ghosts of the mother and son are scary but it is the build-up of tension and suspense that drives this one. It is the quality with which this tension builds that helps The Grudge stand out from movies such as Dark Water or The Ring because while those movies have their moments, The Grudge is more consistently unsettling.
Where to watch: You can see it with English subs on YouTube.
Need more recommendations for scary Japanese movies? Check out our Part 2 list of 5 Japanese Horror Movies You Must Watch.
This article was updated on 10/11/2019.