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May 7, 2020

27 Japanese Horror Movies That Won't Let You Sleep At Night

There is nothing scarier than a ghost girl with long, black hair waiting to kill you. Or is there?

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Warning: Some content in this post may be potentially disturbing.

Japanese horror influences horror cinema around the world — just look at all the (not always great) American remakes! Everyone knows Ringu (Ring, 1998) and Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) as the pillars of Japanese horror. For that reason (and because they are on every horror recommendation list), they will not be included on this one, though they are still iconic and must-watch classics!

NBCUniversal Entertainment Japan

IMO, Japanese horror triumphs over Western horror in its nuanced and unique treatment of themes and scares. It's more psychological, twisted, creepy, and not always straightforward. Similar to South Korean horror, there's more of a focus on pushing boundaries, and the films masterfully show restraint and build suspense until you're no longer on the edge of your seat but pretty much falling off of it.

Japan's horror cinema reflects its rich culture and tends to focus on yūrei (ghosts), yōkai (demons), onryō (vengeful spirits), and the breakdown of families (family is an important aspect of Japanese culture).

That said, it's not all ghosts — Japan isn't afraid to get wacky and bloody and there's plenty to choose from for fans of blood, gore, and fast-paced action-filled horror.

Ring and The Grudge's iconic status should clue you in that there is so much more to Japan's horror cinema that you're missing out on! So grab your favorite blankie and settle in for your official starter pack to Japanese horror. Beware — it gets pretty dark.

NBCUniversal Entertainment Japan

1. Sadako vs. Kayako (2016)

Kadokawa Corporation / NBCUniversal Entertainment Japan

Let's start off with a bang. Yes, the vengeful ghosts of Ring and The Grudge are iconic, and if you've ever wondered which ghost is stronger, well, here's a movie that brings them together for the ultimate face-off and answers just that. We follow Natsumi, a woman who watches Sadako's cursed videotape and realizes it's only a matter of time before Sadako kills her. She tries to save herself by pitting Sadako against Kayako, a malevolent spirit who resides in a haunted house, hoping they will kill each other and end the curse. The film takes the best parts of the two movies' antagonists and blends them together, capturing the dread and hostility perfectly. It's creepy and fun and totally worth the watch!

Watch it on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and Shudder.

2. Dark Water (2002)

Oz Films

This is a classic that forever remains underrated and one of my faves! Yoshimi is a single mother in the midst of a divorce. To prove she is able to take care of her daughter, she moves the pair into a dilapidated apartment building, where the haunting begins. A dripping leak forms on the ceiling, black hair appears in the tap water, and did I mention the creepy child ghost? It's chilling, with a touching mother-daughter relationship at its heart but don't let that fool you! Fun fact: This is based on a novel by Koji Suzuki, author of the Ring novels, and was directed by Hideo Nakata, who also directed Ring. There's a rather underwhelming American remake that I don't think captures the unsettling atmosphere of the original but don't @ me.

Watch it on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and Shudder.

3. Tag (2015)

Sedic Deux Inc.

An unconventional, quirky, and feminist horror film, this piece has one of the most absurd opening scenes you can think of in cinema: A schoolgirl, Mitsuko, is on a bus with her classmates when everyone else is promptly sliced in half by a deadly gust of wind, leaving her the only survivor. After this, we follow Mitsuko into utterly bloody chaos as she fights for survival in increasingly violent and wacky scenarios wherein her classmates suffer horrific deaths and she must figure out what the hell's going on. There are teachers wielding machine guns, and a groom with a pig's head. It explores the objectification of women, and the story is shocking, creative, and weird. You won't regret giving this sinfully underrated film a watch.

Watch it on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and Tubi TV.

4. Uzumaki (2000)

Omega Micott

Based on horror mangaka Junji Ito's spine-tingling manga of the same name, this film's concept is as eccentric as it is creepy. It's about a cursed town whose inhabitants are haunted by ominous spirals that drive the townspeople mad (and sometimes to suicide). Our protagonists race to break the curse but can it really be stopped? The strengths here are the ghastly body horror, the lack of standard backstory (there's no vengeful female ghost behind this one, guys), lending to the sense of hopelessness, and the nightmarish, surreal imagery (a man crawls into a washing machine, people turn into snails, and oh, have you noticed your fingertips have spirals? Need I say more?). Even the sky is cursed with spiral-like clouds. Not a town I'd want to live in.

Watch the trailer here and get it on Amazon here.

5. Suicide Club (2001)

Omega Project

This film, like Tag, also has one of the most disturbing opening scenes in horror cinema: 54 schoolgirls hold hands and (happily, may I add) commit mass suicide by throwing themselves under an oncoming train. The resulting explosion of blood on the unsuspecting commuters will definitely stay in your head. Talk about making an impression. As Japan is plagued by a wave of seemingly unrelated suicides, police struggle to figure out what's causing the strange behavior. The concept is innovative and gives social critique, considering Japan's suicide rate, as well as commentary on how pop culture fads can influence fans. This one's both sinister and mystifying. And it's directed by Sion Sono, the director of Tag!

Watch it on Amazon Prime.

6. Corpse Party (2015)

Kadokawa Daiei Studio

Corpse Party is based on the horror video game series of the same name; there's an anime and manga too! It's set in a haunted school and is incredibly dark and bloodcurdling, which is right up my alley, so this is one of my faves. It has everything: blood, gore, mystery, and ghosts, so what's not to love? Once again, there's a child involved (but don't skip out just yet). A group of high school students perform a charm called "Sachiko Ever After" to ensure they'll remain friends forever. Instead, they find themselves transported to a haunted elementary school with resentful spirits and Sachiko herself, who's actually the psychopathic ghost of a little girl in a red dress. What really happened at the school?

Watch the trailer here.

7. Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman (also known as Kuchisake-onna, 2007)

Twin Co. Ltd.

The best Japanese horror films are the ones based on the country's very own urban legends (they're just super entertaining, OK?). Kuchisake-onna, is a popular one, about the ghost of a beautiful woman who was mutilated by a jealous lover. She kills her victims by carving their mouths like hers with scissors. Eeeep. The film follows a teacher, Noboru, who tries to solve a series of child abduction cases. When he realizes Kuchisake-onna is behind them, he discovers he may have a disturbing connection to the ghost. Cue plot twist! The film isn't afraid to get super dark either (there's child abuse and children being killed with scissors). It's a great ghost movie to spend the night with.

Watch the trailer here and get it on Amazon here.

8. Hell Girl (2019)

W-Field

What if you could send people to hell? Hell Girl, based on a successful manga and anime (which I recommend!), focuses on a strange supernatural site that tormented people can access, provided their grudge is strong enough. It enables them to take revenge on their tormentors by sending them to hell — but the price is that the client, at the end of their life, will also go to hell. The vengeance is delivered by Hell Girl, a mysterious entity who enters into a contract with the client. The film is directed by Kōji Shiraishi, the director of our first film, Sadako vs. Kayako, so you know we're not playing around! One of my favorite parts is the line Hell Girl recites each time to the person condemned to hell: "Would you like to see what death is like?" No, I would not, but thanks, sounds super cool.

Watch the translated trailer here and the Japanese trailer here.

9. Pulse (also known as Kairo, 2001)

Daiei

Japan has a knack for making technology into something that you'll never want to use again. We have phones, videotapes, television, and now, the internet! In this cult classic, hostile spirits invade the physical world through the internet, and people who encounter them are left depressed, eventually committing suicide or becoming ghoulish black stains, and people start disappearing around Tokyo at an alarming rate. BTW, don't confuse this with the 2006 American remake. Pulse nails the oppressive, eerie atmosphere, and the ghosts make you shiver. The film is built on the feeling of isolation in an age where we're hyper-connected, which makes it scarier: ghosts using the internet to come after us? You might want to keep your laptop off after watching it.

Watch it on Amazon Prime and Tubi TV.

10. As The Gods Will (2014)

Toho

If you're bored with your day-to-day, how does playing a children's game with your class sound? Except you're playing against bloodthirsty gods and the penalty for losing is a grisly death. That's exactly what happens with high school student Shun in this oddball of a film, adapted from a manga. Shun prays for something exciting to happen in his monotonous life — and gets more than he bargained for. His teacher's head explodes and his class suddenly finds themselves playing children's games like "Red Light, Green Light" with a wicked talking Daruma doll, the walls splattering with red as students lose. They have no idea who's behind it but death awaits if they don't follow the rules. It would be easy maybe — if they knew what the rules even are.

Watch it on Funimation and Vudu.

11. Audition (1999)

Omega Project

In an era when ghosts reigned in Japanese horror, Audition came out to prove that sometimes, humans are worse. A widower holds auditions to find a new wife and falls for a charming woman named Asami. Except there's a mysterious sack in her apartment that sometimes moves. And people who knew her are either missing or...are missing limbs. Not so charming. This film is famous for its graphic climax that is well-earned, horrific, and long. It's also the definition of going from 0 to 100 — it seems like a romantic drama at first before spiraling away from your expectations until you're like OH, my god. And the hefty build-up makes the ending all that more terrifying. So maybe, like, don't hold auditions for a new date? Honestly, this film will probably make you side-eye Tinder, too.

Watch it on Amazon Prime and Shudder.

12. Howling Village (2020)

Toei Company

Howling Village is written by Takashi Shimizu, the creator of Ju-On: The Grudge franchise, so you know, high expectations. It's based on a real location in Japan that you can hike to: Inunaki Tunnel and Inunaki Village in Fukuoka Prefecture, one of the most haunted regions in the country, no thanks to the actual murder that occurred there. In 1988, a 20-year-old factory worker was brutally tortured and set on fire in the tunnel by a group of teens, who were arrested and sentenced. While the tunnel is real, the existence of the village is disputed. It's said that it lies at the end of the tunnel — except the tunnel is mysteriously sealed up now. Japan supposedly does not claim the village as its own so the country's laws do not apply there. But does the village even exist? This film follows a young psychologist who tries to uncover its secrets.

Watch the trailer here.

13. Versus (2000)

Napalm Films

Whoever thought gangsters, an ancient resurrecting forest, and vengeful zombies would go well together — well, they were surprisingly right. A pair of escaped convicts and a group of gangsters encounter an evil spirit and zombies in the Forest of Resurrection: zombies that are actually murdered victims risen to take revenge. It's bizarre and gore-happy with elaborate martial arts and gritty action headed by slightly deranged characters. Reminiscent of Japan's shōnen manga, it never takes itself too seriously and tops off with a mind-boggling twist ending. So if you're looking for a break from all the ghosts, this is a good choice.

Watch it on Amazon Prime and Tubi TV.

14. Battle Royale (2000)

Battle Royale Production Committee

Heavy on the action and carnage, this dystopian horror film is actually considered one of the best films not just in horror but of the entire decade, becoming a worldwide cultural phenomenon, influencing countless other media, and literally becoming a genre unto itself. "Battle royale" now refers to anything where a group of people are instructed to kill each other off until there is one survivor. In this film, the government makes a law to control the country's youth population and a group of nearly 50 unwilling high school students are forced to compete in a match to the death. Does it sound like The Hunger Games? Well, it isn't (and this film came first anyway). They aren't strangers nor are they trained. These are classmates pitted against each other, completely unprepared. As you watch them kill to survive, it brings into question your own morals and you wonder: What would I do?

Watch it on Amazon Prime and Tubi TV.

15. Noroi: The Curse (2005)

Xanadeux Company

This complex film is Japan's original contribution to the documentary-style horror film. Renowned paranormal researcher Kobayashi goes missing while filming his latest documentary on a mysterious curse. The footage shows him investigate a disturbed woman; it escalates until he becomes entangled in a terrifying mystery of village rituals, sacrifices, and deaths, all leading to a demonic entity and a gasp-worthy climax (which involves a child, and anything involving children is a "Nope, I'm out" from me). You'll need all your brain cells for this one. And, this one's also directed by Kōji Shiraishi, the director of Sadako vs. Kayako and Hell Girl!

Watch it on Amazon Prime and Shudder.

16. Exte (2007)

Toei Company

A chalky pale ghost girl with long black hair is basically the face of Japanese horror. So why not make the hair itself the centerpiece? That's what makes this film satirical, original, and spooky. It has great imagery (please reference GIFs above). There's general madness all around, and, hello? Killer hair! When the body of a dead woman is discovered, the morgue watcher, a creepy trichophile (hair fetishist) steals her corpse and realizes that her body mysteriously continues growing black hair from everywhere: head, eyes, tongue, etc. Thrilled, he begins selling it as hair extensions. Unfortunately, whoever wears them is driven insane and killed. Fun. This one's directed by Sion Sono, director of Tag and Suicide Club!

Watch the trailer here.

17. House (1977)

Toho

If Scooby Doo met psychedelic horror, perhaps this is what you would get. It's purposely campy, the visual effects are ghoulishly absurd, and the entire film reads like a trippy visual experience. The girls are stock characters with names that explain their entire personality, like "Gorgeous." It's a bloodbath yet cheerfully wacky. But all of that is part of its charm. When a girl and her friends visit her aunt's country home, they find that her aunt has become a vengeful spirit, and end up facing a demonic house cat, a piano that eats people, evil bed mattresses, and a house that wants to devour them. As one does. Fun fact: The director, Nobuhiko Obayashi, actually got many of these ideas from his young daughter because he believed that children have wilder imaginations and more outlandish fears than adults — and he was right!

Watch it on Amazon Prime and the Criterion Channel.

18. Teketeke (2009)

Tsuburaya Productions

Another film based on one of Japan's terrifying urban legends, this one is about the ghost of Teketeke. It goes that a young woman fell onto the railway tracks and her body was cut in half by a train, leaving her legless. She didn't die right away and became a ghost after no one helped her. She drags her upper torso, making a teketeke sound, and tears her victims in half at the waist. She's also supernaturally fast so victims can't even outrun her in cars *sweats nervously.* Here, after a schoolgirl encounters the entity, she tries to find the angry ghost's origin before it kills her. While it's your run-of-the-mill horror film, if you're looking to give your brain cells a rest and wanna go for something fun and straightforward, this is it!

Watch the trailer here.

19. Parasyte: Part 1 (2014) and Parasyte Part 2 (2015)

Toho Pictures

Parasyte is based on a popular horror/sci-fi manga and anime (which I recommend!). When alien parasites invade Earth, they take over the brains of their human hosts. One tries to enter high school student Shinichi but when Shinichi wakes up, it burrows into his right hand instead. Because it couldn't get to his brain, they both retain their personalities and must learn to coexist as they encounter other parasites who attack him. As the duo work together, they start forming an unlikely friendship. The film questions things like humanity and who the true monster is — after all, the parasites, just like any other organism, are only trying to survive. With graphic body horror and black comedy to boot, this is a fun one to sit down with.

Watch it on Funimation and Vudu (Part 1 here and Part 2 here).

20. Onibaba (1964)

Kindai Eiga Kyokai

This classic ghost story takes us to the 14th century in the marshes of war-torn Japan, where two impoverished women, a mother and her widowed daughter-in-law, are forced to resort to terrible means to survive: they murder lost soldiers, dump their corpses, and sell their belongings. It's a lonely world reeking of desperation, so when a neighbor returns from war and starts an affair with the daughter, jealousy and anger drive the mother to try and separate them — until a demonic Noh mask becomes involved of course. It's a dark, cold folk tale that'll chill you.

Watch it on the Criterion Channel.

21. Tokyo Ghoul (2017)

Geek Sight

Tokyo Ghoul is set in a world where flesh-eating ghouls exist but masquerade as humans in society to avoid drawing attention from authorities. It's based on a manga and anime that's one of my favorites, and with all the unforgiving carnage, the film perfectly captures its dark and dare I say, ghoulish spirit. Ken Kaneki, a college student in Tokyo, survives a ghoul attack and undergoes surgery. Unfortunately, he receives an organ transplant from the very ghoul that attacked him, transforming him into a half-ghoul. He struggles with the fact that he now needs human flesh to survive, tries to hide his new identity from his human best friend, and encounters other ghouls, who, needless to say, don't always play nice.

Watch it on Funimation and Vudu.

22. Over Your Dead Body (also known as Kuime, 2014)

Toei Company

This one's directed by Takashi Miike, the director of Audition, so you already know it's gonna be twisted as heck. Contrary to the tame English title, the original Japanese title "Kuime" has no direct translation but roughly means "the woman who devours flesh," which is far superior and should tell you all you need to know. The film takes the statement "life imitates art" literally as actors prepare for the stage production of a ghost story. Obsession, jealousy, and drama help blur the line between fiction and reality, and star lead Miyuki begins having trouble separating the play from real life. It's gory, psychological, and puts you in the same spot as Miyuki, wondering what's real.

Watch it on YouTube, Amazon Prime, Shudder, and Tubi TV.

23. Another (2012)

Toho

Another is based on a mystery horror novel that also has an amazing anime accompanying it. I recommend both — I actually own the book and it's one of my favorites. There is an ominous air about the entire novel that translates well to the anime and film. The atmosphere is just full of dread and it feels like there's someone always creeping up behind you even when there isn't. And of course, there are the extremely barbaric deaths. In spring 1998, 15-year-old Kōichi transfers from Tokyo to a middle school in a small town. He's put into Class 3-3, which he soon learns is cursed — caught in a strange yearly phenomenon since 1972, the students of 3-3 and their relatives die terribly gruesome deaths. But why?

Watch the trailer here.

24. Jigoku (also known as The Sinners of Hell, 1960)

Shintoho

During a time when Japan's horror movies mostly consisted of ghost stories, Jigoku set out to be different by depicting graphic imagery and shocking visuals of characters being tortured in a literal hell — bodies are flayed alive, for goodness' sake! For the '60s, this was definitely a departure from the norm. When a theology student accidentally kills a yakuza member, he ends up taking a trip to Buddhist hell, where the damned suffer, and there is nothing but degradation and misery. Westerners will see traditional Eastern mythology, different than a Christian hell. It's unsettling and if you've taken a look at the other '60s films in this article, you'll see the difference right away.

Watch it on the Criterion Channel.

25. One Missed Call (2003)

Kadokawa Daiei Studio

This time, it's the cellphone that's the piece of tech at the center of all the horror; namely, a mysterious phone call from the future in which the receiver hears his own death before actually dying a few days later. As the curse takes down the friends of our protagonist, she races to stop it after receiving her own phone call. This one also earned itself an American remake and the terror abounding in the film is reminiscent of what Japan is best at: the creepy, the supernatural, and vengeful ghosts at the root of it all.

Watch it on Amazon Prime and YouTube.

26. Kwaidan (1965)

Bengei Pro

The only anthology in this post, this film is a collection of four ghost stories based on Lafcadio Hearn's Japanese folk tales. Kwaidan is famous for its stunning cinematography, breathtaking sets, and beautiful use of color, often being compared to paintings. You'll find high praise heaped on this one — it won the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, received an Academy Award nomination, and was said to be "among the most beautiful films I've seen," by Roger Ebert himself. Wow, OK, I'm listening. My personal favorite is Yuki-Onna, which tells of a woodcutter meeting a murderous snowy ghost in the forest. It feels like you're in a wintry fairy tale and I love fairy tales so I'm biased.

Watch it on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and the Criterion Channel.

27. Kuroneko (1968)

Nichiei Shinsha

Kuroneko, which means "Black Cat," is an eerie ghost story based on a fable and set in Japan's war-torn Heian period. It opens with a group of soldiers ravaging the home of Yone and her daughter-in-law, before murdering them and burning their house down...though their bodies strangely remain intact. When there are reports of traveling soldiers getting their throats ripped out by vicious ghosts, Gintoki, a heroic warrior, is sent to slay them — only to discover that he has a connection to them that will prove dire. The film is directed by Kaneto Shindo, who directed Onibaba!

Watch it on the Criterion Channel.

Enjoy scaring the wits out of yourself! I've included many of my own faves here, and if you think there's anything I missed, let me know below and I shall add them to my watch list right away! Now, excuse me while I go curl up in my blankets and start this Japanese horror marathon.

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