Japan boasts one of the world’s oldest traditions of horror storytelling. Noh drama, which dates back to the 14th century, is replete with ghost stories, and many of the masks crucial to a Noh performance are representative of demons.
Fast forward a few thousand years to post-World War II Japan, when the country’s once-popular samurai films were banned—the chivalric order was associated with the right-wing militarism that fueled Japanese fascism. In this cinematic vacuum, Japanese horror movies flourished.
Today, modern Japanese horror movies are known for their visceral imagery, unflinching approach to gore, and an obsession with spirit hauntings. Join us as we screen 7 of the creepiest Japanese horror movies out there.
Literally translated as ‘Demon Hag’, the 1964 Onibaba is a venerated classic of the Japanese horror ouvre. While it’s set in feudal (i.e. samurai-era) Japan, the movie dispenses with ideals of nobility and chivalry; indeed, the movie’s depiction of a war-ravaged countryside is in many ways an anti-war statement. The story follows a trio of bandits, both traumatized by combat and abettors of further tragedy. The gang eventually gives in to lust, jealousy, and betrayal. Somewhere along the line, a demonic Noh mask that infects the face of its wearer makes an appearance. Like many Japanese horror movies of this era, Onibaba’s slowly builds its creepy atmosphere to maximum effect.
Kwaidan came out in the same year as Onibaba—1964—and was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. This is a collection of four ghost stories all set in old Japan, and each saga feels like a lesson in the karmic powers of the universe. With that said, these Buddhist morals exist within a Shinto world, one where spirits inhabit the woods and rivers, and ancestor ghosts are never far away. The most iconic story is the third chapter, “Hoichi the Earless”, which tells the tale of a blind musician sent to perform for a mysterious royal family on the eve of the anniversary of a royal clan’s massacre. I’m a bigger fan of “The Woman of the Snow”, a tale of Japanese winter spirits (Yuki-onna) that’s as creepy, and simple, as a killer campfire story.
Where Onibaba and Kwaidan are rooted in folklore and move at paces that, to the Western audience, may seem glacial, Jigoku is an altogether different kettle of fish. This silver screen meditation on evil (the title means, “Hell”) includes scenes of people abusing their fellow man that are just as disturbing today as they were in 1960. When a wronged mother poisons an entire dinner party in revenge, things quickly go to Hell—literally. Much of the film takes place in the Netherworld, where sins are laid out and punishment is presented in gory, graphic detail. A film that bridges the cerebral fear of the Japanese spirit world with visceral jump-scare horror, Jigoku speaks to both simmering horror buffs and gore heads.
Western audiences know the Hollywood version of this film, rightfully considered one of the scariest movies of the aughts. As good as may be (I’ve heard convincing arguments that it is, in fact, a better movie than Ringu), give Ringu credit for essentially inventing a horror trope that’s now so universal we all freak out whenever a TV switches to snow. Haunted video tapes passed around like an infection, creepy subliminal imagery, a little girl who comes back to Earth as a pissed off onryo right through your TV—this is the flick that made us view our VCRs with a little more suspicion.
5. Ju-On (The Grudge)
The original Ju-On kicked off an entire horror movie franchise dedicated to the angry onryo ghosts who inhabit a house in the Nerima ward of Tokyo. Nevertheless, these movies and the fear they inspire boil down to three basic elements. One: The unrelenting force of Kayako Saeki—when this lady is after a victim, rest assured she’ll apply a Terminator-like drive to her killing mission. Two: Toshio Saeki, with his black eyes and weird thousand-mile stare, he’s the epitome of the creepy kid ghost. And finally, Kayako’s awful , which has to be one of the most iconic audio tags attached to any ghost in cinema history.
6. Dark Water
Japanese horror movies don’t tend to yield good endings, which in a lot of ways is refreshing. But (spoiler alert!) it’s also nice to feature a film on this list that has a hint of happiness, even if that fuzzy family vibe comes at the end of a creepy romp through drownings, haunted apartment buildings, and genuinely unsettling cinematography. Dark Water is a ghost story at its core, but it’s also a tale of motherly love and sacrifice. Above all else, it’s a story that can be universally grasped, and there’s a lot to be said for its simple narrative elegance.
If your friends have seen Audition, they’ll tell you about it like this: “Have you seen Audition [make a disgusted face]. That is one sick movie [make another face].”
Is it the most graphic horror film ever made? No. But Audition does not spare us viewers when it comes to torture, prolonged violence, and a very disturbing scene involving a dog bowl, a sack, and … eh, just watch it.
Still, Audition isn’t just an unbroken series of scenes that make you squirm in your seat. It’s also a story about obsession, loneliness, longing, and fetishization. While these pathologies infect the West, many Japanese feel like they are particularly noticeable pitfalls of modern Japanese society. It’s this distinction that elevates the film above the status of mere torture porn, into something deeper, more thoughtful, and ultimately, more creepy.
Photos (in order): Still from "Ju-On (The Grudge)" via Ghost House Pictures; Still from "Onibaba" via Toho Company; Still from "Kwaidan" via Toho Company; Still from "Jigoku" via Shintoho Film; Still from "Ringu" via Toho Company; Still from "Ju-On (The Grudge)" via Ghost House Pictures; Still from "Dark Water" via Toho Company; Still from "Audition" via Creators Company Connection