Picture this: it’s a quiet night and you are listening to some tunes in your room. Then you hear another sound. You turn down the volume and crane your neck to hear well. It seems to come from the bathroom. You turn on the light and see water dripping from the faucet so you turn it off.

You turn the lights off, go back to your room, and blast the music back on. But there it is again– tip-tap, tip-tap. You go back to inspect but see the faucet is closed.

You shrug and think your mind is playing tricks. As you walk back out you see mudded footprints on the floor. You look down at your bare feet and see that they are clean. Then the room goes dark.

There’s nothing like a good horror story to perk up your senses. Horror movies, per se, are great companions during hot summer nights. They chill you to the bones. They also entice a hug from your date (wink). Plus, who says a good scream doesn’t work out the vocal cords?

However, not everyone is fond of this genre as the fear or terror can haunt their dreams and often than not their waking hours. But for those who eat and drink horror, then they can agree that Japan is one of the countries that provide the best horror flicks.

J-Horror or Japanese Horror is often rooted in the country’s folklore and beliefs. Spiritual or religious practices and traditions make the best horror films.

Japanese horror movies focus greatly on psychological horror. They are those that are cerebral in nature so the dread lingers even after the credits roll. These films rely on slow paces and mundane sounds (water dripping, camera clicks, doors creaking) to build suspense and terror, which make the fear realistic.

Japanese cinema though offers a vast selection of horror stories; from the classic ghostly tales, cultural and digital curses, to the gory ones. Whatever you fancy, J-Horror never fails to impress because it has its own imaginative flair that is hard to find in Western films, and below are some of the best Japanese horror movies you sure don’t want to miss.

1Battle Royale

Battle Royale (2000)

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What do you get when you have 42 armed teens coerced to participate in a cruel game of survival of the fittest? Bloody carnage, that’s what, and this is the predominant theme in this cult Japanese slasher flick.

Set in a dystopian future, the government rounds up one high school class yearly for a Hunger Games-style competition. The students are pitted against each other in a death match and whoever survives gets the chance to leave.

This is an action-packed movie but falls in the horror genre nevertheless not because there are any jump scares or cheap thrills. Instead, the terror lies in the gruesome way the students die: from exploding necks, over-the-top bullet and crossbow wounds, and graphic axe mutilations.

Likewise, the horror comes from the very idea of man’s capacity to commit inhumane acts for the sake of survival. The film begs the moral question of how far you would go in order to live.

Director: Kinji Fukasaku – Screenplay: Kenta Fukasaku – Cast: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Tarô Yamamoto, Takeshi Kitano – Run Time: 1h 54m

2Dark Water

Dark Water (2002)

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A single mother moves into a derelict apartment complex with her 6-year-old daughter amid an ugly divorce battle. As if her troubles weren’t enough already, she soon experiences frightful and disturbing incidents in her new home.

These “incidents” happen after the mother complains of a leak on her ceiling that doesn’t seem to get fixed. Out of curiosity, she checks the room above her and realizes it’s locked (probably unoccupied).  From here on out, strange things begin to happen:  locks of hair appear in her tap water, a red bag with a bunny logo constantly appears by her door no matter how often she disposes of it, and she sees a strange girl on the hallways.

This film doesn’t scare you outright. Instead, it starts slow and relies on the senses to build tension and suspense.

The simplest sound of water dripping and the eerie sound of silence in the apartment complex (we don’t see the other inhabitants) are enough to torment your sanity. As with the mother, she too starts to wonder if she’s only imagining things, especially when she’s had psychological episodes in the past.

The horror comes to a head near the end so be sure to stick around for it. Likewise, the ending takes you completely by surprise and dare I say tears are sure to be shed.

Director: Hideo Nakata – Screenplay: Ken’ichi Suzuki, Yoshihiro Nakamura – Cast: Hitomi Kuroki, Rio Kanno, Mirei Oguchi, Asami Mizukawa – Run Time: 1h 41m

3Ju-On: The Grudge

Ju-On: The Grudge (2003)

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Haunted houses and vengeful spirits are common horror tropes, which is what Ju-On: The Grudge is about. What sets this film apart is the curse that the house brings to whoever goes inside.

The curse stems from the vengeful ghost of a mother and her son who haunts the home where they were murdered. Whoever dares enter the house becomes cursed and they pass this to the person they come in contact with.

Those who go in can leave but they can never escape the fear. Once they are cursed, it’s only a matter of time until the ghosts track and kill them.

This film uses spooky sounds and images to terrify. The painted-white ghost and the spine-tingling sound of the mother are enough to haunt your dreams.

The only drawback is that you don’t get time to invest in the characters because the film is told in different points of view. It’s an episodic movie where you see victims one after the other.

Director: Takashi Shimizu – Screenplay: Takashi Shimizu – Cast: Megumi Okina, Misaki Itô, Misa Uehara, Yui Ichikawa – Run Time: 1h 32m

4Ringu

Ringu/The Ring (1998)

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Back in the day, any woman with long black shiny hair is a source of envy among her fellow gender. Men also revere and consider her beautiful. However, the year 1998 would bring about a change in perception following the release of Ringu.

This Japanese horror movie revolves around an urban legend about a mysterious VHS tape that kills anyone who watches it. The viewer dies within seven days.

The killer is the vengeful spirit of a girl named Sadako, who crawls out of TV screens through twitchy limbs. She wears a long white dress and has long black hair that covers her face, save for a peek at one scary eye. Her appearance has since become a Halloween costume and her bone-cracking movements an inspiration among Western horror ghouls.

Sadako is no supporting character and this makes the film even more terrifying than the premise itself. Although you must admit, it’s haunting to think that you too are watching this supposedly cursed video.

Director: Hideo Nakata – Screenplay: Hiroshi Takahashi – Cast: Nanako Matsushima, Miki Nakatani, Yûko Takeuchi, Hitomi Satô – Run Time: 1h 36m

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Noroi: The Curse (2005)

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Noroi: The Curse is a found-footage horror film, a style that is, yes, highly overdone.  This movie though deviates from typical Western execution and made uniquely Japanese with the addition of mix media. It incorporates footage of interviews and television shows to tell a horrifying story about a curse.

This curse perks the interest of paranormal investigator Masafumi Kobayashi who investigates reports about strange noises coming from a small town neighborhood. What he discovers puts his life at risk.

The movie guides viewers into Masafumi’s investigation through the footage, which is found after he vanishes and his house burns to the ground. As with any found-footage movies, this Japanese flick terrifies with its gritty and realistic visuals and sounds.

You feel the terror as you watch events unfold through the protagonist’s eyes. You experience the dread as you see Masafumi get wrapped up in horrifying events after he unravels a mystery involving a malevolent spirit.

Director: Kôji Shiraishi – Screenplay: Kôji Shiraishi, Naoyuki Yokota – Cast: Jin Muraki, Rio Kanno, Tomono Kuga, Marika Matsumoto – Run Time: 1h 55m

6Kairo

Kairo/Pulse (2001)

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You’ll never look at the internet the same again after you see this Japanese horror movie. Comparable to Ringu, this film focuses on evil spirits invading the human world through the web.

The storyline comes in two parallel parts. The first follows Kudo (Kumiko Aso), a shop employee who witnesses a co-worker commit suicide. She and her friends investigate the cause of his death and are convinced the disk he left behind holds the answer. Strange things soon start to happen.

In the other story, a strange video of people in dark rooms exhibiting bizarre behaviors haunts Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) after he signs up for an internet service. He also sees a man with a plastic bag over his head asking for help.

Ryosuke becomes convinced that something evil is about to happen. A series of tragic events follow that result in the diminution of the human population.  A pandemic ensues as the dead now walks among the living.

The horror in Kairo doesn’t come from the premise of the malevolent spirits alone, but also from its obvious reference to the dangers of the internet. It’s a disturbing fact that a great percentage of death causes come from what people hear or see online.

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa – Screenplay: Kiyoshi Kurosawa – Cast: Koyuki, Kōji Yakusho, Kumiko Aso, Shinji Takeda, Jun Fubuki , Shun Sugata, Show Aikawa, Kenji Mizuhashi, Haruhiko Kato – Run Time: 1h 59m

7Reincarnation

Rinne/Reincarnation (2005)

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The story follows a film crew on pre-production for a movie based on a murder that happened at a local hotel. The director decides to film at the exact location where a professor killed his family and the guests before he committed suicide.

However, the horrors of the past have evil ways of interfering with the present.  The lead actress becomes haunted with ghosts of the victims and vivid visions of the murder as if she is watching the tragedy unfold right before her eyes. She watches as the professor captures the victims’ final moments on camera.

The actress finds the very same camera and her discovery paved way for the past to manifest itself in the present. Cast members soon start dying in the same way their real-life counterparts died at the hotel. It seems the professor has returned from the dead to ensure that the tragedy never makes it to the silver screen.

A haunted hotel, a possessed doll, dark rooms and hallways, a cursed camera, and the list go on. These elements make Takashi Shimizu’s film not only creepy and downright scary but also psychologically horrific. This film gets under your skin and messes with your mind. You never know what to expect next.

Director: Takashi Shimizu – Screenplay: Takashi Shimizu, Masaki Adachi – Cast: Yûka, Karina, Kippei Shîna, Shun Oguri, Tetta Sugimoto, Marika Matsumoto, Takako Fuji – Run Time: 1h 36m

8Audition

Audition (1999)

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Upon the suggestion of his teenaged son, a middle-aged widower decides to remarry. The problem is finding the perfect wife. He approaches his film producer friend who suggests faking a screening for a fake film.  

The plan works and several women audition. The widower falls hard for a charming and mysterious woman who may not be who she says she is.  The woman shows interest too, but apparently, she’s not after his love.

This film is a slow burner of a paranoia thriller but is particularly disturbing in general. It reeks of a dark ambiance that makes you cringe.

It starts as a romance drama but comes with a horrific twist at the end that you sure don’t want to miss.  A fair warning: some scenes may make you puke.

Audition is a strange and unique take of the reality of loneliness and the search of means to fill that void. This film is particularly relevant for the online dating world.

Director: Takashi Miike – Screenplay: Daisuke Tengan – Cast: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki, Jun Kunimura, Renji Ishibashi, Miyuki Matsuda  – Run Time: 1h 55m

9Tetsuo The Iron Man

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

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Fancy the classics? Then look no further than Tetsuo: The Iron Man. This black-and-white Japanese horror movie exudes its own aura of darkness and creepiness, all rolled into one.

This film is clearly not for the weak of heart and those looking for some hair-raising moments and jump scares. What it offers is beyond that; loud, graphic, and disturbing images that make you nauseous.

The story is simple. It follows the life of a businessman and his girlfriend after they accidentally run over a metal fetishist.  The man disposes of the body quietly hoping to move on with their lives.

However, the crime creeps up to him in the most brutal way possible.  The man slowly transforms into a machine.

This may seem like a no-nonsense plot for some and that it doesn’t fit into the horror genre. But the horror actually lies in the transformation process. You feel the pain and the agony as you watch wires and tubes slash through flesh and skin.

You cringe at every blood-curdling scream as body parts turn into machine parts. To say that this movie is grotesquely shocking is an understatement.

Props also go to the unique stop-motion cinematography that enhances the disturbing and horrendous scenes in the film. In all honesty, this movie leaves you wincing for days afterward.

Director: Shin’ya Tsukamoto – Screenplay: Shin’ya Tsukamoto – Cast: Tomorô Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, Nobu Kanaoka, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Renji Ishibashi, Naomasa Musaka – Run Time: 1h 7m

10Exte

Exte: Hair Extensions (2007)

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Japan’s ongoing cultural obsession with long black hair transcends even to horror movies. You have Ringu, Dark Water, and One Missed Call, to name a few. Add Sion Sono’s film to the list, which as the title puts it, is about “killer hair” extensions.

Only J-Horror can make this concept of a killer hair not laughable but quite engrossing, enjoyable, and scary. It incorporates the vengeful spirit trope and a murder mystery to enhance the story.

The film opens with some gruesome scenes of a girl’s corpse found among a pile of hair. She is a victim of the black market human organ trafficking. Aside from the disappearance of her internal organs, she also has no hair.

Then the focus switches to the morgue attendant who has a hair fetish. He discovers the corpse provides an endless supply of hair.

Thus, he sells them to salons not knowing that the strands have a life of their own. What ensues is a massive killing spree as the gorgeous manes turn against the head that holds them.

Director: Sion Sono – Screenplay: Sion Sono, Masaki Adachi – Cast: Chiaki Kuriyama, Ren Osugi, Megumi Sato, Tsugumi, Eri Machimoto, Miku Sato, Mirai Yamamoto, Ken Mitsuishi, Hiroshi Yamamoto – Run Time: 1h 48m

11Premonition

Yogen/Premonition (2004)

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The premise of this film is as simple as its title. It revolves around premonitions of deaths but with a twist.

Think CBS’s Early Edition but with a dash of supernatural, gore, and horror. Our protagonist/hero is Hideki, a professor, and a father. During a random stop at a roadside payphone, he picks up a newspaper clipping and sees the photo of his daughter on the obituary section.  Minutes after, she dies in a car crash.

Years later, his daughter’s death still haunts him and he fears the mere sight of a newspaper. He eventually reads about other people’s deaths and tries to stop them, although he can only do so much.

Hideki struggles through visions of the dead. He gets lost in moments where he himself isn’t sure if he is in hell or in the past. He eventually learns that changing the future has its consequences and it involves a sacrifice.

This film has a slow pace that some may find it boring. But the elements of suspense should be enough to keep viewers on their seats. This movie also has a surprising mind-twister of a plot and ending that you don’t see coming.

Director: Norio Tsuruta – Screenplay: Norio Tsuruta, Noboru Takagi – Cast: Hiroshi Mikami, Noriko Sakai, Maki Horikita, Mayumi Ono , Hana Inoue – Run Time: 1h 35m

12Marebito

Marebito (2004)

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Takuyoshi Masuoka is a cameraman obsessed with capturing the sensation of fear near death. He sees a man commit suicide near Tokyo’s subway and wonders what the man must have felt before he died.

He wants to experience the same fear and so he goes to the subways of Tokyo. It’s where according to an urban legend, spirits haunt the living. What he sees there changes the course of his life but also fulfills his quest.

Takuyoshi sees a naked woman chained to a cave. He takes her home and names her F. He tries to feed and tame her but she doesn’t want food or water. She wants blood.

Marebito is a slow but eerie film that borders between fantasy and urban horror. The protagonist’s venture into the subways leads him into another dimension, that of the underworld, where the mysterious woman and other creatures live.

Meanwhile, the horror dwells in the gruesome acts the delusional Takuyoshi does in order to quench his guest’s thirst. The acts also give him a reason to satisfy his curiosity about fear.

There is also something scary about the image of faceless people staring at you and talking to you telepathically. Of course, as with Takashi Shimizu’s other films (The Grudge, Reincarnation), Marebito has a few surprising ghost appearances here and there.

This Japanese horror movie has a disturbing twist at the end. The revelation comes to a head when Takuyoshi confronts his inner demons.

The realization will leave a sour taste in your mouth. It will leave you re-watching and perpetually analyzing every detail of the film to understand the story better.

Director: Takashi Shimizu – Screenplay: Chiaki Konaka – Cast: Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Tomomi Miyashita, Kazuhiro Nakahara, Miho Ninagawa, Shun Sugata, Masayoshi Haneda, Junko Amagi  – Run Time: 1h 32m