J-horror has long been among the most popular Japanese film genres to grab attention overseas, going back to the 1998 breakout hit “The Ring” (“Ringu”). Sadako, the long-haired female ghost haunting this Hideo Nakata shocker, has become as familiar to many around the world as that other Japanese pop culture icon, Godzilla.
But J-horror has deep roots in folk beliefs that go back centuries and still inform the horror flicks being made today. That is both a limitation — the genre is overpopulated with revenge-bent women spooks — and a strength, giving filmmakers a rich tradition to draw on.
In the spirit of Halloween, here are 10 J-horror films worth watching, one for each day leading up to the spookiest night of the year, in ascending (and entirely personal) order of scariness. Do you dare watch them all?
“One Cut of the Dead” (“Kamera o Tomeruna!” 2017): This zombie comedy by Shinichiro Ueda is not scary in the least, but it’s great fun as well as a guaranteed mood lifter. If you love films at all, you’ll love them even more after you see this cleverly plotted story about a troubled zombie movie shoot that transforms into a life-or-death reality show. Originally released in two theaters in Tokyo, “One Cut of the Dead” went on to become a massive hit, as well as a festival favorite worldwide.
“Kwaidan” (1964): For a cinematic introduction to traditional Japanese ghost stories, this anthology film by Masaki Kobayashi is a gorgeous, if lengthy (183-minute), first choice. Based on stories by Lafcadio Hearn, the film’s four segments are unrelated, though all are lavishly staged and shot in spookily atmospheric color. My favorite is “Hoichi the Earless,” a segment about a young blind biwa (Japanese lute) player who is lured to play for samurai ghosts and faces death at their ethereal hands. A highlight is Takashi Shimura, a favorite of Akira Kurosawa (“Ikiru,” “Seven Samurai”), as the wise, kindly head priest who saves the biwa player from his spectral doom, but at a price.
“The Ghost Story of Yotsuya” (“Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan,” 1959): Nobuo Nakagawa was an innovator of the horror genre for the Shintoho studio in the 1950s, setting his films in the present instead of the folkloric past and adding such Western elements as the title bloodsucker in “The Lady Vampire” (1959). But one of his best-known films is the kaidan (Japanese ghost story) shocker “The Ghost Story of Yotsuya,” with its often-told story of a scheming rōnin (masterless samurai) who poisons his faithful wife, Oiwa, so he can marry the daughter of a wealthy nobleman. Nakagawa’s version stands out for its expressionistic visuals, with sickly greens and ghastly reds intensifying the horrors of Oiwa’s demise, as well as one of Katsuko Wakasugi’s best performances as the mistreated wife and implacable ghost, with its bitter pathos and haunting power.
“Onibaba” (1964): In a seven-decade career as a scriptwriter and director, Kaneto Shindo was immensely productive, but this black-and-white supernatural horror is rightly considered one of his best. Based on a Buddhist parable, the story centers on a middle-aged woman and her daughter-in-law who make their living by stripping armor from dead samurai — the casualties in a 14th-century civil war. Set in a wilderness of susuki grass and shot mostly at night, the action has a closed-in, nightmarish feel, heightened by the lurking presence of a huge pit into which the women dump the corpses. But the real terror, in the form of a demon’s mask, is yet to come.
“The Ring” (“Ringu,” 1998): Based on a bestselling novel by Koji Suzuki, this film ignited the J-horror boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Its static-riddled videotape that kills whoever watches it and its angry ghost, Sadako, who claims victim after victim, have inspired imitators and remakes in such profusion that the film’s once potent scares may seem like deja vu to those watching the original for the first time. But if you know those scares only from hearsay, and have any interest in the genre at all, this modern classic is still a must-see.
“Ju-on: The Grudge” (“Ju-on,” 2002): Director and scriptwriter Takashi Shimizu’s first feature film became a groundbreaking J-horror hit on its release in 2002. Similar to “The Ring,” the film’s then-fresh concept of a female ghost, Kayako, that haunts a suburban house but begins to kill victims outside its confines, has been reworked endlessly, with Shimizu basing most of his career on the “Ju-on” franchise. It’s still essential viewing for genre fans, with its shocks coming in quick, throat-gripping succession and its nonlinear story creating a state of gut-churning discombobulation, as Kayako creeps ever closer.
“Dark Water” (“Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara,” 2002): Another film from J-horror’s early 2000s peak, directed by Hideo Nakata and based on a Koji Suzuki novel, “Dark Water” is a slow-burner that builds to its climax in creepy increments rather than delivering jack-in-the-box shocks. Also, its central pair — a struggling single mom and her cute kindergartner daughter — are sympathetically vulnerable when they move into a dank apartment where the water perpetually drips from the ceiling. And the ever-escalating strangeness they encounter, beginning with a mysterious red bag the mom sees everywhere, becomes hair-raisingly terrifying.
“Pulse” (“Kairo,” 2001): Kiyoshi Kurosawa made his breakthrough to international acclaim with “Cure,” a 1997 crime thriller with a psychopath killer in a trench coat who implants suicidal thoughts in his victims’ brains through hypnosis — an original premise that was brilliantly executed. But 2001’s “Pulse” was even more gripping as well as eerily prescient, with its isolated people sucked into a ghostly online world that drains them of their wills, their souls and, finally, their lives. Think social media with mind-rotting, death-dealing memes. As the ghosts invade the world of the living in this horrific alternative universe, the survivors can only flee since resistance is impossible — and the fear and dread are all too palpable.
“Audition” (“Odishon,” 1999): Once notorious as a film that sent susceptible viewers rushing to the exits or retching in the aisles, Takashi Miike’s “Audition” is, for most of its running time, a relatively conventional drama about middle-aged male obtuseness. A widowed businessman (Ryo Ishibashi) seeks a new wife — and thinks he’s found her in a young former ballet student (Eihi Shiina) with a tragic history, whom he meets through a producer friend’s fake audition. But what he doesn’t notice is her stone-cold psychotic rage. The sequences that follow, staged with Miike’s flair for the wickedly inventive shock, may be hard to watch — or stomach.
“Tetsuo: The Iron Man” (“Tetsuo,” 1989): Arriving on the screen as Japan’s bubble-era economy was soaring to new heights — and its film business was sliding to a postwar low, Shinya Tsukamoto’s zero-budget cyberpunk horror smashed into audiences like a visual and aural tsunami. Accompanied by Chu Ishikawa’s mind-rattling score of noise music, this film about two men — a salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) and a “metal fetishist” (Tsukamoto) — who transform into crazed piles of ambulant metallic junk was a frontal assault on genre conventions and sanity itself. Three decades later this bizarre black-and-white vision of a world gone mad still has a raw force that transfixes and disturbs.
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