Japanese Horror Movies
Japanese horror movies are coveted all over the world for their unmatched creepiness and dark themes. So much so that Hollywood has remade western versions of many of them, some of which were hugely sensational. Not only do Japanese horror movies provide unique and scary plot lines, they also manage to deliver horror with beautiful cinematography and extraordinary scripts. The imagination of Japanese film makers never fails to please me. However, I often find that many horror fans have not been privy to the delights that they craft. Therefore, I have put together this short list of 5 of the best Japanese horror movies you absolutely must see. Hopefully there is one or more on the list you are yet to watch, yourself.
5 Best Japanese Horror Movies
Ringu is the most well-known film on this list. Directed by Hideo Nakata, it was released in 1998. Like many other horror fans, I saw the western adaptation first. The western version, however, is not a remake of this film at all; it is a separate adaptation of the same base novel. Kôji Suzuki wrote the novel, “Ringu,” and published it in 1991. Since then, Japanese, Korean and American filmmakers have all made their own movie adaptations. Hiroshi Takahashi wrote the first adaptation, which made it to our list.
A young reporter, Reiko Asakawa, is investigating a cursed video tape. Many believe that if you watch it, you will die exactly seven days later. Reiko is skeptical, until her own cousin falls victim to the video tape. She later uncovers the story behind the video tape, but not without grave consequences.
The faces of the dead show haunting displays of terror. I consider these expressions to be iconic of this version of the story, and they have stayed with me ever since I first watched it.
2. Dark Water
Hideo Nakata also directed this movie, and has received as much acclaim for it as he did with Ringu. He released it in 2002 and also helped adapt the original novel into an American version of the story just three years later. Just like Ringu, Kôji Suzuki wrote the book. I don’t think this story has the same level of on-screen terror as Ringu, but it is far more unnerving. In my opinion, Dark Water is shot with more talent and purpose, as well.
Yoshimi is the mother of a 6-year-old, who has just gone through a divorce and custody battle. She moves into a cheap apartment building with her daughter, and it seems like a great new start for them. Soon, however, Yoshimi begins having terrible nightmares, and the apartment starts to leak water from the ceiling and walls. Her landlord seems uninterested in addressing the problem, which pales in comparison to the nightmares, and the ghost behind it all.
I am very partial to a good canted frame, and Nakata uses this technique exactly when and where it is needed. As a result, he has made a masterpiece of Japanese cinema.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa both wrote and directed Pulse. He released it in 2001 in Japan, and in 2005 in America. Wes Craven and Ray Wright adapted Kurosawa’s screenplay to release a western version of the film, which then grew into a trilogy. The first American version was released in 2006.
After one of their friends commits suicide, a group of Tokyo residents begin to see otherworldly visions. Soon, they realize that the dead may be trying to invade the realm of the living through computers and the internet.
Pulse is possibly the most terrifying on the list. It was made at the height of technophobia, which explains the premise. Nevertheless, Kurosawa directed an absolute masterpiece. He employed very clever film techniques throughout and wrote such a chilling and well-written script. The actors are superb, and Kumiko Asô even took home a Best Actress award. Pulse was nominated for many awards at various film festivals around the globe, including best film (note, not just best horror film, but best film) at the 2001 Sitges International Film Festival. It ended up taking home the José Luis Guarner Critic’s Award.
If you watch only one film on this list, let it be Pulse.
4. Suicide Club
Suicide is a massive social issue in Japan. Pulse touched briefly on the topic, but Sion Sono uses it as the forefront theme in his 2001 film Suicide Club. On its surface, you can clearly see Suicide Club as a detective mystery thriller, however, there is no denying the horror that lies beneath. Sono pays homage to the iconic visual elements of Japanese manga and anime with his use of over-the-top violence and the way he portrays blood splatter. The violence is not why I attribute horror to this film, though.
In the opening scene, 54 school girls jump in front of a speeding train. The train station is a real station that is now a notorious suicide spot. This first display of gore really sets the tone for the movie. It is a beautiful showcase of Sono’s aesthetic that shows us what is in store. I could easily picture the manga-style storyboard. After the first mass suicide, strings of group suicides start occurring all over the country. We follow Detective Kuroda as he tries to unravel the mystery and unsettling true cause of the Suicide Club.
What makes Suicide Club a horror movie, and not just a thriller, is the unsettling tone of it and the unnatural events that take place. The unstoppable nature of what is happening sets my stomach in spirals. This story is far from black and white. This was one of the films that made me fall in love with Japanese horror movies, and Japanese Cinema as a whole. It is how Sion Sono presents a graphic manga story on the screen in such a true-to-aesthetic way that makes it stand out. Also like Japanese manga, it has a deep story that reflects the social climate of Japan in 2001.
5. Ichi the Killer
Okay, so Ichi the Killer isn’t really a horror movie. It made the list because almost all of my Japanese cinema friends pinned it as their #1 Japanese horror movie, despite technically being just a torture porn thriller. It is such a thrill ride, too. Ichi the Killer is extraordinarily graphic, but also has a deep psychological story that you will be asking questions from beginning to end. I suppose the horror comes from knowing that there could very well be people out there that commit these horrific acts.
Kakihara is the most sadomasochistic and loyal yakuza enforcer. When his boss goes missing, he goes on a rampage to find who is responsible. Ichi is an unbelievably skilled gore machine who has a twisted story of his own. They might just be each other’s ultimate counterpart.
To this day, Kakihara is one of my absolute favorite on-screen characters. His whole character is unbelievably badass, and Tadanobu Asano plays it wonderfully. We really get to see his inner turmoil as he wrestles with who he is and what his purpose is. Ichi, however, is simply chilling. His face will unsettle even the strongest of nerves as you watch the massacres.
Like Suicide Club, this movies aesthetic is very much at home in manga. Which makes sense seeing as it was based on one. Hideo Yamamoto wrote the original manga and Sakichi Satô adapted it into a screenplay. Takashi Miike directed this masterpiece, who you might know from his more well-known and critically acclaimed 2010 film, 13 Assassins.