Japanese horror movies (j-horror) are known for monstrous creatures like Godzilla and unique takes on traditional horror films that greatly depart from Western storytelling convention. Sometimes called J-horror, these films focus more on psychological terror than straight-out gore, as well as Japanese folk traditions such as demonic possession and ghosts.
Notable Japanese horror directors include Nobuo Nakagawan, who started making films of all genres in 1934 but began making horror films based on Japanese folk legends in the late 1950s; Masaki Kobayashi, who made the J-horror masterpiece Kwaidan in 1964; Takashi Miike, known for extreme violence and yakuza-related themes in films such as Ichi the Killer (2001); Hideo Nakata, known to the West for films such as Ringu (1998) and Dark Water (2002); and Takashi Shimizu, who created the whole Ju-on/Grudge franchise about a vengeful ghost that kills whoever enters its house.
In this list, we review and analyze all the best Japanese horror movies from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and throughout all of the 2000s. This list is setup in reverse chronological order, from newest to oldest.
Most of the films listed here are in Japanese, but have versions available with English subtitles.
In this visually striking and literally silent film—there is no accompanying music, as the Japanese tradition used to involve having a narrator explain silent films to audiences—a man becomes a janitor at a mental institution hoping to free his wife from the madhouse. The original film had been thought entirely lost for over forty years until the director found a print in his shed in 1971. Time Out wrote that “A Page of Madness remains one of the most radical and challenging Japanese movies ever seen here.”
The first of the kaiju films in which giant monsters terrify Japan, Godzilla (Gojira) and its numerous sequels—it’s the longest-running franchise in film history—was originally a reflection of the Japanese public’s post-nuclear trauma after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated at the end of World War II. The giant dinosaur was living placidly in the ocean until disturbed by H-bomb testing, at which it went on a violent rampage, tearing Tokyo to pieces. An Americanized version, featuring new scenes with actor Raymond Burr, was released in 1956 as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
Nobuo Nakagawan is considered the original master of the horror-film genre in Japan, and his film Jigoku, translated “Hell” or “The Sinners of Hell,” is one of the early great scary movies from Japan. This movie contains extreme moments of torture and violence, and is a cinematic rendering of straight-up hell. A glowing review at Criterion.com says “Jigoku is more than merely a boundary-pummeling classic of the horror genre—it’s as lurid a study of sin without salvation as the silver screen has ever seen.” Director Nobuo Nakagawan began working on films all the way back in the 1920s and produced several comedies and documentaries before taking a stab at horror in the late 1950s as he began doing cinematic retellings of the Japanese kwaidan tradition of ghost fables.
Another installment in the long-running kaiju series launched by Godzilla, Ghidorah’s namesake is a flying, three-headed monster who attacks Tokyo, leading a princess from Venus to plead with Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra to fight Ghidorah and save planet earth. It’s the first of the kaiju films to depict Godzilla as a hero rather than a villain. The film was released in 1965 in the US as Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster.
Onibaba (which means “Demon Hag” in Japanese) is a period piece set during the war-plagued fourteenth century. A younger woman and an older woman randomly kill male samurai so they can loot their belongings and sell them. But the only samurai they don’t seem able to vanquish is the strange one who wears a mask.
Roger Ebert described Masaki Kobayashi’s visually arresting masterpiece Kwaidan (Kaidan, AKA Ghost Stories) as “among the most beautiful films I’ve seen.” Based on the 1904 novel Kwaidan: Stories and studies of strange things, it’s actually four separate films in one: “The Black Hair,” “The Woman of the Snow,” “Hoichi the Earless,” and “In a Cup of Tea,” all of them rooted in ancient Japanese folklore. The four short films were each intended to represent a different season of the year.
Also released in Japan as Kaijū Daisensō (The Giant Monster War), this is the sixth kaiju film in the Godzilla franchise. The plot involves aliens who beg earthlings to let them borrow Godzilla and Rodan to fight the three-headed Ghidorah, only break their promise and make all the monsters attack planet Earth. Godzilla performs his famous “victory dance” for the first time on film after defeating Ghidorah. The movie wasn’t released until 1970 in the USA with the title Monster Zero.
In this installment of the Godzilla franchise, the King of the Monsters is pitted against a gigantic condor as well as an impossibly oversized shrimp named Ebirah. With an original Japanese title of Gojira, Ebirâ, Mosura: Nankai no daiketto, the filmmakers originally intended to call the film Operation Robinson Crusoe and have King Kong rather than Godzilla as the “heroic” giant monster. The film wasn’t as well received as other installments in the series because very few people are interested in seeing Gozilla fight a giant shrimp.
Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, The Face of Another is a horror movie of existential questioning of identity based on the novel of the same name by Kōbō Abe. The movie explores what happens when we are given a new identity—the liberation and the fallout. When a man is horribly disfigured in an industrial accident, his wife no longer wants to have sex with him. But after he receives a face transplant, his wife—not knowing it’s him—falls madly in love with him, causing him to have a deep and horrifying crisis of identity.
In yet another spin on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, this time around nature rebels against civilization in the form of insects, who have teamed together around the world for the purpose of extinguishing humanity. Genocide (Konchu daisenso, AKA “Great Insect War”) also involves the extremely common post-WWII horror trope of unleashed radioactivity, which in this case seems to have triggered the insect uprising. Many scenes show disturbing images such as insects biting human skin or laying eggs inside human organs.
Released in Japan as Gojira-Minira-Gabara: Ōru Kaijū Daishingeki (Godzilla, Minilla, and Gabara: All Monsters Attack), this was released in an astounding array of different English titles: All Monsters Attack, Minya: Son of Godzilla, Godzilla: All Monsters Attack, Godzilla, Minilla, Gabara: All Monsters Attack, All Monsters on Parade, Attack All Monsters, and finally, Great Charge of All Monsters. It tells the story of a lonely Japanese boy who visits Monster Island and is befriended by Minilla (a baby Godzilla), and they bond over their stories of being bullied. Much of the movie contains stock footage from previous Godzilla movies.
This is based on a simple traditional Japanese ghost story: A man falls in love with a woman. The woman dies. The woman returns, still dead, hoping to rekindle their romance. Released in Japan as Seidan botan-dôrô. 10kBullets enthuses that “Visually director Chusei Sone creates a dreamlike world where reality and dreams are one in the same.”
The film starts with a scratchy old phonograph machine playing a 1904 recording of Pablo de Sarasate’s 1878 composition, “Zigeunerweisen,” which is a German term meaning “Gypsy Airs.” Two men—one a professor and one a drifter—argue over inaudible voices in the recording as they eventually seduce one another’s wives and become tormented by ghosts.
The first in an infamous series of extremely graphic and gory torture films that were so realistic, many thought they were actual snuff films. In this installment, three men pour worms over a woman, throw entrails on top of her, smash her hand with a hammer, and insert a needle in her eye—among other tortures. Guinea Pig: Devil’s Experiment (Ginī Piggu: Akuma no Jikken) would be followed by a sequel (Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood) that was so realistic, actor Charlie Sheen contacted authorities to report it.
In Evil Dead Trap (Shiryō no wana, “Trap of The Dead Spirits”) a TV reporter requests viewers to mail in home movies. She receives a snuff film that was shot at a local factory. She and her crew go to the factory to investigate, and, employing one of the most time-honored horror movie tropes of all time, they split up and are then murdered one by one.
A man who is so obsessed with all things metallic that his is simply known as The Metal Fetishist is accidentally killed by a businessman. But the dead Metal Fetishist gets revenge by slowly turning the businessman into a metallic cyborg with an unforgettably large spinning drill-like penis. The film was so popular that it spawned two sequels:Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992) and Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2009).
Also released as Phantom of the Toilet, School Mystery is based on a Japanese urban legend about the ghost of a young girl who resides in school bathroom. But Phantom of the Toilet was actually released in two versions—a 1995 version involving a haunted boy’s bathroom, and a 1998 version that revolves around a high-school girl’s bathroom.
A blockbuster in Japan, this film quickly became the highest-grossing horror movie in Japanese history. It spurred a flurry of sequels as well as an American remake (2002’s The Ring) and its sequels. It also ushered in a new international respect for Japanese horror. The plot revolves around a cursed videotape that kills anyone who watches it within a week after they viewed it.
The Black House is rather average horror movie in the larger context of asian horror cinema. That said, it does have a creepy atmospheric feel and is an interesting example of early 90s horror from Japan. One reviewer on IMDB, though, applaudes the film and think it’s ripe for an American remake: “I don’t know why this one hasn’t been seen more. Excellent direction, acting, shooting, music and mood. It’s definitely ripe for another USA, copy-cat production, and not much would have to be changed, because it’s a fairly universal plot involving insurance scams, psychopaths and other fun stuff.”
Uzumaki means “spiral” in Japanese, and a small Japanese village is filled with them. The spiral pattern on a snail’s shell. The spiral staircase from which a boy jumps to his death, smiling. A man commits suicide by spinning around and around inside a washing machine. Spirals—as far as the eye can see, even while dreaming. Suddenly even the clouds in the sky form spirals. TV Guide described the film as “A surreal fairy tale that coils in on itself like a slow-motion whirlpool and achieves an atmosphere of sublime creepiness without ever precisely making sense.”
Two different storylines involve two groups of people who fear that evil spirits have invaded the planet through the internet and plan to attack the earth. Spoiler: If you see someone wearing red, they’re going to die soon. The San Francisco Chronicle says that Pulse “uses the trappings of horror movies to offer a meditation on urban loneliness.” The film was remade in America in 2006 with the same title and a screenplay by Wes Craven, who says he hated the film that resulted.
The film begins shockingly, as 54 schoolgirls line up on a subway platform and throw themselves in the path of an oncoming train. Not long afterward, two nurses throw themselves outside a window. Odd rolls of skin are found at each suicide scene, and they match the skin of the suicide victims. A detective is brought in to investigate these surreal occurrences. Released in Japan as Suicide Circle (Jisatsu Sākuru).
Director Hideo Nakata (Ringu) brings this creepy tale of a mother and her young daughter who move into an apartment that is covered in water due to a leak from the floor above. A red bag keeps appearing. Hair pours out of the tap when you turn on the faucet. The terror ramps up a notch when it’s discovered that someone may have died in a water tank a year ago. Released in Japan as (Honogurai Mizu no soko kara, “From the Depths of Dark Water”).
A skittish Tokyo cameraman becomes obsessed with a legend about ghosts who haunt Tokyo’s subways. But he decides to cast off his fear (as well as his Prozac) and dive into the legend firsthand. He sees one terrifying thing after the next, but is he really just seeing himself for the first time? The Austin Chronicle describes Marebito as “a movie about a movie about fear.”
This is the third in a series of Japanese Ju-On movies involving a vengeful ghost that stalks and torments anyone who enters the house where it resides. The first two were Ju-on: The Curse (2000) and Ju-on: The Curse 2 (2000). It also spurred a series of American remakes, sequels, and even “sidequels.”
Filmed in found-footage style as if a documentary is being filmed as we watch, Noroi depicts a paranormal researcher who is investigating some strange occurrences, all of them supposedly caused by an ancient demon, for a documentary but winds up missing in the midst of filming. Horror Guys say the film presents “a complicated world, with psychics, investigators, demons, flooded towns, rituals, skulls, ectoplasmic worms, and pigeons. It’s got interesting imagery with the skulls and tied ropes was well as the clear, modern camerawork competing with old videotape footage.”
In Takashi Miike’s One Missed Call (Chakushin ari), people start getting voicemail messages from themselves in the future, telling them exactly when they’re going to die. One woman who receives a call attempts to unravel the mystery before she dies. The Austin Chronicle panned the film, calling it “a second-rate J-horror entry that bores rather than scares.”
A vain supermodel (“Being forgotten is like dying”) who’s obsessed with plastic surgery undergoes procedures from her head down to her toes. But she is not prepared physically nor mentally to deal with the side effects of all that surgery. Screen Anarchy called Helter Skelter (Herutā Sukerutā) “a strangely nightmarish, bitterly expressive insight into the controversial world of fashion.”
What was originally an April Fool’s joke became a reality because of the intense fan interest in the idea. The ghosts of two of the most successful J-horror franchises in Japanese history—The Ring and The Grudge—battle one another for supremacy. Bloody Disgusting says that “Sadako vs. Kayako is not an attempt to be the scariest film in either series, but it also isn’t a campy homage played only for laughs. It’s better than that—it’s a love-letter to J-Horror itself.”