Cinema is never short of horror films providing audiences ample terrifying monsters and erratic jump scares, but the lack of high-quality films in the horror genre always forms a heated debate amongst film enthusiasts. Before Hollywood lavished audiences with numerous remakes, J-horror took the world by storm in the 1990s with its emphasis on psychological horror, haunting movie-goers with vengeful spirits and ghoulish manifestations of one’s dreadful past.
While most audiences are familiar with notable J-horror works such as Ringu (1998) and Ju-on: The Grudge (2002), it is unsurprising that several hidden gems went unnoticed, given Japan’s extensive cinematic history.
Literally translated as “Demon Hag,” the period horror drama takes place during Japan’s civil war in the 14th century. Focusing on two women who scavenge and steal possessions from dead soldiers they murder, their partners-in-crime relationship is put to the test when a man recently returned from war begins to show interest in one of the women.
Taking influence from Noh theatre, Onibaba is a chilling reinterpretation of a Buddhist tale about a mother donning a mask to scare her daughter. Unbeknownst to the mother, the mask clings onto her face, and only through excessive force will the mask be removed, resulting in an anticipated but spine-chilling consequence.
‘A Page of Madness’ (1926)
In the absence of words, sometimes visually unsettling imagery is sufficient in evoking one’s subconscious nightmare. In the case of A Page of Madness, the silent film is both beautiful and disturbing in painting madness slowly consuming a normal man with deadly sins.
The story takes place in an asylum, where a man works as a janitor to visit his wife, who has become sick in the head after years of cruelty suffered from the former. The man begins to experience dismaying hallucinations involving her daughter and inmates with happy-faced masks.
Who knew ideas from a 12-year-old girl could be so unnerving and quirky at the same time? Partly inspired by director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s daughter, the cult classic makes ordinary objects like watermelons and pianos seem menacing, successfully transforming cheesy, unrealistic special effects into some of the most disturbing and memorable moments seen in horror films.
House follows a group of girls whose names represent or reveal one of their salient attributes. Gorgeous, the most beautiful girl in the gang, invites her friends to spend summer vacation at her eccentric aunt’s house. The innocent girls certainly would not have expected a string of supernatural occurrences that would ultimately threaten their once serene lives.
Baffled by a wave of gruesome crimes involving amnesiac murderers and their victims with the letter “X” carved into their necks, Detective Kenichi Takabe (Kōji Yakusho) begins investigating the bizarre murders, eventually pinpointing a mysterious man who poses a common thread amongst all the crimes.
Released at the peak of J-horror, it is a crime that Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s Cure did not receive the same amount of attention as others. Nonetheless, the psychological horror flick has since become much more appreciated globally, even cited by Parasite director Bong Joon-ho as one of his favorite films.
‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’ (1989)
Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a cyberpunk body horror film that became a cult classic primarily because of its unorthodox subject and sardonic take on the superhero trope.
The story begins when a peculiar man with a metal fetish becomes hysterical after discovering his wound, in which he embeds a metal in it, has become infested with maggots. He runs outside into the streets and is accidentally knocked down by a car driven by a salaryman and his girlfriend. After disposing of the corpse, the salaryman is soon infected by a vicious blight in which his body starts undergoing a metal transformation.
‘Helter Skelter’ (2012)
Speaking of body horror, Helter Skelter is a great live-action manga adaptation that reminds audiences of the horrors of being a conventionally attractive woman in a patriarchal society, especially when you are a supermodel whose 15-minutes of fame are soon finished and forgotten.
Paralyzed by the conviction that her beauty is the only thing that matters, supermodel Lilico Hirukoma (Erika Sawajiri) becomes increasingly disillusioned by the fast-moving nature of the fashion industry. Unsatisfied with her looks and wavering position as Japan’s number one supermodel, Lilico resorts to risky surgical procedures, perverse manipulations, and even murder to sustain her status.
If you’re an avid fan of horror manga artist Junji Ito, you will not want to miss out on Spiral. Based on Ito’s manga of the same title, the horror film centers on various paranormal events plaguing a small town involving spirals (or uzumaki in Japanese).
Like most of Ito’s works, the dismaying episodes happening in the film highlight the terrors of the unknown, the unfathomable and unforeseeable. From developing deadly obsessions to abhorrent phobias, audiences will never see spirals the same way they did before.
‘Fatal Frame’ (2014)
Another horror film inspired by another entertainment medium. Fatal Frame is a live-action adaptation of the infamous Japanese survival horror video game series of the same name but omitted several signatures of the game.
An atmospheric horror version of Peter Weir‘s Picnic At Hanging Rock, the film tells an enigmatic curse terrorizing the students of a Catholic all-girls school. With little jumpscares, Fatal Frame relies on creating an eerie, almost other-worldly ambiance that bemuses viewers in this visually striking motion picture.
‘Noroi: The Curse’ (2005)
An often overlooked documentary-style horror film, Noroi: The Curse is a well-crafted film that slowly builds its sinister atmosphere leading to genuine scares. It’s unlike most found footage point-of-view films that consist of frivolous characters scaring themselves with nothing remotely scary to offer audiences, featuring shaky cams that are just nauseous to look at.
Enthralled with an ancient malicious entity called the kagutaba, a documentary filmmaker starts investigating a series of seemingly unrelated incidents which may or may not result in his disappearance.
Comprising four separate Japanese folktales representing each season of the year, Kwaidan is a horror anthology film that is too cinematically stunning to be mad at for not including the usual horror-stricken jumpscares.
The title itself can be translated as “ghost stories,” stories about a swordsman who leaves his wife for a wealthier woman; a woodcutter whose fate becomes entangled with a snow-woman spirit; a young blind musician who develops the habit of performing in a graveyard of spirits; and a writer who tells his publisher a story about a royal attendant and his strange friend in his tea.