Japanese horror films or J-horror have always been a force to be reckoned with. The country has produced some of the scariest, weirdest and most extreme films the genre has known. In Western pop culture, people normally think of giant monsters (aka Kaiju) or ghost children when it comes to horror flicks from Japan, though the country has produced a diverse wealth of them spanning multiple subgenres. Here, in no order, are ten of the country’s best horror films that feature neither of those things.
Suicide Club (2002)
During the late 90’s to mid 2000’s Japan was making many controversial horror films, one of the most notable being Suicide Club. The film is about police investigating a wave of unconnected suicides and is most notorious for a scene where schools girls happily jump in front of a train. Despite having such a dark subject matter, the film has plenty of humor. Recommended for fans of films that are disturbing and funny at the same time.
Versus is a horror, comedy, martial arts, gunplay fusion directed by the now acclaimed Ryuhei Kitamura. Set in a place known as The Forrest of Resurrection, a gang of Yakuzas fights hordes of zombies while trying to stop their leader from opening a portal to hell. With good laughs, gore and fight choreography, the film has stuff to please just about any kind of geek. In 2004 an extended edition called Ultimate Versus was released. This is the best version to see.
Wicked City (1987)
In the 1980’s anime was known for being very violent and this horror anime is a prime example of that. Set near the dawn of the year 2000, a human agent named Taki and a female demon named Makie take on a group of demons called The Radicals. They must also protect a 200-year-old man named Giuesspi who is the only one who can bring peace to the human and demon worlds. The film mixes frightening visuals with high-octane action and explicit gore and nudity and never feels slow for a minute, but at the same time is able to tell a good story.
During a civil war, two women are raped and murdered by samurai. After the war, many samurai start mysteriously dying. A young hero is then called in from the government who are convinced it’s the work of a demon. Though the film’s plot does involve ghosts, the film is not structured like a ghost movie and is different in style than what Japan’s horror scene would be known for. The black and white look mixed with its feudal setting gives the film great atmosphere. The acting is also very good and you really feel for the characters, something that is lost in a lot of horror.
Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis (1988)
Yet another genre blender, this film mixes horror with science fiction and historical fantasy. The plot is about a demonic reincarnation of an old Japaneses emperor on a mission to destroy all of Toyko. The film was a major part of the occult crazes that swept Japan from the late 80’s-early 90’s. Though very slow at times, this film is full of atmosphere and a story that just draws you in and shocks you at when it wants to. The emperor from this film was the inspiration for M. Bison from the game series Street Fighter.
From Kaneto Shindo, director of Kuroneko, comes another feudal era horror film. Two women have a hobby that involves killing soldiers and stealing their belongings. The women then meet a mysterious man who wears a bizarre mask. Like Kuronekothe film’s setting and lack of color give it good atmosphere. The free-jazz and tribal score also help give the film a bit of a bizarre tone. If Akira Kurosawa made a horror film, it would be Onibaba.
Tetsuo:The Iron Man (1989)
Shinya Tsukamoto is known for directing some of Japan’s craziest films and Tetsuo is no exception. The film is about a businessman who accidentally kills a man who has a fetish for sticking scrap metal in his body. The businessman then starts sprouting metal appendages such as drills out of random parts of his body (not making this up). Shot in black and white and on a low budget this film feels like Eraserhead on crack. The industrial score is also very good and fits the film perfectly. The film would get two sequels, Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer and Tetsuo: Bullet Man.
Vampire Hunter D (1985)
Based on the first of the Vampire Hunter D novels, this film is horror anime at it’s finest. In the year 12,090 AD, a young woman named Doris hires a half-vampire half human named D to protect her from a powerful vampire lord who has bitten her and wants to make her his new bride. Vampire Hunter D is mostly known as the film that inspired the game series Castlevania. Some of the similarities include Doris using a whip as her main weapon and D resembling recurring Castlevania character Alucard. In 2000, the film would receive a sequel titled Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, based on the third book in the series.
Ichi The Killer (2001)
Considered to be one of the most disturbing films of all time. The film is directed by famed Japanese director Takashi Miike and is based off the manga of the same name. The film is about a Yakuza named Kakihara who gets turned on when he feels pain. While torturing a rival Yakuza, he learns of an assassin named Ichi who is a great martial artist who gets turned on when he inflicts pain (not making this up) . The film was banned in many countries due to its explicit violence. Though it is full of shock value, the film doesn’t fail in the story and character departments. The film has a prequel called 1-Ichi, which is done in the style of an anime.
Also from Takashi Miike, Audition is one of the most well-known and greatest J-horror films out there. A father who lost his wife looks for a new girlfriend. The method he uses is a false movie audition held by his friend, who is a filmmaker. Eventually, he finds the girl he wants. The two relate real well though, though the film hints that this girl is not right in the head, leading to an unforgettable climax. The film is known for its roller coaster-like story structure. Most of it is like a romantic drama with hints of horror; you know things are going to get bad, but you don’t know when. The film is very disturbing and creepy without the use of much onscreen gore.