One of the best things about horror movies is the endless number of different subcategories associated with the genre, defined by different styles and cultures. For instance, thrillers that come from Japan (such as Audition or the original film that inspired The Ring), incorporate such a distinct tone and means of shock that they have essentially become an entire subgenre, complete with its own commonly used shorthand term (J-horror).
As a testament of just how many great examples of J-horror there are out there, I had to go beyond my normal list of 13 “best horror movies,” out of fear that I might leave off something essential. As a dire necessity, I hope I have covered all the best Japanese horror movies you can watch on streaming, rent digitally, or purchase on physical media in my recommendations below - starting with one that, had I forgotten to mention it, would have been unforgivable.
Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)
A disparate group of people each become tormented by a vengeful spirit, and all for the same reason: each of them entered a house which was the sight of a brutal crime.
Why it is one of the best Japanese horror movies: Actually the third of an ongoing series about the past catching up with you, Ju-On: The Grudge is arguably the scariest installment, but easily the most recognizable, thanks to the popularity of the 2004 English-language remake starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, which writer and director Takashi Shimizu returned to helm himself.
A reporter (Nanako Matsushima) investigating the strange deaths of teenagers supposedly linked to a “cursed” videotape races to uncover its secrets after she watches the footage herself.
Why it is one of the best Japanese horror movies: The terrifying hit Ringu is what essentially sparked Hollywood’s obsession with Americanizing J-horror following the success of Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake, which spawned a follow-up (2005’s The Ring Two) that original director Hideo Nakata returned to direct.
Dark Water (2002)
A newly divorced single mother (Hitomi Kuroki) struggling to rebuild her life is forced to move herself and her 6-year-old daughter into an apartment building plagued by severe water damage and something deadly lurking beneath.
Why it is one of the best Japanese horror movies: The same year the English-language remake of his own Ringu came out, Hideo Nakata released Dark Water - another creepy, emotionally distressing instant classic that was inevitably reimagined for American audiences with Academy Award winner Jennifer Connelly in the lead.
A widower (Ryo Ishibashi) receives help from his film producer friend to find love again by hosting a fake movie casting session.
Why it is one of the best Japanese horror movies: One J-horror masterpiece that has yet to inspire an American remake (and I kind of hope it stays that way) is Audition, which is the kind of slow-burn horror movie I would rather not disclose many more details about. But, as one of the best-known titles from Takashi Miike, viewers should have some idea of the unflinching terror they are in for.
Ichi The Killer (2001)
While searching for his missing boss, a Yakuza enforcer (Thor: Ragnarok’s Tadanobu Asano) crosses paths with a repressed psychopath (Nao Ômori) whose inventive methods of murder inspire much awe and admiration in the sadomasochistic criminal.
Why it is one of the best Japanese horror movies: While not quite as subtle and suspenseful as Audition, the visually unique Ichi the Killer would prove that director Takashi Miike is also a master of balancing relentless brutality with cheekily macabre humor.
Three… Extremes (2004)
A housewife discovers the dark secret behind a groundbreaking aging cure, an attention-seeking actor puts a successful filmmaker into a deadly game of his own creation, and traumatic memories of her childhood torment an author to make up this unholy trinity that certainly lives up to its title.
Why it is one of the best Japanese horror movies: Takashi Miike also put his stamp on one segment of the trio of stories that is Three… Extremes - which, of all the best anthology horror movies, makes a damn good case for being the most viscerally unnerving and emotionally distressing.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
An ordinary business executive (Tomorô Taguchi) suddenly begins to transform into a grotesque, mangled hybrid of man and machine.
Why it is one of the best Japanese horror movies: Not to be confused with the blockbuster that would kick-off the Marvel movies, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a profoundly bizarre and dream-like piece of skin-crawling body horror that I guarantee is unlike anything you have ever seen.
A teenage girl tries to figure out why her friends have suddenly begun to disappear one by one, while visiting her aunt in her seemingly idyllic country house over summer vacation.
Why it is one of the best Japanese horror movies: Not to be confused with the popular TV medical drama House, this cult favorite (originally titled Hausa) is a thoroughly captivating and irresistibly ludicrous fever-dream that I guarantee is unlike any other haunted house movies you have ever seen.
The citizens of a small town slowly become tormented by a deadly obsession with snails and other objects bearing similar imagery.
Why it is one of the best Japanese horror movies: Not to be confused with a recent sequel to Saw starring Chris Rock, the English translation of Uzumaki actually is “spiral,” which describes the image that the cursed characters of this unforgettable adaptation of Junji Ito’s twisted manga cannot seem to get out of their heads.
As every single person around her suffers an increasingly brutal and inhumane death one by one, a meek schoolgirl (Reina Triendl) struggles not to become the next victim.
Why it is one of the best Japanese horror movies: Not to be confused with a 2018 ensemble comedy of the same name, Tag sees someone take a once wholesome backyard game way too far in writer and director Sion Sono’s unapologetically gory adaptation of Yûsuke Yamada’s wild wide of a novel.
Suicide Club (2002)
After a horrifying tragedy seems to spark a string of more self-inflicted deaths all across the country, a detective races to figure out the cause.
Why it is one of the best Japanese horror movies: Audition star Ryo Ishibashi stars as the adult protagonist of Suicide Club - yet another film from writer and director Sion Sono in which school girls suffer grisly fates, but in a comparatively more tasteful and grounded way that also offers up some thought-provoking social commentary.
Tokyo Gore Police (2008)
A young, vengeful cop slices her way through armies of rebellious mutants while in search for her father’s killer in a futuristic society in which the police force has become a privatized, reckless entity.
Why it is one of the best Japanese horror movies: Audition star Eihi Shiina stars as the vengeful, samurai sword-wielding hero of Tokyo Gore Police, a dizzying display of pretty much everything you could ask for from a satirical, dystopian J-horror splatterfest fantasy.
Battle Royale (2000)
As punishment, a group of minors are kidnapped and forced to participate in a fight to the death as part of a recently passed government law in a dystopian society.
Why it is one of the best Japanese horror movies: While the premise of Battle Royale may sound familiar, it actually came out years before the Hunger Games movies, is based on a book written long before author Suzanne Collins even conceived her hit YA novel series, and is considered by many to be the more clever and thrilling film about a juvenile death match.
Two women who make a living off of killing samurai experience a bizarre change in their lives as one indulges in an affair and the other crosses paths with one warrior wearing a horrifying demon mask in the 14th Century.
Why it is one of the best Japanese horror movies: Legendary filmmaker Kaneto Shindô put his stamp on Japanese folklore with Onibaba, a supremely creepy tale boasting one of the most indelible mask designs in the history of the genre.
A series of sinful decisions leads a group of people closer and closer to damnation.
Why it is one of the best Japanese horror movies: The surreal, grim descent into Hell that is Jigoku would earn Nobuo Nakagawa the honor of being referred to as the father of the Japanese horror movie.
When is the last time you saw such a diverse assortment of styles and concepts that all exist in the same genre? That, indeed, is what makes the Japanese horror such a rich and essential entity and we just showed you the best of the bunch.
Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in just about any article related to Batman.
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