The Best J-Horror Movies and Where to Watch Them

best-japanese-horror-films

The Japanese film industry has been in a rough place these last few years. It seems to have mostly abandoned the auteur-friendly culture of the early 2000s in favor of more financially lucrative but artistically demoralizing trends; overproduced, committee-crafted adaptations of big-name manga and anime series reign supreme now, and no film gets out the door without first meeting the mandated ratio of pop stars and “talents”  (miscellaneous seat-warmer celebrities) to actual actors. Maybe that’s harsh, but by all means, prove me wrong.

During the late ‘90s to early 2000s, however, Japanese film enjoyed a renaissance of visionary directors who thrived at the mid-budget level, creating gripping, often genre-bending and convention-defying works notable for their juxtaposition of utmost restraint and extreme spectacle.

The horror genre, in particular, saw new life with the release and subsequent runaway success of Hideo Nakata’s Ring, a movie which made “Sadako” a household name for many, solidified the “long-haired ladyghost” as a horror archetype for many more, and spawned a legion of imitators and innovators, even launching Hollywood into a momentary love affair with J-horror remakes, some of which weren’t half bad.

For those of you who, like me, enjoy spending October basking in bad vibrations, I present the following list of my personal Japanese horror recommendations.


Ring (1998)

Director: Hideo Nakata   

sadako-window

You gotta start with Ring. Few Japanese movies of the last fifty years have achieved the global notoriety of Hideo Nakata’s adaptation of the Koji Suzuki novel (which is just dandy in its own right). This launched a horror renaissance in Japan and a Hollywood remake fad, with Gore Verbinski’s respectable (and in some ways, superior) remake The Ring coming in 2002.

I think what’s special about Ring is how well it demonstrates cinematic restraint and economic use of spectacle. It’s very easy to be restrained and boring. But the best horror flicks are restrained and terrifying. To me, Ring harkens back to some of the horror greats of the ‘70s and ‘80s (think The Exorcist and Carrie), which built and built and built over what seems an excruciating amount of screentime by modern standards, but which resulted in such brain-buzzing payoffs, they were like tantric sex. You could say Ring is the tantric sex ‘70s movie of modern J-horror, though I will concede that a few aspects of the film feel a little unpolished eighteen years later—Sadako’s victims wear a deathface only a mother could pity, with the rest of us chuckling a little.

Availability: Last seen in North America on DVD, comically titled Ringu. But the cool kids watch this flick on bootlegged VHS anyhow.

Buy on Amazon

Popcorn Factor: 6/10. For such a notorious horror flick that was, at the time, a hit with the teens, it’s actually pretty damn slow and bleak. But there’s just enough terrifying spectacle in there to bring the circa-’84 Michael Jackson out of all of us.

Rasen (1998)
Director: George Iida

rasen-header

Make no mistake—Rasen (Spiral) is the true sequel to Ring, though interestingly both movies were released at the same time in Japan. A fine film in its own right, Rasen was nonetheless a box office disappointment, I would guess largely due to its lack of scares. The tonal shift between Ring and Rasen is one rarely allowed in Hollywood, but one that pays due respect to the author’s ambitious narrative. Mostly absent is the horrifying imagery of its predecessor (Sadako is sexy now), but you may be surprised to find yourself in tears before the credits roll.

Availability: DVD.

Buy on Amazon

Popcorn Factor: 3/10. Not really a great Halloween pic unless you’re marathoning the Ring series. But I had to include it as an important part of the Japanese horror series. You may want to trade popcorn for a stiff drink.

Ring 2 (1999)
Director: Hideo Nakata

ring-2-headerJust a year after the release of Ring and Rasen and seemingly as a response to Rasen’s floppy reception, Nakata returned as director with Ring 2, a film which abandons the trajectory set by series progenitor Koji Suzuki in favor of more chills, thrills, and…a kind of silly attempt to explain the Ring “virus” with pseudo-science. Ironically, with the return of Nakata and most of the original film’s cast, Ring 2 feels much more like a continuation of the first movie, adequately building upon the precedent it set, with just a bit more visual polish and just a few more scares per hour, one of which is still one of my all-time favorite horror scenes (I won’t spoil it). It also does away with the derpface of Sadako’s victims in favor of…well, something more effective.

Availability: DVD.

Buy on Amazon

Popcorn Factor: 7/10. Sadako still ain’t Freddy Krueger, but it’s clear that this movie prioritized scares over, uh, making sense.

Ring 0  (2000)
Director: Norio Tsuruta

ring-0-header

If Rasen is all heart and Ring 2 is all scares, prequel Ring 0 ties things together quite nicely, offering at least one of the most chilling moments in the entire series, as well as a surprisingly touching love story, all wrapped in a distinct, soft-focus visual style which helps it stand out as a break in the series timeline. Well worth a viewing.

Availability: DVD.

Buy on Amazon

Popcorn Factor: 5.5/10. Right in line with the first movie in terms of its build-to-payoff ratio, but it lacks the catchy “urban legend” formula of its predecessor and tugs at the heartstrings a lot more.

10 thoughts on “The Best J-Horror Movies and Where to Watch Them

  1. Now that I’ve read the whole list my main question is what film (or director) would you recommend for someone who is more interested in thought provoking horror? To give some context I’m not a huge horror fan, but not because I innately don’t like scary movies. I just find myself more frustrated by most characters’ poor and often suicidal decision making that occurs to push the plot forward and it always feels like a writing crutch that takes me out of it. That feeling of constant annoyance when someone picks the dumbest option (again) overpowers any atmosphere that’s built up and I’m basically asking for them to be killed off at that point. I appreciate atmosphere and clever scares over pure horror or gore for gore’s sake. I’d genuinely like to find some horror though that I can enjoy and immerse myself in though.
    .
    Also I was a little thrown off by the popcorn factor. Is it supposed to be like a rating of how stressful or easy it is to watch? Like a low number means sit and watch intently and a high number means just press play and have some snacks? Or is it just a straightforward rating where low is bad and high is good?

    1. Thanks for reading!

      >Now that I’ve read the whole list my main question is what film (or director) would you recommend for someone who is more >interested in thought provoking horror?

      In general I’d say Kiyoshi Kurosawa is your man. He had his big international breakout with Cure, which is more of a thriller in the vein of Seven, but after that he made a string of thought-provoking ghost movies, including Pulse, Retribution, and Loft (which is available on some streaming services, I think).

      His movies tend to be sort of allegorical and apocalyptic, using ghosts and other horror elements as devices to say something–often something rather grim–about humanity. Less about scaring the audience, more about making a point or exploring an idea.

      Try out Pulse and Retribution and see what you think. His stuff can be polarizing, but tends to be a hit with those who want thought-provoking horror. I also highly recommend “It Follows,” thought it’s not Japanese.

      >Popcorn Factor

      Yeah, a little nebulous, sorry. I guess I look at it as, some horror movies are all about fun, cheap thrills. Others are really challenging and require some effort on the viewer’s part to keep focused or understand the point. I wouldn’t necessarily throw on Jacob’s Ladder when I’m having a bunch of chums over for a fun movie night. That’s what Sharknado is for (I guess; haven’t seen it). So, it’s not a case where low is bad and high is good, it’s just meant to give a general sense for the kind of viewing experience you’re in for.

      Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s movies tend to be quite slow and restrained, and people looking to be scared the way they are when they watch Paranormal Activity are often disappointed. But people who want a deep, interesting film often sing his praises.

      One Missed Call, by contrast, is a more “fun” movie, in my mind. It basically follows a formula everyone knows–urban legend turns out to be true, sexy young adults get picked off one-by-one in increasingly creative and shocking ways. But it happens to be a particularly shining example of that formula. Miike is such a directing powerhouse, it’s like he just followed the same recipe as everyone else and still made the best soufflé in the house.

      1. Thanks that pretty much answered my questions perfectly! I’ll check out Kurosawa’s works and see how I like them, but going by your answer it’s what I’m looking for. I tend to be very detail oriented when I watch anything so if they’re the kinds of movies that ask for that then I’m already there. What you’ve said about One Missed Call both here and in the article has me interested in it as well though. Something that’s maybe not as thought provoking but is a prime example of how “fun” well done horror can be.
        .
        Also not sure what your anime interest levels are but are there any good horror anime you’re aware of? The only things I’ve seen that I think would classify are Kowabon, Kiseijuu: Sei no Kakuritsu (Parasyte: the Maxim), and some parts of Shinsekai Yori (From the New World). I do realize I should really read Uzumaki at some point though.

  2. What a great list! I just watched Pulse for the first time (yeah, shame on me) last month. I’m not a person that gets scared easily but that rubbery woman walk absolutely made my skin crawl. It’s too bad the end wasn’t as strong but still worth a watch.

    The original Grudge is just one I can’t watch anymore. I remember watching it on a lower res…..VHS or DVD….not sure, and being genuinely unnerved. I watched it again recently on Bluray thinking it would be just as unsettling and I was shocked at how it became almost comical in HD. It’s hard to be afraid when you have a crystal clear picture and all you are seeing is a child in makeup.

    Nice to see I’m not the only one who hasn’t watched Kaidan. That has been on my list for years but I’ve never quite found the time or mental space to engage in a 3 hour Japanese folk horror.

    If I can make an addition, I quite enjoyed “A Tale of Two Sisters”. Yes, it’s technically South Korean but it will give you that fix for Asian horror. (Feel free to skip the terrible American remake).

    1. Yeah, I always try to downplay the scare factor when I talk about Pulse because I don’t think you can really sell the movie on that, but there are a couple moments that are really chilling. I came around to the ending. Like I said in the article, the movie resonated with me a LOT more on my second viewing, and all of a sudden a lot of the boring stuff came alive and was terrifying.

      I’ve only ever watched the V-cinema version of Juon on low-res bootleg, and even then the makeup was pretty fake-looking in many shots. V-cinema in general probably makes an awkward transition to digital HD. I do still respect a lot of the storytelling and scare setups in that flick though. Just thinking about the attic scene (recreated in The Grudge) still freaks me out.

      I loooove Tale of Two Sisters, and yes it scratches a lot of the same itches as a lot of these movies, but I thought I’d be remiss to conflate Korean with Japanese. That is a terrific horror flick though, one of my faves. Maybe I’ll do a Korean list one day.

  3. Keep up the October themed articles, Laser Time. I’m loving them! I only wish I wasn’t so damn busy so I could contribute more to the community!

  4. I have two to recommend.

    1) As The Gods Will, directed by Takashi Miike. In essence, a giant daruma terrorises a classroom. It’s bizarre, fun, gory and very, very Japanese.

    2) Long Dream (Nagai Yume) – based on the work of Junji Ito. It was actually a TV special in Japan. It was apparently on DVD back around 2008, but it’s not on Amazon now. Nor is it on Youtube. You’ll have to track this down by other means – but it’s worth it. And it’s only an hour long!

    Here’s the trailer for it:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVIz5HwRISw

    1. Oh dang, I never heard about the Miike one. Will investigate!

      I did mention Nagai Yume in the Uzumaki section. That movie’s weird! It definitely exhibits Higuchinsky’s faithfulness to the source material, but was clearly made on a tiny budget. I’ve had that flick on my shelf since 2006 and have watched it once. Probably should give it another viewing.

      Some film adaptations of Junji Ito stories include Kakashi (Scarecrow), Lovesick Dead, and of course the Tomie series, but none of the above are great.

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