The Best J-Horror Movies and Where to Watch Them

Joyuurei (1996)
Director: Hideo Nakata

Look closely.

Joyuurei (known as Don’t Look Up in some parts of the world) was in fact the film debut of Ring director Hideo Nakata. If you’ve never heard of it, it might be because it’s never seen an official release in North America. Even in Japan Joyuurei is far from the household name Ring quickly became, and I myself only ever heard about it because of a random film geek who frequented my bar (he was ranting about how bad Juon was: “You call that a ghost?! Now Joyuurei, that’s how you do ghosts!”).

It’s a shame, though, because as far as I’m concerned, Nakata had already mastered his craft by the time he embarked on this flick, and there’s plenty to love here for anyone who loves Ring. Expert tension building and payoff, and a handful of scares so subtle, you may well miss them.

Availability: I’ve heard of a European release (Don’t Look Up), but if you’re in the Americas, bootleg is your only option aside from importing the movie and a DVD player. Or, uh, you could just watch it right now on YouTube in glorious 360p.

Popcorn Factor: 7/10. Quite a few scares to enjoy here, and the film has a tad more spring in its step than Ring. Some of the more subtle scares harken back to the lurking “boogieman” in John Carpenter’s Halloween, or last week’s presidential debate.

Audition (1999)
Director: Takashi Miike

audition-header

This more than most movies on my list is fairly notorious as a hallmark of “extreme Japanese horror,” but really it’s a movie that warrants a bit of solemn meditation. Buried just beneath its surface is a very real and evergreen story about abuse, where antagonist and victim are really one and the same. In any case, if you’ve somehow made it this long without having the movie spoiled for you, I recommend going in knowing as little as possible about it. It’s really good.

Availability: Due to its notoriety, Audition is one of the few movies on this list to make the jump to Blu-Ray in North America. Quite a luxurious release, in fact, with a double-disc collector’s edition loaded with features. It’s also on a number of digital streaming services.

Buy on Amazon

Popcorn Factor: Uhhh I wouldn’t suggest eating anything while watching this. But if you are watching this with popcorn, you’ll probably find yourself dribbling kernels in horrified disbelief a few times.

One Missed Call (2003)
Director: Takashi Miike

one-missed-call-header

If Audition is more of a genre-bending cautionary tale that happens to be horrific, One Missed Call is the perfect genre movie, undeviating in its intentions, and yet self-aware enough to keep things fun and keep you surprised. Speaking to Miike’s insaaaaane versatility as a director (he was pumping out about four movies a year around this time—often bouncing between completely different styles, genres, and budgets), One Missed Call somehow simultaneously feels like a by-the-numbers horror flick, and like something completely fresh.

Availability: DVD.

Buy on Amazon

Popcorn Factor: 10/10. This is the popcorn movie on this list—fun, terrifying, subversive, and meaty—better order a large.

The Locker 1 & 2 (2004)
Director: Kei Horie

the-locker-header

The Locker movies occur pretty much back-to-back and each one clocks in at a lean 71 minutes, and you have to buy them as a set in North America, so you might as well just pretend they’re one movie and watch ‘em both in one sitting. Both movies answer the question, “What if one of those abandoned ‘coin locker babies’ fought back?”

Don’t expect high art here—the Locker double-feature (known in Japan as Shibuya Kaidan) is about as formulaic as the long-haired ghost subgenre gets, but there are some fun scares and goofy moments throughout that make it feel akin to, say, a Final Destination sequel. You may laugh your way through these flicks, all the while secretly feeling pretty spooked.

Availability: In North America, you can grab both movies in this DVD 2-pack.

Buy on Amazon

Popcorn Factor: 9/10. You’ll be two-handing Redenbacher by the time the opening credits roll.

House (1977)
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi

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This came long before Ring brought horror back with a vengeance, but it’s too precious not to include. House is somewhere at the intersection of Sailor Moon, Ernest Scared Stupid, The Amityville Horror, and a Peter Gabriel video. It’s a little hard to explain, just watch it. Come on, it’s a Criterion.

Availability: DVD, Blu-Ray, and streamable in NA. Looks like House was Weird Enough.

Buy on Amazon

Popcorn Factor: 9/10. Hell, have corn on the cob. This movie and corn are like this ::twists fingers into a disturbing braid::

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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