The Best J-Horror Movies and Where to Watch Them

Hair Extensions (2006)
Director: Sion Sono

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Sion Sono, most notorious for Suicide Club, is another one of those versatile auteurs (like Miike) who can be a bit hard to place. He’s dipped more than a toe into the horrific, but of all his films, Hair Extensions is the most squarely placed in the horror genre, albeit with self-aware, comedic edge. Unsurprisingly, the movie plays heavily on the long, black hair J-horror trope that by 2006 was growing a bit tiresome, but it takes it to a comical extreme, and is thus what I dub a “post-J-horror” movie. It’s also one of Sono’s more straightforward and digestible pictures.

Availability: Last seen in North America on DVD. You may be detecting a pattern here.

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Popcorn Factor: 8/10. More silly than scary, really, but you might find yourself peering from behind splayed fingers a few times. For the most part, this is one of the horror movies where you’re glad to see the victims get their comeuppance, and that just adds to the fun.

Uzumaki (2000)
Director: Higuchinsky

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Chances are if you have any interest in Japan and horror you’ve at least heard the name Uzumaki before, but I hope you’ve also read the Junji Ito manga series upon which this flick is based. Higuchinsky has a special understanding of Ito’s work evident here and in the (admittedly less good) Long Dream, and he does about as good a job as one could do at adapting Uzumaki it in all its weirdness to film. The movie doesn’t go quite as far off the rails as the comic, if only for time’s sake, but the seasick visual style and surreal tone are spot on, and he even does some crazy subliminal stuff with spirals that take advantage of the movie medium.

Availability: Another Japanese flick stuck on DVD.

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Popcorn Factor: 9/10. This is a fun one. Watch with friends.

Pulse (2001)
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

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Kiyoshi Kurosawa was doing horror before the Ring boom—in fact, he directed Sweet Home, the film counterpart to the Capcom Famicom game which would go on to inspire Resident Evil. But post-Ring, Kurosawa showed no interest in doing by-the-numbers genre films. Rather, he borrowed the staples of popular horror to craft atmospheric, existentialist riddles whose terror unfurls on a deeper level.

You’ll want to watch this one alone, ideally while going through an existential crisis or other personal hell of your own. I watched the movie once as a carefree college student and fell asleep. I watched it again after graduating, when I had no job, social life, or trajectory, and I got so scared my head was buzzing and my eyes welling with tears. Otherwise, you can still appreciate it as a horror movie that dares to be different. It’s also remarkable that Kurosawa made a movie ostensibly about a haunted website and it’s actually good.

Availability: Available on DVD, and I just discovered it’s coming to Blu-Ray later this year! Someone does care!

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Popcorn Factor: 2/10. Pulse (Kairo in Japan) isn’t a very fun movie. There’s no scare quota here. There are a few terrific moments of horror, but mostly the movie glides along at an almost hypnotically slow pace. In general there’s a stillness to Kurosawa’s movies that may have you checking your own…pulse. And no one of his films exemplifies this better than…Pulse. Honestly, even the crunching of popcorn would do a disservice to the atmosphere meticulously created here.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6Ez0eji3Mw

Séance (1999)
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

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Pulse is Kurosawa’s hallmark horror flick, but Séance is most definitely the more accessible of the two. Kurosawa’s favorite lead man Yakusho Koji (you may have seen him as the frustrated single father in Babel) plays a sound effects engineer with a wife who is able to sense apparitions, but frustrated that she never had her big break as a career psychic. That’s about all I’ll spoil for this one, but it’s a spooky ride with some deep emotional cuts along the way. It’s a ghost movie, but also one about getting old. The viewer gets to decide which is scarier.

Availability: DVD only in NA.

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Popcorn Factor: 6.5/10. Plenty of good scares and twists to keep you on the edge of your seat, but there’s a rather depressing subtext or two at work that makes it hard to deem this movie very fun.

Retribution (2006)
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

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You may have figured by now that I like this Kurosawa guy.

The first thing you should know about Retribution is that in Japan, it’s called Sakebi (叫び), which is also the Japanese name of the Edvard Munch painting, “The Scream.” So technically, this is Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Scream. The similarities to Wes Craven’s series begin and end there, but I think the title is significant and it’s kind of a shame that they changed it for the English version, though obviously they would’ve wanted to avoid calling it Scream.

As one of Kurosawa’s later bids in the horror genre (he stepped away from horror shortly after and didn’t return until Creepy, which just released this year and which I am DYING to see), Retribution is even more of a genre outlier than Pulse. The protagonist straight-up converses with his ghost antagonist(?), who herself seems more a sympathetic character than he does, at times. There are still some good scares along the way, but this is definitely a horror movie for people who want an intellectual challenge more than they want to be scared.

Availability: DVD and streamable.

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Popcorn Factor: 5/10. You could pop a bowl.

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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