The Best J-Horror Movies and Where to Watch Them

Kowai Onna (2006)
Directors: Keita Amemiya, Takuji Suzuki, Keisuke Toyoshima

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Kowai Onna, literally “Scary Woman (or Women),” is an anthology of three short films, each one subjecting viewers to a different kind of scary, scary woman. If you watch just one of the three, watch Gata-Gata (Rattle Rattle), because it’s a riot. It starts off genuinely chilling, and just keeps escalating the scares until you find yourself laughing out loud and the whole thing feels more like zany pop art than a scary movie. The other two stories are weird and wonderful as well, and the whole package has a diversity that may remind you of the Twilight Zone movie.

Availability: Allegedly available under the title “Unholy Women” in parts of Europe, but completely MIA in North America. But hell, YouTube’s had it for years and nobody seems to want to claim it.

Juon series (1998-the end of tiiiiime)
Director: Mostly Takashi Shimizu, lately Masayuki Ochiai

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The Juon series has become one of Japanese horror’s heaviest hitters, bloated long ago into a full-on franchise, now mired in all the trappings of one. True to its own subject matter, the Juon series seems doomed to repeat the same tired concepts in a horrific, endless cycle. Closely mirroring the trajectory of Western horror giants Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, the latest studio attempt to defibrillate the Juon brand came in the form of a hokey crossover, Sadako vs. Kayako. (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see it—Freddy vs. Jason was easily one of the strongest appearances of both lugs.) Prior to that, Juon saw a reboot in 2014, whose utter pointlessness failed to prevent it from getting a sequel the following year.

Juon, like any long-running horror franchise, is a rather uneven offering. The difference is that its unevenness occurs more on a scene-to-scene basis than film-to-film. Like the Freddy and Jason movies, the core of the whole offering is in the creative scare set-ups. Where Ring taught audiences the power of suggestion and restraint, Juon reminded us that the same basic story is still terrifying when you show, show, show. But it doesn’t always work. Each Juon movie is segmented into a series of vignettes, each focusing on a specific character and ending with that character either meeting a catchy demise or at least seeing some pretty scary shit. But what we get is a mixed grab-bag of scenes that show too much, completely defusing the tension, and scenes that show exactly enough, thereby achieving the desired response.

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The main active ingredient in Juon is the simple terror of a weird face where no weird face should be. It’s a primal fear many of us have held since childhood. But you can only stare at the gaping, gurgling, makeup-caked visage of a woman for so long before reason takes over and she starts to look like exactly what she is—a performer in makeup. You start to imagine the unseen aspects of the process, the director yelling, “Okay, cut. Once more, only this time, more gaping! More gurgling!” Juon is at its best when the lighting is just right, the makeup is just right, and the timing is just right; in other words…some of the time.

Then again, on a film-to-film basis, the series has been remarkably consistent. Somehow it maintained the same director through two V-cinema flicks, two theatrical flicks, and even its first two Hollywood remakes, as well as the same actress in the role of nubile gurgle-ghost Kayako. That’s a lot more than you can say for Freddy, Jason, or Michael Myers.

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Still, with so much to sift through, there’s a fair amount you can just skip altogether. If you watch just one movie in the entire franchise—and this may shock you—I recommend watching The Grudge. Yes, the Hollywood adaptation. That may sound like heresy, but look: it’s the same director, employing many of the same exact concepts, plus the advent of Sam Raimi money. To two other best movies in the franchise are the first V-cinema movie and the first theatrical movie, both called Juon. The Grudge essentially reshoots the greatest hits from both of those with better lighting, better VFX, makeup that doesn’t look like makeup, all at no real sacrifice of authenticity. Raimi (and whoever else) very shrewdly recognized that Japan was essentially inexorable from the movie’s core concept, and found a way to keep the setting, ghosts, and really most of the cast Japanese. Even the film’s portrayal of white people living in Japan is pretty true-to-life compared to that found in Japan-set contemporaries like The Last Samurai and Kill Bill, and all the people playing Japanese nationals, actually are. In my book, the bar for portrayal of Japan in Hollywood is unlimboably low, and those who get it even kind of right deserve a lot of bonus points. So to me, The Grudge is essentially Juon with more polish and an interesting extra layer. The worst thing about it is actually Ryo Ishibashi’s overscripted, overacted English—a problem they deftly avoided the reverse of with Bill Pullman’s pigeon-Japanese. But I give Ishibashi a pass because I <3 him so, and because it’s nice to see someone who isn’t Ken Watanabe play an English-speaking Japanese man.

Don’t bother with Juon 2 (V-cinema version), do bother with the theatrical Juon 2 if you really like Juon, definitely don’t bother with the Grudge sequels, and you could take or leave the recent Japanese reboot and its sequel, if you ask me. The jury’s still out on the Vs. movie, but I hope it’s as fun and self-aware as the baseball game version was.

I guess I have a lot of thoughts on Juon. 

Availability: The theatrical movies (1 & 2) are readily available on DVD and streaming services, but good luck finding legitimate copies of the V-cinema ones OH WAIT, YOUTUBE. The Grudge, of course, is an easy find.

Buy Juon on Amazon
Buy Juon 2 on Amazon
Buy The Grudge on Amazon 

Popcorn Factor: 9/10. Lots of creative, wince-inducing scares and characters exercising poor judgment will have you hiding behind your hands and shouting at the screen by turns.

Noroi (2005)
Director: Koji Shiraishi

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The “found footage” subgenre used to be pretty polarizing, but it’s become so ubiquitous and diverse that I think it’s finally gotten its hooks in most horror fans, one way or another. What started as a rather extreme experiment in suggestive, minimalist horror with The Blair Witch Project eventually gave way to films like V.H.S., where things are very much shown (not just suggested), and the handy-cam element just makes things feel all the more, um, intimate.

Noroi, one of Japan’s relative few entries in the subgenre, definitely leans more toward the Blair Witch end of the spectrum. And like Blair Witch, it has an avid fan following, many of whom will tell you it’s one of the most terrifying movies of all time. But like Blair Witch, for every viewer who sees a rare gem of brilliance here, there’s another who sees a whole lot of ado about nothing. I’ll leave it to you to decide, with the general guideline that if you liked Blair Witch, you’ll probably love Noroi. Also if intimate looks at old creepy Japanese mythology (think Fatal Frame) appeal to you in general. If V.H.S or REC was the first found footage flick you could stand, you’ll probably be bored.

Availability: Uhhhh YouTube.

Popcorn Factor: 3/10. Think Blair Witch. You’ll want to watch this one in concerned silence.

Honorable Mentions

Gozu (2003)
A lowly gangster is tasked with offing his own aniki, who has lost his mind. What ensues is a surreal (and darkly hilarious) odyssey through a hellscape rendition of my own old home away from home, Nagoya. This is secretly one of my favorite flicks, but hard to really recommend on its merits as a “horror” movie, even though it’s usually classified as one. Save this one for Valentine’s Day, not Halloween.

Disclaimer: A tiny dog dies horribly in the following trailer, and in the movie.

Suicide Club (2002)
If killin’ yourself is cool, consider these kids Miles Davis. Sion Sono’s breakout classic is certainly horrific, but again, I wouldn’t really call this an October movie. Save this one for Christmas or something.

Kuroneko (1968) 
A gorgeous black-and-white classic ghost story that employs some really clever camera trickery to simulate a haunting, shapeshifting world and…hell, this should really be on the list. It’s another Criterion.

Kwaidan (1965)
This horror anthology is probably required viewing, and I’ve got a shrink-wrapped copy sitting on my shelf, so shame on me, really. I will warn that it’s over three hours long, which is probably why I haven’t made the time yet.

Phew, what a marathon! Of course, the whole thing’s moot if you don’t like horror movies. In which case, Sully is in theaters now.

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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