One of the most beloved and influential sub-genres of modern horror is J-horror, or Japanese horror. Films like 1998’s Ringu and 2004’s The Grudge have been remade by American studios. Japanese horror tends to focus less on slasher-style gore. Instead it builds psychological tension, allowing the terror to live mostly in the imaginations of the viewers. J-horror finds its roots in Japanese folklore known as Yōkai, with many of the early films in the genre finding inspiration in classic kaidan, or ghost stories. Now that we’re up to speed on its spooky origins, let’s take a trip through some of the standouts of classic Japanese horror cinema.
A Page of Madness/Kurutta Ichipeiji, 1926 (dir. Teinosuke Kinugasa)
Thought lost for nearly forty-five years, this silent horror film was the product of avant-garde Japanese artists known as Shinkankakuha. Eschewing more naturalistic representation, the film uses unsettling visuals—including some of the eeriest masks you will ever see—to leave a lasting impact on the audience. Set in an isolated asylum in the countryside, we follow a janitor as his volatile relationship with his wife begins to interfere with his ability to do his job. When first released in 1926 the film utilized benshi, which was a popular storytelling narration that often featured beloved poets relating the story to audiences. Today you can find versions with or without the narration, both equally disquieting.
Ugetsu, 1953 (dir. Kenji Mizoguchi)
Based on the 1776 book of the same name by Ueda Akinari, Ugetsu is an example of a Japanese Jidaigeki (period-set) ghost story. In this ethereal and downright spooky film, Masayuki Mori stars as Genjūrō, a potter who ignores warnings from a respected sage not to seek profit during this time of upheaval. Leaving his wife and child on the shore, Genjūrō seeks a new marketplace for his wares. In doing so, he falls under the spell of a mysterious noblewoman named Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō). We later learn that Wakasa is a spirit who has returned to Earth in order to experience love for the first time. Kazuo Miyagawa’s ethereal cinematography transports viewers as effectively as the film transports Genjūrō himself.
The Ghost of Yotsuya/Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan, 1959 (dir. Nobuo Nakagawa)
Finding inspiration in Yotsuya Kaidan, a kabuki stage work that has been adapted more than 30 times, Nakagawa’s film remains one of the most influential in the genre. A tale of betrayal, murder, and ghostly revenge. The film stars Shigeru Amachi as Iemon Tamiya, a ruthless samurai who spends much of his time either murdering people or plotting the murder of people in the name of upward mobility. Eventually the spirits of those he wronged drive the samurai and his co-conspirators mad, allowing the spirits to seek peace once their revenge is complete. You can see echoes of this story throughout later films in the genre.
Jigoku, 1960 (dir. Nobuo Nakagawa)
The last film produced by Shintoho before the studio went bankrupt, Jigoku is notable for its explicit depictions of characters tormented in Hell. Bodies pile up at a breakneck pace in this film, starting with Kyōichi, a yakuza gang leader who dies when students Shirō (Shigeru Amachi) and Tamura (Yōichi Numata) kill him in a hit and run. While guilt wrecks Shirō, Tamura shows no remorse for the incident. Other characters throughout the film suffer from similar guilt for deaths they caused—some in the war, others by more unseemly fashions. The rest of the plot gets a bit complicated, but know there is a mass poisoning, suicide, and eventually torture scenes in Limbo. It’s wild.
Onibaba, 1964 (dir. Kaneto Shindo)
Set during a civil war in fourteenth-century Japan, with her son, Kishi, away at war, an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) survive by killing samurai who wander into their tall grass swamp, stripping them for whatever they can sell. After learning that her son has died and her daughter-in-law is having an affair with neighbor Hachi (Kei Satô), the older woman tries to frighten the younger woman to death with a terrifying mask she stole from one of the dead samurai. The atmosphere of this chilling folktale is heightened by Hikaru Hayashi’s frenzied score and cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda’s striking nighttime imagery.
Kwaidan, 1965 (dir. Masaki Kobayashi)
Kwaidan is one spelling of the Japanese term for ghost stories, which is the perfect title for this anthology film. Inspired by Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, a 1904 compilation of folk tales by Lafcadio Hearn, Kobayashi’s film is composed of four chilling stories. In “The Black Hair” a scheming swordsman who divorces his wife in order to marry for money finds himself entangled with a corpse. “The Woman of the Snow,” has two woodworkers who find their lives changed forever after an encounter with Yuki-onna, or snow spirit. In “Hoichi the Earless,” a blind musician must make a deal with spirits for his life. The final tale, “In a Cup of Tea,” finds a ghastly apparition in a cup of tea that terrorizes all those who look upon it.
The Face of Another/Tanin no Kao, 1966 (dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara)
Based on a 1964 novel by Kōbō Abe, Teshigahara fuses the traditions of J-horror with the slick filmmaking of the Japanese New Wave. Tatsuya Nakadai plays engineer Okuyama, whose face is disfigured in an industrial accident and is subsequently given a lifelike mask to wear. Warned that the mask may change his personality, Okuyama tells his wife he’s away on business and begins to live a new life as a new man. As the film progresses, Okuyama’s personality does indeed change, slowly descending into a life of violence and perversion.
Genocide/Konchu daisenso, 1968 (dir. Kazui Nihonmatsu)
Blending horror and science fiction, Nihonmatsu’s film is a perfect example of Tokusatsu, the Japanese term for live-action films that lean heavily on special effects. While a group of military personnel transport a hydrogen bomb, they are attacked by a swarm of killer insects. Wonderfully cheesy effects are mixed with horrific action. For those who love a slice of weird doomsday cinema, it doesn’t get much more unique than this.
Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell/Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro, 1968 (dir. Hajime Sato)
Another Tokusatsu classic, in Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, passengers of a downed airplane find themselves face-to-face with an alien determined to possess both their bodies and their souls. This pulpy apocalyptic yarn features incredibly gross special effects from Michio Mikami, equally balancing vampire tropes with B-movie flying saucer vibes. There really isn’t anything quite like this film.
Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko, 1968 (dir. Kaneto Shindo)
An example of Kaibyō, or monster cat fiction, the title of the film in Japanese is literally “a black cat in a bamboo grove.” Cats are frequent figures in Japanese folklore, including a spirit known as bakeneko, who can shapeshift. Interestingly, “Yabu no naka” is also an idiom that means a mystery that is difficult to unravel. Set in feudal Japan during a civil war, the story concerns the onryō, or vengeful spirits, of a woman and her daughter-in-law who were raped and murdered by a band of ruthless samurai. Exacting their revenge by posing as refined ladies, they slowly seduce and kill all samurai they meet, tearing at their throats like feral cats. The women’s revenge pact is threatened when they encounter their husband/son, who himself has become a samurai.
The Living Skeleton/Kyūketsu Dokurosen, 1968 (dir. Hiroshi Matsuno)
Mixing tropes from kaidan, doppelganger thrillers, mad-scientist movies, and tokusatsu, Matsuno’s film centers on a sleepy seaside town where a ship sinks after being ransacked by pirates. Years later after a Catholic priest (Masumi Okada) offers shelter to Saeko (Kikko Matsuoka) when her twin sister Yoriko (also Matsuoka) disappears at sea, Saeko discovers the submerged ship and its doomed passengers. Saeko must fight against an unearthly bond to the undead in order to save her own life.
Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees/Sakura no mori no mankai no shita, 1975 (dir. Masahiro Shinoda)
Establishing himself as one of the mavericks of the Japanese New Wave, Masahiro Shinoda’s foray into horror is deeply disturbing. Based on a short story by Ango Sakaguch, the film follows a lowly mountain man who falls under the spell of a woman he meets in an enchanted forest. In order to prove his devotion to her, he marries and murders a succession of seven wives. Composer Toru Takemitsu’s atonal score heightens the beautiful eerie atmosphere of this blood-soaked romance.
Hausu, 1977 (dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi)
One of the most bonkers films ever made, Obayashi’s iconic Hausu follows a school girl who convinces six classmates to come with her to visit her ailing aunt in her isolated rural estate. Facing a myriad of supernatural forces, including a truly beguiling witch cat, the girls are slowly devoured by the house, one by one. Obayashi specifically created the special effects to look as if a child created them, which adds to the film’s quirky charm. Although originally ravaged by critics, the film attracted a cult following and is now considered one of the greatest Japanese films of all time.