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10 essential Japanese horror films everyone needs to see

Over the course of the last century, Japanese horror films have gone through various phases of evolution but all of them have been equally remarkable. Due to the horrors evoked by the aftermath of the Second World War, many artists in Japan responded to the crisis by facilitating the manifestation of their fears through the cinematic medium which resulted in several masterful sociopolitically charged horror investigations.

From ghost stories to the monster genre, Japanese horror films have been a constant source of inspiration for almost all contemporary works of the genre. While Japanese artists have used horror to explore concepts such as the deconstruction of the idea of family in the context of modernity, Western projects have used the same tropes to address questions that are more relevant to their societies.

For this edition of Far Out Fear Club, we take a look at 10 extremely influential Japanese masterpieces that have contributed to the development of the genre in innumerable ways. Including the works of masters such as Hiroshi Teshigahara as well as modern pioneers like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, take a look at some of the most important Japanese horror masterpieces ever made.

10 essential Japanese horror films:

Gojira (Ishirô Honda, 1954)

With the oversaturation of high-budget sequels and Westernised remakes, it is extremely easy to forget why the original 1954 Godzilla was made in the first place. Unlike all the action-packed modern interpretations, Honda’s brilliant Gojira is an allegorical investigation of the grotesque consequences that nuclear warfare can lead to.

“When I was coming back from the war, as the army was returning after our final defeat, we passed through Hiroshima,” Honda said. “Back then, it was said that, for the next 72 years, not a single blade of grass would grow there—and that really stayed with me.”

Continuing, “So I have a kind of hatred of nuclear weapons. It’s horrifying to make such terrible weapons and use them on one city and then another. It was that feeling, for me as a director, that meant I didn’t hesitate one bit to make Godzilla come alive in the film.”

Jigoku (Nobuo Nakagawa, 1960)

Another bonafide cult classic, Jigoku is an indispensable part of the rich and varied history of Japanese cinema because it managed to make the visual experience as harrowing as its narrative. Without any hesitation, the film grabs our hands and takes us straight down to hell where our psyche is rapidly destabilised.

It does all this through a relatively simple story of a young student who gets involved in a hit-and-run incident which brings on an overwhelming guilt. Although the special effects of the film might seem dated to newer audiences, they still serve their primary function of disrupting the normalcy of life.

Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)

Inspired by Lafcadio Hearn’s folk tales, Kwaidan is a mesmerising horror anthology by Japanese master Masaki Kobayashi. Separated into four different narratives with common subtextual elements, Kwaidan manages to capture the entire spectrum of horror. The film received the Special Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival for its investigations.

Kobayashi reflected: “I hate to sound self-aggrandising but watching my films today, they don’t feel dated. What this means is that I really spent time on the editing, but also spent a lot of time working on the whole sound of the film, including the music. So when I finished a film, it was really complete.”

Adding, “Normally, others might spend about three days on the final edit. But I’d spend two weeks, even more in the case of Kwaidan. The fact that I was able to fully complete my films, with no regrets, is a significant factor in why, watching them today, they don’t feel dated, they remain relevant.”

Onibaba (Kaneto Shindô, 1964)

Perhaps the most well-known entry on this list, Kaneto Shindô’s Onibaba is emblematic of the power of Japanese horror cinema. Set in the 14th century, the film uses the context of turbulent medieval Japan to conduct an examination of modern society.

Onibaba revolves around two women whose condition has deteriorated to such an extent that they are forced to rob and kill samurais in order to maintain their pathetic existence. By using elements of Noh theatre, Shindô manages to create a masterful blend of theatricality and terror.

The Face of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966)

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s adaptation of Kōbō Abe’s eponymous literary masterpiece is one of the finest films that the Japanese New Wave ever produced. It chronicles the life of a man who puts on a mask to hide severe burns on his face.

What starts out as an elementary drama rapidly devolves into a surreal, philosophical horror experience which makes us question who we are and where we are going. Like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, The Face of Another asks the right questions and knows the correct way of asking them.

Belladonna of Sadness (Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973)

Although Belladonna of Sadness isn’t usually grouped with other Japanese horror films of its time, Eiichi Yamamoto’s psychedelic animated masterpiece takes us on a gruelling journey. Yamamoto uses the animated medium to portray some of the most heinous acts known to us, thereby curating a subversive and paradoxical experience.

Told through stunning visual spectacles, Belladonna of Sadness is a beautiful meditation on mysticism and female liberation. It tells the story of a female peasant who is subjected to physical and emotional torture but gains agency over her destiny by utilising the power of witchcraft which generates more problems than ever before.

House (Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, 1977)

Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s House might just be the greatest horror-comedy ever made, featuring a girl who finds herself surrounded by supernatural events when she travels to the countryside with her friends. Originally intended to be an action thriller like Jaws, Ôbayashi ended up making a fiercely original parable about a house consuming schoolgirls.

In recent years, House has been revitalised in the public imagination due to its increasing popularity and availability thanks to the internet. While modern successors have continued to produce formulaic haunted house projects, Ôbayashi’s work still remains unparalleled.

964 Pinocchio (Shozin Fukui, 1991)

A criminally neglected horror masterpiece from the 1990s, 964 Pinocchio is the manifestation of a truly demented imagination. It is a cyberpunk essential by experimental filmmaker Shozin Fukui whose experimental works have sadly been forgotten by many.

The film deals with the problem of the post-human condition, featuring a cyborg that was designed to be a sex slave but was thrown away by its owner for underperforming. While experiencing an existential crisis, it embarks on a journey towards a cruel realisation.

Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1997)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is definitely one of the most significant Japanese filmmakers in the landscape of modern cinema and Cure might just be his finest horror film to date. The film presents us with a haunting vision of Tokyo where an ominous serial killer seems to be omnipresent.

“With Cure there is a sociological element, but probably not because I studied sociology at university, but because I watched so many films and those are the elements I learned from the films that I have seen,” Kurosawa explained. “I’d say maybe 1-out-of-100 of the elements you see in the film might be from what I studied in the university as a sociology student, but I’d say 99 is from other films that I have seen.”

Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999)

One of the most popular and visceral Japanese horror films out there, Audition is a slow burn that follows a serial killer whose obsession with the men in her life often has deadly consequences. Through graphic depictions of torture and mutilation, Miike indulges in an effective commentary about the human condition.

While talking about the antagonist, Miike said, “She was a very important character for me. In the original novel, I think she’s there but being played by that actress, she realised… a lot more scary than the original novel. She really completely personified that fear and it’s somebody that.

“It’s a fear that every man would probably see in her and somebody that wouldn’t want to meet in real life. She was really scary as the actress playing the act. She obviously lives on like in your card and yes I think she was quite an important role.”