Much of J-horror is known for its unashamed strangeness and capacity for bizarre violence, especially in the early 2000s. But Japanese genre films have always been remarkable. Before on-screen violence really existed, the country’s directors were crafting a few of the most gorgeous and terrifying horror films ever to grace our eyes. With lavish doses of mythology, folklore and feudal warfare, these five films are guaranteed to keep you awake.
Woven into a realist tale of survival during the feudal wars, this film features a look at spirits as the draw of desire. One of the several stories that the film examines is that of a greedy peasant who is seduced by a woman, without realizing that she died long ago. Yet many of the surrounding stories, void of the supernatural, are equally as disturbing in their depictions of wartime cruelty. This is stunning cinematic poetry at its moody height.
A darkly comedic, vicious and symbolic movie, ONIBABA is a favorite of horror maestros like William Friedkin and Guillermo del Toro. It isn’t exactly a ghost story – but it is deeply haunting in its moral exploration of desperate people. It also features one of the creepiest masks in cinema history. This one slowly mounts in atmosphere, tension and madness until the shocking conclusion; featuring images that sink deep into the viewer’s psyche and remain festering there.
Crafted by the man behind ONIBABA, this revenge story has some of the most unsettling spirit imagery I’ve ever seen. Its patient, dreamlike atmosphere and extraordinarily crisp visuals lay the groundwork for a bitter and bleak look into folklore. The score is also uncommonly spectral and frightening. The ghost story at its core is fantastic, but even better are its themes and forebodings – a statement about violence and cruelty against women. Dripping with dark mood and intimations, KURONEKO is a one-of-a-kind supernatural myth.
A moving Impressionistic painting, this is one of the most sumptuous horror films ever made. The collection of classic Japanese legends that it tells is eerie and moving, and the visuals make it all the more so. This is pure dark poetry. The cinematography graces the screen like a series of Impressionistic paintings granted unnatural life, spinning tales of classic morality and brilliant twists. At three hours, it’s a commitment to watch, but the reward is massive for fans of patient, artistic and totally unique filmmaking.
Considered the first “extreme” Japanese horror film, this classical low-budget tale of sin and punishment predicts several films – the surreal melodrama of Lynch and the supernatural violence of Fulci, to name a few. The first hour is a dark and over the top drama about murder and vengeance, but the final moments deliver one of the coolest depictions of Hell ever committed to celluloid, a sequence that feels like Raimi adapting Dante. Bold, horrific visuals and a surprisingly epic atmosphere make this one stand out in spite of its slow, crazy plot.
Did I miss any? Comment below and recommend some more Japanese classics!