Top 20 J-horror films – ranked!

Japanese horror has always set the bar high when it comes to making your skin crawl. But which make even the hardened gorehounds wince?

20. Sadako vs Kayako (2016)

Monster movie crossovers are usually a sign of a moribund franchise, but this Ring v Grudge combo is livelier than you would expect. A psychic decides the only way to save a doomed schoolgirl from Sadako’s curse is to introduce another curse into the mix – and get the two to duke it out. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned.

19. One Missed Call (2003)

Students get voice mails predicting their own violent deaths – which duly come to pass, although not without some black humour and a spooky vintage ringtone. Director Takashi Miike plays by the J-horror rules, more or less, but it all flies off the rails in a bonkers final act.

18. Versus (2000)

Yakuza hitmen bury the corpses of their victims in a place called the Forest of Resurrection. Big mistake. It’s gangsters v zombies in Ryuhei Kitamura’s barking mad, low-budget brew of ninja action, wacky camerawork and some of the most OTT acting ever seen outside a Nicolas Cage film. It also has zombies with guns.

17. Monsterz (2014)

A mind-controlling sociopath embarks on a battle of wits with the one man he can’t control, using bystanders as disposable pawns. Hideo Nakata’s remake of the Korean paranormal psychothriller Haunters (2010) is darker than the original and benefits from a lovely Kenji Kawai score.

Suicide Club … ‘Not for the squeamish.’
Suicide Club … ‘Not for the squeamish.’ Photograph: AF archive/Alamy

16. Suicide Club (2001)

Few opening scenes are more startling than that of Sion Sono’s surreal shocker, in which 54 schoolgirls cheerfully link hands and throw themselves under an oncoming train. A wave of suicides turns out to be not entirely unconnected to a mysterious website, deviant glam rockers and long strips of human skin. Not for the squeamish.

15. Marebito (2004)

Between Grudge films, Takashi Shimizu directed this bizarre low-budget, semi-experimental plunge into HP Lovecraft territory. An obsessive cameraman (played by Shinya Tsukamoto of Tetsuo fame) explores a vast netherworld underneath Tokyo, in which he finds a mute naked woman with vampiric tendencies and brings her to the surface to live in his flat. As you do.

14. Retribution (2006)

Kôji Yakusho plays a detective whose investigation into a series of murders is thrown off course when all the evidence points back at him. No Sadako-style ghosts in white for director Kiyoshi Kurosawa; the ghost here wears red, with Kurosawa giving a virtual tutorial in how to conjure a mounting sense of terror out of little more than focus and camera placement.

Death Note.
Death Note. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

13. Death Note (2006)

Forget the naff Netflix remake and stick to the manga anime series or this live action version directed by Shusuke Kaneko. A precocious student finds a notebook with the power to kill whoever’s name is written inside, and starts using it to rid the world of criminals, watched by a 10ft-tall cartoon demon. But, as the body count mounts, the vigilante crusade becomes increasingly morally compromised.

12. Helter Skelter (2012)

The former fashion photographer Mika Ninagawa directed this dazzling manga-based parable about a celebrity “it” girl who undergoes extensive cosmetic surgery to stay on top of the teen idol game, only to sink into a delirium of sex, drugs and spiteful behaviour as unsightly post-op side-effects kick in, and a rival threatens to steal her crown.

11. Bilocation (2013)

Mari Asato’s creepy psychothriller wrings a droll twist on the usual doppelganger movie tropes. A struggling artist discovers she has a malevolent alter ego, and joins a group formed to help people cope with their own increasingly menacing doubles. Asato once worked as an apprentice photographer under Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and it shows.

10. Tag (2015)

Sion Sono tops even his own Suicide Club with the opening to this quasi-feminist horror movie. A schoolgirl called Mitsuko finds herself the sole survivor after a gust of wind bloodily bisects everyone else in the bus she is on. From then on, it’s nonstop WTF action as Mitsuko faces deadly peril in a bewildering succession of different dimensions and identities.

Cure … ‘Uniquely disturbing.’
Cure … ‘Uniquely disturbing.’ Photograph: Alamy

9. Cure (1997)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s first collaboration with his acteur fétiche, Kôji Yakusho, delves into the nature of evil in a psychothriller with a uniquely disturbing ambience. A detective investigates a series of murders with different killers, but each of the victims has an X carved into their neck. The closer our man gets to the truth, the more messed-up he becomes.

8. Confessions (2010)

A high school teacher describes, to an initially inattentive class, her elaborate plan to avenge the death of her small daughter, whom she claims was killed by two of the pupils. Tetsuya Nakashima’s enthralling psychodrama is an aesthetic treat full of twists and shocks. It is also an extremely cruel fable, which takes no prisoners.

Uzumaki … ‘Few weirder films.’
Uzumaki … ‘Few weirder films.’ Photograph: AF archive/Alamy

7. Uzumaki (2000)

There may be scarier films, but few are weirder than Akihiro Higuchi’s one-off freak show, adapted from one of Junji Ito’s horror manga masterpieces. A schoolgirl called Kirie notices the inhabitants of her small town are becoming increasingly obsessed by spiral shapes. Soon, the spirals take over in a truly discomfiting blend of surrealism and body horror.

6. Dark Water (2002)

Like Ring, this was adapted from a novel by Koji Suzuki and directed by Hideo Nakata. A young divorcee and her small daughter move into a flat with a sinister stain on the ceiling. The stain starts to leak. And aaggghhh, the scene with the bath! A terrifying, but emotionally resonant, ghost story grounded by a social realist setting.

Grudge … ‘Oh god, the bedclothes.’
Grudge … ‘Oh god, the bedclothes.’ Photograph: Allstar/Lions Gate

5. Grudge (2002)

In Takashi Shimizu’s remake of his own straight-to-video hit, an assortment of doomed social workers, relatives and cops go trooping into a house haunted by the spectral tag team of “scary broad with long black hair” and “miaow boy”. Horrible things happen. It’s little more than a series of scary set-pieces strung together, but it hits the spot – especially the scene with, oh God, the bedclothes.

4. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

A salaryman gradually morphs into a walking pile of scrap metal with a big power drill in place of a penis. Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo trilogy is not strictly J-horror, but the film-maker’s idiosyncratic brand of expressionist stop-motion cyberpunk coincided with the genre’s move away from 1980s Guinea-Pig-type sadistic misogyny into fun stuff you can watch without barfing.

Audition … ‘Gruelling.’
Audition … ‘Gruelling.’ Photograph: Channel 4

3. Audition (1999)

Heartwarming romcom about a lonely widower who searches for a soulmate by setting up a series of … No, just kidding. He and the audience get more than they bargained for in Takashi Miike’s masterly critique of traditional Japanese attitudes to femininity, which climaxes with a final half-hour so gruelling it makes even hardened gorehounds wince. And, oh boy, that scene with the bag.

2. Kairo (2001)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa reimagines the ghost story for the computer age, in a phenomenally creepy story about suicides on a university campus, internet-spawned alienation and characters who fade away, leaving nothing but shadowy outlines on walls. It’s not easy getting a handle on the plot, although this just makes it all the creepier. It is also known as Pulse (not to be confused with the poor US remake).

Ring … ‘Masterclass in tightening the narrative screws.’

1. Ring (1998)

Gore Verbinksi’s Hollywood remake has its moments, but for chills that burrow all the way into your bone-marrow, there’s nothing quite like Hideo Nakata’s original about the cursed VHS tape that condemns anyone who watches it to a horrible death seven days later. It may not have been the first J-horror movie (it wasn’t even the first adaptation of Kôji Suzuki’s novel), but it was the first to make an impact in the west, and has been spawning remakes, sequels and copycats ever since. Twenty years since the film’s release, the fusion of folklore, urban myth and modern technology holds up nicely, although anyone addicted to rapid-fire editing may now find the pace a bit stately. But Nakata gives a masterclass in tightening the narrative screws and there’s no arguing with that “they think it’s all over” ending, still one of horror’s most hair-raising moments.

•A restored version of Ring is released in UK cinemas on 1 March.


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