Many of the most terrifying and nightmare-inducing horror movies hail from Japan. Nearly every subgenre of horror owes a debt of gratitude to J-horror or Japanese horror films. From found-footage and analog horror to traditional ghost stories and body horror, these films have confronted global audiences with concepts and images that effortlessly bleed into their nightmares.
Most of the best Japanese horror films come from the ’90s and the 2000s, which is when J-horror first attained worldwide notoriety through films like Ringu and Ju-on. However, old-school horror hounds who remember Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Kwaidan know that Japanese horror has been infecting nightmares since the mid-20th century. Indeed, while Japanese horror isn’t as prominent today as it was in the 2000s, the foundations it laid gave way to contemporary horror concepts and sensibilities. For viewers curious about the history of J-horror – or just looking for their next mind-bending horror fix, there are plenty of terrifying Japanese horror movies that will give you nightmares.
10 Audition (1999)
One of the most underrated Japanese horror films, Audition is a realistic subversion of traditional J-horror elements – cleverly wrapped in the guise of a romantic comedy. Indeed, the premise is innocent and funny enough – a widower and his film producer friend hold fake auditions for the part of the widower’s wife. This results in the widower meeting the soft-spoken Asami, whose dark and mysterious past is slowly revealed as Audition transitions from rom-com to absolute horror. What makes Audition unique from other nightmare-inducing Japanese horror movies is that it’s extremely rooted in reality, making Asami’s secrets all the more feasible and terrifying.
9 Ju-on: The Grudge (2002)
Kayako and her son, Toshio, are murdered by Kayako’s jealous husband, resulting in a curse that turns Kayako and Toshio into spirits bent on revenge. The first victim of the titular grudge is Kayako’s husband, but anyone who stays in their house are fated to be consumed by it as well. This curse also spreads to wherever the new victims die. The results of toxic masculinity manifesting into a vengeful and murderous female ghost is a highly common trope in Japanese horror, and this was popularized in the west thanks to Ju-on: The Grudge. Apart from being nightmarish, the concept has enabled Ju-on to expand into a massive horror franchise.
8 Gozu (2003)
After yakuza member Ozaki starts becoming a liability, his brother Minami is tasked with killing the erring gangster in Gozu. While trying to prevent Ozaki from killing an innocent woman, Minami inadvertently carries out his task – but then loses his brother’s body. Minami’s search for Ozaki results in a comedic surrealist nightmare, involving a man who can contact spirits and a female version of Ozaki. In Minami’s dreams, he encounters the titular Gozu – a man with the head of a cow. From Audition director Takashi Miike, Gozu is a surreal and highly sexual Japanese horror movie guaranteed to grant first-time viewers some memorable nightmares.
7 The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959)
One of the scariest ghosts in Japanese horror movies, The Ghost of Yotsuya‘s Oiwa is based on the vengeful spirit of the same name from the kabuki play Yotsuya Kaidan, one of the most adapted Japanese ghost stories. It’s about samurai Tamiya “lemon” and how he murders and schemes to marry the beautiful Oiwa, only to eventually have Oiwa killed and get haunted by her ghost. The roots of many nightmare-inducing Japanese horror movies can be traced back to The Ghost of Yotsuya, a foundational J-horror film. Despite its age, The Ghost of Yotsuya remains an effective combination of a ghost story and body horror fundamentals.
6 Horrors of Malformed Men (1969)
Based on the thriller novels of Japanese author Edogawa Rampo, Horrors of Malformed Men is about a medical student who escapes a psychiatric hospital and assumes the identity of a dead man that he resembles. Later, the student is drawn to an island to find the father of the dead man, where he encounters a scheme to turn people into malformed creatures, culminating in a great twist. In Horrors of Malformed Men, body horror meets the art of butoh, a contemporary Japanese dance designed to contrast classical Western dance with extreme movements. Combined with imagery inspired by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this movie is pure nightmare fuel.
5 Kwaidan (1964)
The definitive adaptation of Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Kwaidan is an anthology film featuring four horror stories. Both “The Black Hair” and “The Woman of the Snow” are love stories gone wrong, but with very different takes on vengeful ghosts. Meanwhile, “Hoichi the Earless” is about a blind musician whose skill earns the attention of a dead emperor’s court. Lastly, “In a Cup of Tea” tells the story of a writer who envisions a different ending for an old tale and pays the ultimate price. The winner of the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, Kwaidan is an awesome intro to Japanese horror folklore.
4 Ringu (1998)
The Japanese horror movie genre wouldn’t be what it is today if it wasn’t for the nightmare-fueled Ringu. A film that became pivotal to J-horror gaining worldwide appeal, Ringu started the surge of American horror films adapted from Japan. The ghost, Sadako, terrorizing her victims through electronic devices also gave rise to the subgenre of analog horror, which proved to be a highly relatable and effectively horrifying concept for Western as much as Japanese audiences. As the movie that first bridged traditional J-horror elements with turn-of-the-century household items, Ringu established a new way for filmmakers to crawl into audiences’ nightmares.
3 Jigoku (1960)
Out of all the nightmare-inducing Japanese horror movies throughout history, only Jigoku actually takes viewers into hell. While the first half of the movie is a surreal introduction to the lives of Jigoku‘s unlikable cast, the second half is a deep dive into the Buddhist conception of the hellish afterlife, where hopeless spirits atone for their sins. A crash course in practical effects and old-school production set pieces, Jigoku envisions strange torments and intense visuals bound to seep into audiences’ dreams. Despite its age, Jigoku remains a masterful and convincing view of what awaits sinners in the afterlife.
2 Dark Water (2002)
In the middle of a messy divorce, a woman and her daughter move into a decrepit apartment in Dark Water, a film by Ringu director Hideo Nakata. After a worsening water leak from the ceiling emerges, the woman experiences strange events, such as seeing a creepy long-haired girl in the building and finding hair coming out of the faucet. What makes Dark Water unique from other Japanese horror movies that elicit nightmares is that, underneath its ghost story, the movie is actually a tragic family drama. However, this touch of domestic life only makes the horrors of Dark Water more relatable and prone to showing up in viewers’ dreams.
1 Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
Apart from being a terrifying Japanese horror movie guaranteed to give audiences nightmares, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is also considered to be one of the best Japanese horror movies of all time. The movie sees a Metal Fetishist, who obsessively inserts metal into his thigh, get run over by the Salaryman after he runs into the street, While the Salaryman flees the scene, he soon finds pieces of metal protruding from his own body. This leads to him getting increasingly haunted by sexual and violent dreams involving human bodies combined with machines. Disorienting, shocking, and possibly offensive to modern sensibilities, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is nightmarish J-horror at its finest.