A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Horror

I have a favorite saying about the horror genre. I love horror, but it doesn’t love me. Grim, I know, but I’m just being real. Despite how much I loved A Quiet Place and its depiction of family relationships, parental sacrifice, and deafness, I can’t exactly ignore the fact that it’s very white. Admittedly, horror does have a reputation of being extremely white, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Films like last year’s Get Out proved that, and there are several non-white authors who write in the genre. But sometimes I get tired of hunting and searching. When that happens, I turn to a tried and true subsection of the genre to satisfy me: Japanese horror.

For many people, the phrase Japanese horror conjures images of black-haired girls in white dresses climbing out of wells, but the genre encompasses far more than that. One of the reasons Japanese horror films ignited such a fad in the early 2000s is that they have very different aesthetics from most English-language horror movies. And while I’m not Japanese myself, I am Asian and there is a lot of cultural overlaps in terms of horror sensibilities.

What is Japanese horror? 

Let’s start with how the subgenre is steeped in folklore. For example, the modern image of the girl ghost in the white dress has roots in cultural beliefs about vengeful ghosts. In fact, traditional Japanese funeral customs involve clothing the dead in a white kimono. If a ghost wanders the earth seeking revenge, of course they wear white. They were buried in it, after all.

Like other Asian horror traditions, Japanese horror also doesn’t concern itself with logic. Not everything has an explanation. Some things simply are. You don’t exorcise the ghost; you work to survive it. That’s how I explain the difference between Japanese horror and American horror. In American horror, you find the pieces that let you defeat the monster. In the Japanese tradition, you desperately try to endure it because the forces at play are far stronger and greater than you. Maybe you can appease it, but how can a mere human think they can defeat these forces, let alone destroy them?

The best horror stories give us insight into the host culture, a snapshot of the prevalent beliefs and anxieties at that point in time. Interested in seeing what that picture looks like for Japan? Read on for a selection of Japanese horror books.

The Foundational Stories

Kwaidan - Stories and Studies of Strange Things cover by Lafcadio HearnKwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn

As you can probably guess by the name, Lafcadio Hearn is not Japanese. He is also not remotely of the modern day, having lived from 1850 to 1904. He is, however, very famous for writing about Japan—specifically his collections of Japanese folklore and ghost stories. You can learn a lot about a culture by its folklore, and you can learn even more about what it fears by its ghost stories. Kwaidan, in particular, gives a good sense of the supernatural traditions that pervade the genre in Japan.

Landmark Japanese Horror Titles

Ring cover by Koji SuzukiRing by Suzuki Koji

“Seven days.” The catchphrase from the movie that kicked off Hollywood’s J-horror fad. Ring, of course, is the original novel that served as the source material for the Japanese movie, which in turned inspired the Hollywood remake starring Naomi Watts. The novel’s premise revolves around a modern urban legend: a videotape causes its viewers to die after a week unless they complete a specific act. A key difference between the original novel and its subsequent movie adaptations is that the protagonist is a man instead of a woman.

Audition cover by Ryu MurakamiAudition by Ryo Murakami

Japanese film aficionados are probably familiar with Audition as the movie that launched Takashi Miike to international fame. For those not familiar, Audition is about a widower who decides to date again. And what better to find the perfect catch than to hold fake film auditions? If this premise sounds skeevy, you’re not wrong. Audition skirts around misogyny, sexism, and female objectification, but then you need only look at the Japanese idol industry and see the roots of those themes.

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

Before The Hunger Games, there was Battle Royale. The book takes place in an alternate history where Japan is controlled by a fascist totalitarian government. The regime maintains its rule through fear, part of which stems from a program that forces junior high students to fight each other to the death on an isolated island. Battle Royale and its multiple film adaptations were very controversial in Japan at the time of their publication and release. The novel was even rejected by a literary horror award despite the committee acknowledging that it was the best entry. Society has changed in the almost-20 years since Battle Royale was first published, but I think that vehement reaction tells us quite a bit about what was going on in Japan at the time.

Titles to Expand Your Japanese Horror Horizons

The Graveyard Apartment cover by Mariko KoikeThe Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Moike

American horror is filled with stories of haunted houses. Since real estate is precious in many Japanese cities, dwelling-related terrors are often connected to apartment buildings. Moike’s novel follows a young family that thinks they’ve found the perfect new home. But since this is a horror novel, we know that’s not the case at all.

Revenge cover by Yoko OgawaRevenge by Yoko Ogawa

If you like Edgar Allan Poe, this collection of short stories is for you. Ogawa delves into human nature via these interconnected tales, building tension all along the way.

Parasite Eve cover by Hideaki SenaParasite Eve by Hideaki Sena

English-language readers may be more familiar with the video game adaptations of this science-fiction horror novel. If you were wondering what a Japanese take on Frankenstein would look like, this is the book to check out. It focuses on the horrendous repercussions of a grief-stricken doctor’s obsession to reincarnate his dead wife. Word of warning: Parasite Eve is very heavy on the scientific detail.

Goth cover by OtsuichiGoth by Otsuichi

Otsuichi is one of the most well-known Japanese horror authors. Goth features six interconnected short stories about two high school students with a shared interest in gruesome murders.

Another cover by Yukito AyatsujiAnother by Yukito Ayatsuji

Part-mystery, part–supernatural horror, Another revolves around a curse that hangs over a middle school class. The story begins when a boy transfers to his new school and befriends a girl, whom all his other classmates ignore. But what first seems like a case of bullying turns sinister when his classmates and people related to them begin dying in inexplicable ways. Now the boy and his new friend must uncover why these things are happening and stop them. Because Another is technically a light novel, there are two volumes, so be prepared to buy volume 2 right away if you get hooked.

Manga Titles

It’s an understatement to say that I’m fond of manga, but in my unbiased opinion, there are a lot of great horror stories in the medium. If you want more horror manga not included on that list, here are a couple bonus titles.

Gyo cover by Junji ItoGyo by Junji Ito

Junji Ito is undeniably a master of horror manga. While Uzumaki is his most famous work, Gyo focuses on the collapse of a relationship against the backdrop of an invasion of multi-legged zombie fish and the floating smell of death pervading their island home. The real reason I selected this title, however, is because the collected volume includes “The Enigma of Amigara Fault,” which is one of the best Japanese horror stories about existential terror ever.

Nijigahara Holograph cover by Inio AsanoNijigahara Holograph by Inio Asano

This dark manga hinges on the fateful decision by a group of classmates to push a girl into a well. This single act sets off a string of consequences that no one predicted, affecting not only the students involved but their friends, families, teachers, and neighbors. If you’ve read Asano’s other manga, the description alone should give you a hint that it’s a bit of departure.

Do you have any other favorite Japanese horror novels and manga? Leave them in the comments!

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