Japanese horror, also known as J-horror, influences Western cinema in many ways. With a scary movie tradition spanning back to the late 1940s, Japan introduced the world to vengeful ghosts, post-World War II tales of terror, and kaiju monsters like Godzilla. By the 21st century, Japan’s emphasis on haunted houses and nuclear families shined through with the island nation’s horror movie efforts.
Just like the ’90s, the 2000s were an important decade for J-horror. Each year saw the release of crucial fright films, ranging from found-footage flicks to supernatural psychodramas to dystopian gorefests. As with previous decades, the best J-horror films of the 2000s were later remade for American audiences, including Death Note, Pulse, and Dark Water. But J-horror fans will always prefer the original.
10 2000 – Battle Royale
Long before The Hunger Games, there was Battle Royale. This uniquely Japanese action-filled horror movie follows a group of junior high schoolers who, thanks to Japan’s new totalitarian government, must fight each other to the death until one victor emerges from the crowd.
Drugged and sent to a remote island, the students employ all kinds of weaponry and skills to kill each other and protect themselves. Viewed as one of the best dystopian movies of all time, Battle Royale is also mired in controversy because of its extreme depictions of violence.
9 2001 – Pulse
Pulse is one of the first, and likely the best, horror films to tackle the oncoming internet explosion. Told through two interconnected storylines, the film evolves in a tech-heavy Toyko where ghosts encroach upon the world of the living through the internet.
This digital ghost story is shot with uneasy camerawork, making the storytelling all the more uncanny. While the computers and cell phones in Pulse feel outdated by today’s standards, the themes of despair, loss, and artificiality at the center of the movie still resonate loudly.
8 2002 – Dark Water
While 2002 is also the year Ju-On: The Grudge hit theatres, most critics believe Dark Water is a more effective scary movie. A taut domestic supernatural thriller, Dark Water focuses on a mother and daughter who experience strange occurrences in their new apartment building.
An imminent divorce looms in the background for Yoshimi as the ceiling of her new apartment starts leaking more and more every day. Soon, a ghost literally engulfs Yoshimi and her daughter in a watery deluge of pain, retribution, and fury.
7 2003 – Gozu
Only the most extreme of Japan’s horror moviemakers, Takashi Miike, could turn a movie about the Yakuza mob into a hallucinogenic fever dream. Gozu centers around a gangster underling named Minami who ventures on a bizarre journey through Japan after he’s asked to assassinate an unstable Yakuza leader.
In Miike fashion, Gozu unravels into an absurdist, violent movie that involves ghosts, men donning the heads of cows, and a missing body. Equally macabre and hilarious, Gozu makes for one visceral cinematic experience.
6 2004 – Three… Extremes
This anthology film is the work of three directors from East Asia: Hong Kong’s Fruit Chan, South Korea’s Park Chan-wook, and Japan’s Takashi Miike. In Miike’s contribution, Box, a woman is haunted by memories from her youth as a circus performer
Now a novelist, 25-year-old Kyoko can’t let go of a strange accident that resulted in her sister Shoko’s death. As the short progresses, the distinction between reality and fantasy disintegrates.
5 2005 – Noroi: The Curse
One of Japan’s best found-footage horror films, Noroi: The Curse combines VHS culture, paranormal investigations, and archival images from fictional TV shows to weave together a supernatural story. The fake documentary that structures the film revolves around a filmmaker digging into the legend of an ancient demon known as Kagutaba.
While it builds up to some well-placed jump scares, Noroi develops slowly, relying on atmospherics and old curses to terrify audiences. Each grainy moment of the movie is designed to fill viewers with dread.
4 2006 – Death Note
When Light Yagami stumbles upon the “Death Note,” a magical notebook that leads to the death of anyone whose name is written in it, the college student decides it’s his duty to take out the world’s criminals. This burgeoning vigilante runs into trouble, though, when law enforcement begins connecting all the dots.
A talented detective named L is soon just one step behind the owner of the special notebook. Death Note is based on the popular manga of the same name, and it was remade for American audiences by Netflix in 2016. The remake pales in comparison to the original film.
3 2007 – Kaidan
Set in feudal Japan, Kaidan is a supernatural romance about two ill-fated lovers wrapped up in a ghostly curse. Shinkichi is the son of the cruel samurai Shinzaemon, the latter of whom murdered a moneylender named Soetsu 20 years prior and dumped the man’s body in the Kasenega-Fuchi River.
In the present, Shinkichi falls in love with Toyoshiga, the daughter of Soetsu. Soetsu’s vengeful spirit has no intention of letting the two consummate their love, though.
2 2008 – Sweet Rain: Accuracy of Death
Much more whimsical and poetic than its contemporaries, Sweet Rain: Accuracy of Death highlights the trials and tribulations of a modern-day Grim Reaper. Seven days before a person is set to die, Chiba arrives on the scene to figure out whether or not the person should get another chance.
Chiba’s latest subject is a woman named Kazue Fujiki, who works for a manufacturing company. Will she live past her expected death date, or will Death himself decide it’s time for her to move onto the next realm?
1 2009 – Occult
Another found-footage film, Occult is directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who is also responsible for Noroi: The Curse. In Occult, another misguided filmmaker with a camera decides to tamper with supernatural forces in order to solve murders at a popular sightseeing resort.
Like Noroi, Occult comes across as a real documentary, relying on improvised responses, choppy cinematography, and believable scares. The movie dives into every creepy and curious belief imaginable as it gets closer and closer to the source of all the mayhem.
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