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Filmmakers from the Land of the Rising Sun, having embraced horror, gore, and cinema dripping with brutality…

Maja Budka

1 September 2023


Horror is one of the oldest genres in the history of cinematography, highly distinctive and thereby quite characteristic. Its most important component is terror, and its primary goal is to immerse the viewer in a state of permanent unease. There’s no doubt that horror is more commonly associated with live-action film rather than animation, likely due to the belief that animation and its stylization aren’t capable of thoroughly frightening the viewer. At least not in the same way that non-animated films do. However, this is an argument easily challenged, as animation and its boundless creative possibilities sometimes indeed lend themselves to building an atmosphere of horror. From the second half of the 20th century, film creators began to realize the potential of animated film, which allows for the telling of any kind of story. The Japanese, in particular, have frequently proven this by elevating the art of animation to new heights. Filmmakers from the Land of the Rising Sun, having embraced horror, gore, and cinema dripping with brutality, decided to transfer their twisted, unsettling fantasies into the realm of the revered art of anime, demonstrating that drawings can make one’s hair stand on end and momentarily stop the heartbeat. Animated horror films in Japan, however, aren’t a straightforward category, but rather a fluid, branching one, divided into many specific subgenres. Some of these subgenres deserve special attention, and it’s these that you will read about in the following compilation.

Mononoke (TV Series)

mononoke tv series

Japanese horror stories involving ghosts and demons are abundant, primarily because creators readily draw inspiration from the rich demonology and classical Japanese legends. This is precisely what sets the anime series Mononoke apart. The title of the production itself refers to vengeful spirits, restless souls of the deceased originating from classical literature, folk beliefs, and Japanese folklore. The main character of the series presents himself as a traveling medicine seller and exorcist. He roams the world armed with his colorful sword, tracking down various types of spirits or demons that linger in the realm of the living due to their attachment to negative human emotions, and dealing with them. Along the way, he learns about their origins, power, and often eerie history. In the profession of an exorcist, the most crucial aspect is understanding the Form, Truth, and Regret of each spirit; without this knowledge, facing them is impossible.

However, what truly distinguishes the Mononoke series is its exceptional stylistic approach. Undoubtedly, it is the most aesthetically pleasing anime on this list, if not among all that exist. Every frame of the series is bathed in a kaleidoscope of colorful shapes. One can often discern inspiration from Japanese woodblock prints, and at times, references to the works of European painters like Gustav Klimt are also visible. While the visual side of the series can be enchanting, it seems to be entirely at odds with the horror genre’s typical style. True, the visuals don’t provide the expected darkness, but the abstract visual aspect perfectly outlines the folkloric origins of numerous mythical creatures: zashiki-warashi, bakeneko, and others, collectively known as yōkai. Over time, even these vibrant images can evoke unease, especially since the atmospheric ghost stories often have an incredibly grim and brutal context, touching on subjects such as death, torture, or abortion. Mononoke encompasses several perfectly composed horror tales presented in an originally stylized form that strongly resonates with the audience.



In the realm of demons, a slightly darker tone is introduced by Kakurenbo – a short, 25-minute animated film that delves into an exceptionally eerie game of hide-and-seek. In a certain city, a legend circulates about demons kidnapping children who are at play. The film follows the path of young protagonists who, donning fox masks, decide to venture into the abandoned part of the city to verify the truth behind the urban legend. The creators slowly and skillfully cultivate an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear, trailing the children as they wander through the claustrophobic corridors of a peculiar labyrinth. Meticulous and intricate animation, ominous music, and paradoxically, faces concealed behind masks that reveal no emotions, all contribute to heightening the unsettling ambiance. This, in turn, results in a genuinely successful and tension-filled miniature horror experience.

Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories

yami shibai Yamishibai Japanese Ghost Stories

Indeed, even shorter narratives than Kakurenbo can deliver quite a scare, as demonstrated by the genuinely unsettling anime series Yami Shibai, also known as Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories. Each consecutive episode of about 5 minutes presents a distinct story about ghosts, monsters, or specters. What’s most interesting is that these stories are conveyed through sparing frames, emulating “kamishibai” – traditional Japanese theater of paper pictures. This art involves storytelling through illustrations created on cardboard panels and displayed within a wooden box that serves as the stage. Often, this theater was mobile, operating in the streets and serving as an attraction in towns and cities, much like in Yami Shibai.

In the blood-chilling opening sequence, a terrifying man summons children playing in a square to watch the Yami Shibai performance. However, these won’t be cheerful tales. The protagonists of each episode are flat, cut-out paper characters, which immediately generates an atmosphere of unease. Each short story starts innocuously, only to swiftly and unexpectedly introduce something strange and frightening, seizing control. Like the mannequin operator in an elevator transporting a man to a non-existent floor, from which human screams can be heard. Or the red, grotesque mass that tries to persuade a man on a train to commit suicide. The series doesn’t allow the viewer time to adapt or become familiar with the presented world – after a minute, the plot takes a 180-degree turn, and a heart-piercing jump scare is presented shortly thereafter. Additionally, the suggestive sounds and abrupt, unexpected endings contribute to the overall experience. Often, episodes conclude in an unforeseen, sometimes even climactic moment, leaving behind many eerie implications. The stories in Yami Shibai are meticulously crafted mini-horrors, somewhat reminiscent of nightmarish bedtime stories. Perfect for clutching your pillow.

Itō Junji: Collection

When it comes to the themes of “madness” or “insanity,” the choice is quite evident. It’s about, in my opinion, the most intriguing and intense title on the list, mainly because it bears the name of a great artist. Itō Junji: Collection is a compilation of animated horror stories based on manga created by Junji Itō – a prominent Japanese master of horror and the creator of renowned works like Uzumaki. The worlds and tales crafted by this artist are characterized by an almost unfathomable sense of macabre, oddity, and a pervasive feeling of losing one’s senses, all of which have been attempted to be translated into the language of anime.

Undoubtedly, Itō’s graphic novels with their bitingly black-and-white illustrations remain unparalleled in their grotesqueness, and the images in the animated version have lost much of the original’s suggestiveness. Nevertheless, each anime story carries the same or a similar strange and peculiar atmosphere. The choice of stories is also intriguing: there’s a place for a humor-laden tale of a boy casting curses, a disgust-filled story about a girl with a snail-like tongue, a family consuming oil and sprouting pimples (which happens to be my favorite story), as well as tales full of blood, brutality, madness, and surrealism, like the one about people releasing bloody fruits from their bodies.

In each of Itō’s stories, there must be a place for something extremely repugnant, bending the meaning of the word “bizarre” – I’m searching for an appropriate term and can’t find a better one than “batshit insane.” Not without reason, the works of this Japanese artist continue to haunt many horror enthusiasts to this day. Perhaps it’s because every night they are awakened by the woman born from their worst nightmare, appearing in the window of an abandoned neighboring house (also Itō’s idea). This anime series still astounds and terrifies with its extreme detachment from reality, its freedom and skill in bringing the worst, most repulsive, and hideous nightmares to life.

Shōjo Tsubaki

Shōjo Tsubaki

Continuing at this pace, it’s also worth mentioning the brutal film Shōjo Tsubaki by Hiroshi Harada. It tells the story of Midori, a charming, innocent girl who is forced to work on the streets selling flowers due to her mother’s illness. After her mother’s death, the orphan falls under the care of Mr. Arashi, the leader of a circus group comprised mostly of outcasts and oddities. From then on, Midori’s already colorless life transforms into a true horror. She is treated as a slave by the troupe – beaten, humiliated, tortured, and violated, gradually becoming a shell of a human being, a child destroyed and debased by the merciless world of adults. While watching Shōjo Tsubaki, the viewer quickly becomes attached to the main character, only to suffer alongside her until the very end of the film, listening to her piercing, haunting scream.

This anime delivers many unpleasant and painful impressions, partly due to its sadistic visual style. The film is saturated with the aesthetics of “ero-guro,” an art that focuses on exaggerated violence with elements of perversion. Therefore, many frames in the work evoke images of artists like Toshio Saeki or Suehiro Maruo, known as the Marquis de Sade of manga, whose art is rich in brutal sadism with erotic undertones. While the atmosphere of the film doesn’t resemble that of classic horror, Shōjo Tsubaki and its visually exaggerated brutality, as well as its macabre-grotesque surrealism, allow it to be considered one of the most visually intense animated horror works in the gore genre. Shōjo Tsubaki, however, isn’t merely a film composed of shallow bloody scenes; it’s a painfully gripping work that continues to haunt the viewer long after the screening.

Perfect Blue

perfect blue

While Perfect Blue may primarily seem like a complex psychological film, it bears the hallmarks of horror cinema, which are worth discussing here. This exceptional film by the equally exceptional director Satoshi Kon has been the subject of numerous articles on this platform, so there’s no need to extensively elaborate on it. I’ll focus on the horror-related elements of the film.

The unsettling, heavy atmosphere imbued with an aura of mystery extends from the first to the last minutes of the film. Perfect Blue tells the story of Mima Kirigoe, a pop singer who abandons her beloved status to pursue an acting career. This decision marks the beginning of mysterious and dramatic events in the protagonist’s life. Mima’s suspicions that she’s constantly being watched push her into madness, gradually blurring the line between reality and the products of her own shattered imagination. The director skillfully employs illusions and manipulations, forcing the viewer to question what’s true and what’s merely, or perhaps entirely, fiction, thereby amplifying the pervasive tension.

The intricate plot causes the film’s atmosphere to thicken with each passing minute, becoming almost unbearable in its climactic moments. Moreover, depictions of crime and violence, including sexual violence, are portrayed in an exceptionally intense and vivid manner. The entire film is immersed in an atmosphere of constant unease, tension, and fear; it strongly impacts the viewer’s senses and is replete with moments that can truly terrify. Perfect Blue demonstrates that horror is a genre that can be experienced in many different ways.

Other titles worthy of attention

While I believe that this immensely popular subgenre of anime is primarily a thriller with slight horror elements, due to its cult following, it’s worth mentioning. I’m referring to the vampire-themed works, such as the well-known series Hellsing and the films Vampire Hunter D, with the standout being the continuation of the first adaptation, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust from 2000. This film skillfully combines fantasy themes with a dark gothic atmosphere, brutality, and of course, bloodshed. The depicted world is one of vampires and their hunters, with mythical creatures like werewolves, the undead, and shape-shifters lurking. If anyone is looking for a classic horror experience in animated form, the best choice might be the film Gyo – an apocalyptic anime with a somewhat kitschy, yet intriguing concept. The creators of Gyo present a disturbing vision of a world dominated by predatory fish and sea creatures that, thanks to spider-like appendages and suddenly acquired lungs, emerge onto land, sowing bloody devastation among humans. The plot isn’t particularly imaginative – essentially, it’s another zombie apocalypse, this time with murderous, rotting fish, and it raises lofty questions about the essence of humanity in the face of a desperate fight for survival.

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

The last title will especially appeal to fans of classic slashers, ghost stories, and possessions. Corpse Party: Tortured Souls is a four-episode anime that, when watched in its entirety, is roughly equivalent in length to a classic feature film. It tells the story of a group of students who, due to a ritual, become trapped in an abandoned school haunted by the ghosts of brutally murdered children. The protagonists’ task is to survive, maintain their sanity, and not bleed to death. The film is filled with brutally bloody, drastic scenes in the gore genre. The anime is based on a computer horror game of the same name, designed in the style of a visual novel. Games of this type, similar to the famous Doki Doki Literature Club, can be incredibly terrifying.

Maja Budka

Maja Budka

I write about film and art with a cat on the keyboard. I like animation and films lined with gentle absurdity.

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