Japanese Horror

What is the Japanese Horror Subgenre?

Initially welcomed in the west as a film and video game subgenre, Japanese horror novels have been gaining a wide readership over the past several years because of the different themes and elements present in the stories that are unique to Japanese culture. Japanese horror is often psychological and focuses more on building suspense and mood as opposed to western horror which tends to focus on action and uses more elements of graphic violence and gore. Another difference between western and Japanese horror is its ambiguity. In this subgenre, there is often no clear distinction between good or evil, particularly with regards to supernatural entities. Also, little effort is made to explain supernatural phenomena in this subgenre. Often Japanese horror stories raise more questions than are answered.

Two types of supernatural creatures are often found in Japanese horror. The first is youkai, which are similar to western demons or monsters. The second, and far more common, is the yuurei, which are similar to ghosts or spirits. In Japanese horror, these spirits often have unfinished business or are burdened with emotions that are so strong that they carry on beyond the grave. In western horror, most ghosts can be found lurking in haunted mansions or abandoned cemeteries, but in Japanese horror, yuurei can be found anywhere and modern conveniences offer little protection from the supernatural. In fact, in certain stories in this subgenre, supernatural entities use modern technology to torment the human protagonists. Also, these ghosts may not necessarily be vanquished or disappear from the world at the end of the story.

This is because themes and elements of Japanese horror are often pulled from the two major religions of Japan: Buddhism and Shinto. In Shinto, the spirit world exists alongside the mortal realm, which explains the consistent presence of ghosts in the subgenre. A core tenet of Buddhism that is often explored in Japanese horror is the belief that life and death are an endless cycle. Japanese horror often contains a blend of these two religions, and every universe or world in this subgenre will operate by a specific set of rules. Unfortunately for the human protagonists of these stories, another often explored theme in Japanese horror is that the rules of the universe are unknowable. This means that characters will often struggle in vain against supernatural forces.


Japanese Horror Characteristics

Level of Plot: Japanese horror plots will often be complex, often involving twists and turns which will help to build tension and create mood.


Level of Characterization: Expect characterization to be moderate to high in this subgenre as the focus is more psychological. Even in works with high levels of supernatural occurrences, it is the actions and thoughts of the characters that are explored.


Level of Supernatural: Moderate to high levels of supernatural activity will be present in Japanese horror given the belief in close proximity of the supernatural world that is prevalent in Japanese culture.


Level of Scary: Japanese horror will have moderate to high levels of scare, though these scares will be more cerebral and atmospheric than the in-your-face scares found in most western horror subgenres.


Level of Violence: Violence in Japanese horror is low to moderate as the subgenre builds tension through mood and atmosphere as opposed to action and violence.


Typical Setting: Small towns and isolation are typical in Japanese horror, as are damp settings, such as boats, wells, and even bathrooms. This is due to the fact that supernatural entities are closely associated with the dank and the damp in Japanese culture.

Related Horror Subgenres

Supernatural horror is related to Japanese horror due to its high level of supernatural content. Additionally, psychological horror is an easily related subgenre because of Japanese horror's  focus on the psychological scares. Gothic and dark fiction are also related because these subgenres similarly rely on atmosphere to create tension. Surreal horror is a related subgenre due to the fact that both subgenres are not concerned with explaining their strange and supernatural happenings as well as the fact that both possess a certain dream-like quality. Finally, media tie-in and graphic novel horror can be related to Japanese horror because Japanese horror is often adapted into a movie or video game as well as a manga, or Japanese graphic novel.

Don't Read Japanese Horror If You Dislike…

Nontraditional elements and themes. Japanese horror contains elements and themes that are not typically found in western horror. If you like the safety of knowing, at least on some level, what you're getting into, this may not be the subgenre for you. Additionally, if you require an explanation for strange occurrences or a neatly packaged ending, this subgenre may not be for you.

The Ring by Koji Suzuki- When four teens mysteriously die, a reporter investigates and discovers a cursed videotape in this series opener.


Another by Yukito Ayatsuji- In 1972, a middle school student dies unexpectedly during the school year. Unable to cope with the loss, her classmates and teachers spend the remainder of the school year pretending that she is still alive. Twenty-six years later, a young transfer student befriends a girl that everyone else in his class ignores. Then, the mysterious deaths begin.


Audition by Ryu Murakami- When Aoyama, a widowed documentary filmmaker, is convinced by his best friend to hold auditions for his next romantic partner, he falls hard for a would-be ballerina, ignoring all the red flags of her troubled past.


Battle Royale by Koushun Takami- In a future police state, high school classes are randomly selected, kidnapped, and forced to fight each other until only one remains.

Parasite Eve by Hideaki Sena- The first winner of the Japan Horror Novel Award is a blend of horror and science fiction. Eve is a consciousness present in the mitochondria of all human females. Through the years, she has manipulated conditions to create the perfect time to manifest. When she finally finds the perfect host, she possesses her host and those around her in order to create the perfect life form and wipe out humanity.


Uzumaki by Junji Ito- The citizens of a small Japanese town are cursed by a supernatural force that causes them to become obsessed with spirals until a storm nearly destroys the town. Only two teens seem immune to the curse, but they may not be able to escape the town's fate.


Shiki by Fuyumi Ono- A series of mysterious deaths plagues the small town of Sotoba. The director of the local hospital fears a plague, but as the body count rises, he begins to suspect that the deaths may have something to do with the strange new family that has arrived in town.


Piercing by Ryu Murakami- Businessman, Kawashima Masayuki, decides that the best way to deal with his late night desire to stab his infant with an ice pick is to do the same to a prostitute instead. What he doesn't suspect is that his intended victim has similarly twisted desires.


Dark Water by Koji Suzuki- A collection of short stories about the horrors that humans can inflict upon one another, with plenty of supernatural elements thrown in. The title story of this collection was the inspiration of the film of the same name.

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