Consider yourself trigger warned; there are zero vampires in this best horror anime list—those will be in another list of their own that we will kindly link below. However, if you are interested in the heart-stopping series and films that make Japanese horror so unique, eerie and scary, you have landed your browser on the right page.
The first three entries are an amuse-bouche to get you acquainted with the Japanese horror genre, both in its contemporary and classic forms; they are all anthologies, and they are perfect if you are feeling curious but you don't want to commit. The second trio we've mentioned deals with one of the main themes of Japanese—and Lovecraftian—horror: the existential dread of slowly becoming inhuman, destructive, monstrous, and detached from everything you once held dear. The last triad will reacquaint you with your almost forgotten childhood fears, as well as with the very adult horror of having created a world that is actively trying to kill our young in every imaginable way. Finally, the last entry of the list is a great synthesis of these three themes, mixing tradition with very modern fears, revengeful ghosts with contemporary technology, for a terrifying finish.
Watch Yamishibai if you want a speedy introduction to the main concepts of Japanese horror, its folk tales, and obsessions. Each season is composed of short 4-minute episodes, each exploring one urban legend or tale from a spine-chilling perspective. Each episode features different art style, direction, music, and characters, and, although some of the stories are weaker than the others—or at least, less relatable to Western horror sensibilities—none of them will leave you indifferent. If you must only watch one item on this list, this is the one.
Now, if you liked Yamishibai and would like to learn more about the historical tradition of horror in Japan, you will love Ayakashi and Mononoke. These are beautifully, painstakingly detailed, lavish horror stories that are based on the kabuki classic Yotsuda Kaidan, originally written for theater in 1825 by Tsuruya Nanboku IV. Yotsuda codified the appearance and behavior of our favorite Japanese revenge ghost, the Onryo, as a decaying corpse woman with long black hair and one covered eye, hellbent on revenge.
While Ayashaki is a retelling of the murder of a woman by her samurai husband and her escalating comeback as an Onryo—think Sadako/Samara from The Ring—as well as two other semi-connected stories, Mononoke develops five whole storylines in twelve colorful episodes with the same protagonist, a mysterious figure called The Boticary whose real intentions are not apparent until the very ending.
8 Junji Itô Collection
The last entry in this anthology triad is the very controversial Junji Ito Collection, which was overhyped but underdelivered so much that Junji Ito came out and said that he didn’t think it was very good either. In case you don’t know, Junji Ito is an amazing manga artist that draws body deformations and nightmarish surreal horror with cool, clinical detachment. His stories have the logic of dreams, and even though the anime collection fell short, from a technical point of view, their dark, insidious quality will stay with you long after you turn off the screen.
If you felt intrigued by Junji Itô, you might get the same chilly and scratchy feelings when you watch Parasyte. Earth is being taken over by tiny alien parasites that enter, mature, and take over humans until their body belongs to them. However, high-school student Shinichi fell asleep with his headphones on and his parasite had to try an alternative route through his hand, which ended up with both of them stuck in halfway-forms but with distinct powers from each of their species. Although it starts out as a blatant rip-off of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (if the protagonist Snatcher was a wee incompetent in taking bodies,) and the premise sounds and looks a little silly, the anime plays beautifully with the slow-burning terror of physically seeing your own body and mind taken over by an alien entity, and with the horror of noticing that your conscience, your essence, is no longer your own… and that you kind of like it.
6 Tokyo Ghoul
Tokyo Ghoul is this list’s second entry for the topic of lucid transformation into a monster. Ken Kaneki thinks he’s had the best date of his life, but actually, his dream girl is a ghoul that wants to eat him alive. In the battle that ensues, Kaneki gets so badly hurt that he has to get a transplant from said ghoul, which turns him into half a monster craving fresh human meat and oceanic amounts of coffee. This extreme keto diet does not lend itself to a peaceful frame of mind, nor to being accepted in polite society, and Kaneki is banned. He tries to join other ghouls and fight for justice, but we have all seen how well that turned out in Hannibal, right?
Just kidding! Tokyo Ghoul's imagery is truly terrifying, but this is the closest this list has to a classic action anime. However, it is so damn beautiful, and the premise so perfect, that it deserves a spot.
5 Serial Experiments Lain
If you loved Black Mirror, you should watch Serial Experiments Lain. It is 1998 in a cyberpunk world, and Rein, an introverted teenager, receives an e-mail from her recently deceased classmate Chisa, who claims to still be alive, as pure conscience, inside the Wired—our internet. This series is mindblowing because not only it puts forward really interesting real scientific concepts that would make wi-fi obsolete, but it also takes a deep, disturbing dive into what would happen to reality if the virtual and the real became completely intermingled. Yes, we swear that this is horror and not pure sci-fi, even though no social media is involved. Come on, it was 1998, nobody could have seen that wave coming; they were all too busy trying to ignore the dial-up tones of the modem.
4 Kakurenbo (Hide and Seek)
Kakurenbo (Hide-and-Seek) is a parable horror story set on the outskirts of an abandoned city which follows a group of children as they dare to play hide and seek, wearing fox masks, while being pursued by demons. Although the movie is clearly a metaphor about the way big cities impede the natural play of children, and it channels all the anxiety about Japan’s declining birth rate, it is the most visually stunning horror story of this. Watch it too if you love architecture; the creators took the diagram of the impossibly packed real walled city of Kowloon as the gory playground for this short and bitter survival film.
3 The Promised Neverland
What could be better for adorable orphans than to be raised in an idyllic mansion by loving matrons, surrounded by your best friends and knowing that when you turn 12 a loving family from beyond the forest will adopt you? What a heartwarming story! Just don’t veer too close to the forest fence, don’t skip any meals, and above all, don’t go looking for rabbits.
If you have read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, this story might already be ringing the bell of a pretty terrifying ride—but if you have not read that novel, please don’t google it now, you will spoil yourself. For those that have not, let’s just say that The Promised Neverland takes all your childhood fears, pumps them fool of steroids, and leaves you alone with them in a deep, dark forest.
2 Jigoku Shoujo (Hell Girl)
And we’re back on the familiar terrain of high school students bringing curses on themselves, and the hard-working team in charge of guiding their hopeless souls to hell.
Just kidding; Hell Girl is actually a pretty interesting anime, with an almost anthology structure, tied together with the thread of red-hot, totally justifiable revenge and the self-destruction that comes with it. It takes to the extreme the Buddhist concept of detachment, only that this, being a cautionary horror series, is not preaching detachment from pretty material luxuries, but from one’s instinct to hit back hard at the person hurting us.
Hell Girl shows admirable restraint in developing this lose-lose proposition, which makes sense when you think that restraint in the face of human evil is what all the protagonists—including the titular Hell Girl and her cohort—should have demonstrated to keep their souls intact. It has a lot of similarities with Black Butler, another fan favorite, only that Hell Girl is set in our world, and the realistic inciting incidents that push people to invoke her would be a massive trigger for any of us.
The last entry of this list, Another is the blend of everything above. It condenses classical Onryo ladies, social paranoia, harm to children, haunted temples, isolation, curses, gory deaths, and an amazing plot twist that shall not be discussed.
How would you feel if your classmates declared you a non-entity on your first day of school and refused to acknowledge your presence? This is what happens to 15-year-old Kouichi, who is completely shaken until his—also totally ignored—classmate Mei explains to him that they are not doing it out of sheer malice, but to counterbalance a curse set on the school since a student, also called Mei, passed away in the same halls in 1972.
A series of mysterious deaths followed, always in tandem with a class list imbalance; every year, there is a student present in the school that wasn’t supposed to be there, and that they believe to be the malicious spirit of the original Mei. The student body has decided that the best way to deal with this curse is to ignore the most likely candidate to be the “Another” student, and their strategy goes as well as you can imagine. Another is also a masterclass in classic closed-room mystery plot planning. It will play with your expectations, but there are enough subtle clues thrown in to make for a very rewarding and rewatchable horror series.