Anime is the perfect medium for genre storytelling. Something that is deemed too big or complicated for live-action can be better realized through animation. Science fiction has clearly found a home in anime with titles like Akira and Ghost in the Shell. However, sci-fi isn't the only genre well-suited for anime.
We can trace the rise of horror in anime to the mid to late eighties. And since then, it's appeared with more and more frequency. As imaginative as anime horror can get, it's not always the scariest. So, here are five anime where the scares are effective, and then five where they are not.
10 Not Scary: Lily C.A.T. (1987)
While on a survey assignment, a 23rd century space vessel is under attack by a hostile alien bacterium. The lifeform then evolves and mimics the passengers.
The success of Alien led to a lot of shameless copycats. Most were unsuccessful or panned, but there was an animated one that stood out. Lily C.A.T. was a feature-length OVA (original video animation) produced by Studio Pierrot (Tokyo Ghoul). An English version produced by Carl Macek was later distributed by the now defunct Streamline Pictures. Though it has sustained tension and body horror, Lily C.A.T. will hardly make anyone squirm today.
9 Scary: Boogiepop Phantom (2000)
Following a series of grisly murders a few years prior, a city is now plagued with ghost stories of Boogiepop. They say this mysterious person will take you away if you see her at night. Is the legend of Boogiepop based on fact? Or merely a lingering urban myth?
The first anime adaptation of Kōhei Kadano's Boogiepop light novels was ahead of its time. The 2019 reimagining Boogiepop and Others has been met with criticisms. Mainly over its confusing narrative style; the 2000 version isn't any less vague and strange. Yet the first anime boasts an undeniably eerie atmosphere.
8 Not Scary: Ghost Stories (2000-2001)
Upon moving to her deceased mother's hometown, young Satsuki Miyanoshita learns that her new school is haunted. Specifically by ghosts that her mother sealed away long ago. Now, it's up to Satsuki and her friends to exorcise the escaped spirits.
Ghost Stories would have remained unnoticed had it not been for its infamous English dub. The Texas-based anime distributor ADV Films produced a loose script when coming up with the show's English translation. Meaning they basically ad-libbed the whole thing while inserting a brand of humor more suitable for South Park. Some consider the dub funny, but it's hardly scary.
7 Scary: Vampire Princess Miyu (1988-1989)
Miyu is half-human and half-Shinma, but she was born a vampire. She's quite old despite physically resembling a teenage girl. Miyu and her servant Larva spend their lifetimes hunting for other stray Shinma, ancient demons that prey on humans.
In both the four-part OVA series and the 1997 television adaptation, Miyu comes up against some particularly macabre opponents. These horrifying things that go bump in the night will possibly haunt your dreams. Miyu's life story is an enthralling one of Gothic sensibilities. The manga's writer Toshiki Hirano successfully marries Japanese folklore with brooding, contemporary horror.
6 Not Scary: Pet Shop of Horrors (1999)
In Chinatown, Los Angeles, the enigmatic Count D sells a variety of unique animals at his pet shop. These exotic fauna come with a high price, too. For every one of the pets sold by Count D includes a set of rules that must be followed to the letter. Otherwise, horrible things will happen to the owners.
Pet Shop of Horrors started off as a manga series before being adapted into four OVA features. The basic premise is lifted from Gremlins, but there's a focus on existing mythological beasts. The stories will no doubt entertain; they're just not very frightening.
5 Scary: Demon City Shinjuku (1988)
A portal to hell opens in the city of Shinjuku. Now, a man carries on his father's legacy by slaying the demons that appear from it.
The eighties was a magnificent era for horror anime. There's an unquestionable quality to hand-drawn animation that can't be emulated in digital. The matte work alone in Demon City Shinjuku is breathtaking. It's in one's best interest to occasionally pause the film in these moments to soak up the beauty. Then there are the glorious demon sequences that will keep you up at night.
4 Not Scary: Haunted Junction (1997)
The children of a Buddhist monk, a Catholic priest, and a Shinto priest are all assigned the duty of corralling the rowdy spirits in a haunted high school.
Haunted Junction is foremost a supernatural comedy series, but it delves into topics of religion and even existentialism. This makes for good discourse if anyone is looking for it. However, the anime itself leans towards outlandish physical humor that you admittedly won't see coming at times. Plenty of gags and what not. As a result, the show's humor and silly-looking specters undercut its chance at ever being truly spooky.
3 Scary: Devilman Lady (1998-1999)
A model named Jun Fudō is thrown into a world where monsters are real. For humans are evolving into beasts. And Jun is one herself. As Beast Hunter J — or the Devilman Lady — Jun is assigned the task of stopping humans who have turned into violent monsters. But at what point will Jun lose her own humanity?
The anime notably differs from Gō Nagai's manga by excising much of the excessive violence towards women. The anime also gives Jun more development and agency. Devilman Lady is an underrated, dark psycho-horror with some nightmare fuel-looking monster designs.
2 Not Scary: Elfen Lied (2004)
Lucy looks like a harmless teenager, but in truth, she is a dangerous telekinetic created by the government. Her only objective in life was to be a powerful weapon. Though once she escapes her handlers, Lucy loses her memory. She's then taken in by Kōta, a boy who has no idea of what Lucy is capable of.
Audiences have pointed out the striking similarities between Elfen Lied and Stranger Things. They share a premise, but Elfen Lied goes in a different direction. As gory as this sci-fi horror drama can be, it's often undermined by unnecessary fanservice.
1 Scary: Perfect Blue (1997)
Mima Kirigoe is part of a pop music trio called Cham. When she leaves the group to become an actor, one of her most fanatical followers gets upset. As a result of her stalker's actions, Mima suffers a psychological breakdown.
Satoshi Kon's directorial film debut is a coup for the late and great film-maker. He and animation studio Madhouse conceived a terrifying tale that showcases the dark side of celebrity. Kon actually changed many aspects from the source material. In doing so, however, he added a downward spiral of Lynchian proportions that will stick with you for years to come.