There’s something particularly alluring about different countries’ approach to horror in different media. Japan has proven that they’re up there with the best when it comes to horror in film, but what many don’t see is the world of literature in the genre that puts unique spins on what we think we know about it. With medical horror, intricate mysteries, and absolutely brutal psychological elements front and center, the Japanese world of horror novels is a frightening beast indeed.
With quarantine being a bit of a drain, the perfect way to escape is through a great book and even better if it’s one of those juicy disturbing novels that clings to your mind for weeks. Join us as we dive into a few choice recommendations, from the prevalent to the lesser-known.
7 of the Best Japanese Horror Novels
Parasite Eve – Hideaki SenaParasite Eve
After losing his beloved wife in a car accident, Dr. Nagashima is overwhelmed with grief. But something else stirs within him, an eerie sense of purpose, and quickly his grief turns to determination; he becomes obsessed with reincarnating his wife. While Nagashima works on a culture sample, her liver is donated and transplanted into a young girl. Those cells from his dead wife however held dormant and waiting for an ancient biological power bent on becoming the dominant species on Earth.
Hard to come across, and quite expensive when you finally do, but highly worth the read. Medical horror seems to be commonplace in a good few Japanese horror authors’ work, and somehow managing to weave a gripping narrative around in-depth explanations of transplants and mitochondria is no easy task. Yet Sena here captures something beautiful with it, gradually building the reader’s understanding of the topic alongside an entity literally evolving to gain immense power and end humanity.
You may be familiar with the game series of the same name, which starts out quite amazing and dips off a good bit in the third installment. The first two games serve as sequels to the novel itself and keep that edge-of-apocalypse tension the novel sets up. It also became a film, and a manga series, for a good while there, Parasite Eve absolutely took over Japanese pop culture, and with the impact left by the novel, I can see why.
Parasite Eve dips in and out of some terrifying concepts, from immense grief and the desire to bring back a lost, loved one, to body horror as a transplant begins to reject the body, and on to a biological wonder moving swiftly to destroy humanity and entirely replace it with her own species. Eve herself, this parasite that grows from Mariko’s cells, is surrounded by such sound and convincing scientific pondering that even though the situation is quite fanciful it still feels frighteningly possible.
Mariko Anzai, the young girl who receives the kidney transplant, has perhaps the most tragic story of all. Her depression and distrust of her own body are only amplified by the rift between her and her father and the dialysis treatments she requires before the transplant. It’s this beautifully calamitous character that stands out even among the incredibly well-written cast that really draws you in.
Audition – Ryu MurakamiAudition
Following a documentary maker named Aoyama on his search for a new wife following the unfortunate death through illness of his previous wife, Audition presents quite a fresh setup. Aoyama’s friend sets up an audition for what is ostensibly a fake film in order to help him find the perfect woman. Out of all the hundreds of women who get interviewed, Aoyama only finds one that truly captures his attention. Young, beautiful, shy, modest, Yamasaki Asami is exactly who Aoyama was searching for, and she seems equally interested in him. It’s only when it’s potentially too late that Aoyama discovers the darkness held within Asami, and the things she’s capable of doing.
Takashi Miike’s film may go in a good bit harder than the novel, but this bite-sized thriller is a great, albeit brief, buildup of tension. The characters are presented not as simple tropes or ideas, but as complicated people with a whole host of thought processes. The protagonist Aoyama comes across as a bit of an ass at times, being disrespectful of others, and yet it’s also made quite clear throughout that he truly did feel love for his deceased wife. He shows humanity in many ways, and his ways are put into perspective besides lingering grief surrounding his wife and his son that seems to still hold roots in him.
The framing of Yamasaki Asami through the eyes of Aoyama is brilliantly handled. Throughout the novel, we hear all these little details about how Asami is such a perfect person, yet others keep having tentative things to say against her, not feeling right about her, getting a negative feeling from her. Because we’re experiencing the events through Aoyama, their worries seem to come out of nowhere. But as things develop further the little inconsistencies with Asami and the darkness that lies beneath becomes more and more visible.
Despite being only 200 pages long, Audition manages to explore some incredibly dark subjects. Mutilation is a core component of the latter part of the novel, and some shocking child abuse is discovered and discussed in regards to Asami’s past. Grief, as I mentioned before, is also a key theme that keeps itself dwelling just out of sight for the entire novel.
Very well written, excellent character depth, and just enough buildup to make the climax a terrifyingly blunt and brutal experience. Audition comes at you fast and pulls no punches in its exploration of grief, intricacies of romance, and the way psychopathy can hide just beneath the surface of everyday life.
Biogenesis – Tatsuaki IshiguroBiogenesis
Biogenesis comes as a refreshingly unique approach to the horror shorts collection, framing most of the 4 segments as scientific reports. Going hard in on the science we get these interesting and deep deconstructions with something terrifying oozing through them. A winged mouse that cries tears of blood, the mystery of the snow woman, the systematic extinction of an entire strange species, and a weed that feeds off of humans and corpses, the weird and wonderful are truly on show. Short story collections are a whole lot of fun, and compliment the world of full length horror novels wonderfully.
The prose is on point for what it is, and the beauty of Biogenesis comes from it’s approach to the medium. The struggling of the normal folks around these bizarre instances that can’t be easily categorized to come to an understanding of them lends great power to the narratives. The array of perspectives we get on things is nice too, from the scientists to military personnel to assistants and observers.
Short and strange is how I love books like these, and Biogenesis never outstays its welcome. There’s certainly plenty of strange on offer too, something between SCP and Hideaki Sena. Altogether it seems that Ishiguro is posing a question through his stories that the characters themselves don’t quite have an answer to; why do some species thrive and others go extinct?
Biogenesis I came by completely by accident, but in thirsting for something along the lines of Parasite Eve I hit a goldmine. It takes that highly informative and scientific side of Parasite Eve and runs with it, almost like how some of Lovecraft’s narratives were framed. Things get freaky, the characters don’t really know exactly how to approach the situations, and the disturbing nature of each scenario is put on display.
Body – Asa NonamiBody
The collection Body takes the core idea of people’s perceptions of their bodies and applies it to a collection of stories. Body horror is not as prevalent as one might initially think. Instead, there’s vanity, self-esteem, and the consequences those can bring. Buttocks, Blood, Navel, Whorl (hair), and Jaw are both the names of the segments, and the body parts focused in on.
The translation of the book into English seems to have a bit of awkwardness to it, but not in a negative way. It builds charm, with strange word choices giving this quirkiness and leaning into the surreal at times. The Twilight Zone is often brought up in descriptions of the book, and the comparison is certainly valid. There’s this ‘be careful what you wish for’ element to each of the segments, and whilst things don’t always end in a wholly satisfying way, the ride is always enjoyable.
Nonami plays with the idea of obsession over the body in a plethora of ways, from exploring anorexia to insecurities around baldness, to the trend of plastic surgery. It challenges to reader in their own perception of their body and gives us a glimpse into the various complexes that are very real in the modern-day. Couple this with heavily detailed and visceral language and some brutal psychological elements and you get a thought-provoking set of chilling stories.
Now as I mentioned before the endings aren’t always wholly satisfying, but I will say they leave you deep in thought. Maybe a bit more here and there could raise one or two of the stories, but the absence of closure is often more appealing in the long run. Approaching things with a fresh air about her writing, Nonami brings out some quality psychological horror dipping into the bizarre frequently. But even when she does, there’s always that reality lurking in the background. There are monsters here, but they’re all human.
Confessions – Kanae MinatoConfessions
Minato weaves a murderous tale dipping between multiple perspectives in Confessions, a thrill ride of the most macabre. Yuko Moriguchi has decided to retire from teaching after her young daughter drowned in the school swimming pool. What seems at first to be a horrible accident is soon revealed through her final address to her class to in fact have been deliberate murder. From here the narrative fractures and each of the perspectives we see fit neatly back into place to truly put the full picture on display for the reader.
Brilliantly constructed with a deeply intricate plot, Confessions is one of those special books that really stick with you long after you’ve put it down. The depths of depression are explored from varied angles, alongside a fair helping of twisted individuals dipping their toes into the world of murder. Being rooted in Japan gives an extra special feel to these events, with a few very visible instances of children showing psychopathic behaviour and inflicting horrible pain onto others. It gives it this sense of realness as if the events to some extent could have eventually come out and made their rounds on the news.
The novel was turned into a film, as a few of these entries have been. The film saw pretty widespread success and won its fair share of awards. It’s a must-watch, perfectly capturing the essence of the novel and bringing life to the words. However don’t skip the book just because the movie is brilliant, outside of a bit of a lull in the midsection of Confessions each revelation and segment hits like a truck and will imprint itself in your mind.
And let me say the ending comes as quite possibly the most intense and fully realized revenge plot in media, second to Old Boy of course. The way everything is set up, and how everything plays out, is both heartbreaking and vividly triumphant at the same time. It’s a quick read, but the perfect place to jump into Minato’s bibliography and explore the darkness bubbling away beneath everyday life.
The Ring Cycle – Koji SuzukiHorror: A Companion
Exactly one week after getting together to watch a mysterious videotape, four teenagers die one after the other of heart failure. The link between them is unearthed by Asakawa, a hard-working journalist, who begins to dig deeper and deeper into the mystery, finds himself with a harder deadline than he’s ever had before. After watching the accursed tape Asakawa has to solve its mystery, traveling from the big city of Tokyo to rural Japan before his time runs out.
The novels that spawned one of the most recognizable franchises in Japanese horror, the Ring Cycle books are an absolutely enthralling ride through an utterly unique epic. Starting at a journalist investigating a few strange deaths, leading to apocalyptic scenarios and a curse that keeps rearing its head years and years on.
The story that the Ring Cycle traverses is mighty different from where the film series would go. The first novel does have a journalist taking on an evolving mystery with a hard deadline, just like the film, and there’s an addictive sense of everything being pieced together. But one large element taken through to the sequels and edging more into sci-fi horror and medical horror is the combination of Sadako’s psychic powers in life, and the smallpox virus she contracted shortly before ‘death.’
There’s a certain post-modernism applied to the series, with reality set firmly in place to start yet as things go on all that we know begins to bend. After picking up the first book, I couldn’t help but dive straight into the next, following the tendrils spread out from the past and piecing everything together. Spreading from rural Japan, back into the city, then over to America and into the deserts, the series spans a large period of time as well as stretching great distances. When it comes to Japanese horror novels, these stand mountainous as peaks of quality.
Koji Suzuki is the master of evolving storylines, though the ‘mystery’ side of horror is masterfully crafted by a good few Japanese authors. Even when things get to strange places, like heading to America to find a secret lab in an abandoned town in the desert in Loop, the reader hangs on every word and it’s hard to put the books down. Suzuki builds up tension that keeps us on the razor’s edge for the entirety of each novel, with the protagonist’s growing obsession mirroring our own.
ZOO – OtsuichiZOO (Novel)
I think the blurb on the back does excellently in piquing curiosity: “A man receives a photo of his girlfriend every day in the mail…so that he can keep track of her body’s decomposition. A deathtrap that takes a week to kill its victims. Haunted parks and airplanes held in the sky by the power of belief. These are just a few of the stories by Otsuichi, Japan’s master of dark fantasy.”
That’s just a taste of the stories represented, even stronger setups come from the beautiful yet depressing Song of the Sunny Spot where an android learns of emotion and figures out exactly what death means, and from Kazari and Yoko where child abuse is taken to a whole new level as a child is made to feel like the most distant outcast there is.
Otsuichi may be best known for his string of connected mysteries GOTH, but ZOO quite possibly puts his brilliant mind on display more effectively. Whilst not every story hits quite as hard there’s enough stunning peaks and revelations within to make ZOO one of the most enjoyable short story collection reads out there. Each story has that patented Otsuichi flare, with twists, weaved through the narratives and a sense of satisfaction as all comes to light.
A point to note, the title story takes the bold route of revealing the twist about halfway through the story, and in doing so the narrative takes on an even more morbid tone. There are times where the twists come in literally the last few sentences, but Otsuichi doesn’t use his twists purely as knockout punches, instead, they come as tasty turns that add layers to each story.
Something that plays a large part in the creepy yet alluring atmosphere of the collection is Otsuichi’s writing style. He wields a gentleness in his prose, dealing with incredibly heavy and dark themes but masterfully handling them with calm and soft air. Otsuichi captures the sadness, grief, and at times a brilliant sense of self in his characters, a definitively unique voice in the genre.
So there we have it, a varied look into the world of horror novels in Japan. There’s plenty to dig deeper into here, with authors like Suzuki, Otsuichi, and Minato having healthy bibliographies of translated works. And there’s plenty more to explore, and whilst modern times may seem to not fit the idea of exploring morbid fiction, there’s something exhilarating about escaping into these terrifying worlds.
- Shane Dover