Can anime do horror?

Truly good horror anime is hard to find. Anime tends to use many elements of horror, but it rarely adds up to something that’s scary.


Ostensibly, Bleach is about hunting ghosts, but it’s more action than it is horror. I was, at times, horrified by the likes of Perfect Blue and Mushishi, but again, these are hardly traditional horror works; Highschool of the Dead and Shiki are two good recent examples of this. The former has a classic zombie set-up, but lacks the sense of despair and gore boasted by any given Romero flick, and the latter, whilst very much loyal to the classic Dracula-esque vampire, is lighter than it is dark.

I’m not sure if it’s fair to say that anime doesn’t do horror, but it’s just very rare to see it done particularly well. It’s not that the Japanese can’t do it either, especially considering the creep factor of films like Ringu (one day I’ll write something about Kiyoshi Kurosawa,) but perhaps it’s just an odd quirk of the aesthetic of Japanese animation that the horror is weak?

One of few series that I think does it well is Pet Shop of Horrors, which at least embraces the idea of unsettling its audience. It’s only 4 episodes long and some episodes are clearly better than others, but it has a surreal atmosphere and goes in some strange directions; in one episode, a grieving man falls in love with a mermaid because it looks just like his dead girlfriend! Of course, that reads like the set-up for yet another romantic comedy, but the creatures are ambiguous and weird, operating on a distant plain of logic.

Earlier I watched a new BBC documentary about horror and I was struck by how films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are considered classics, yet contain nary a monster. In that way, I think Shigurui is one of the most effectively disturbing anime I’ve seen that’s supposed to be set in a real time and place. Samurai are often romanticised in the same way that Europeans think of knights and Americans think of cowboys, but fact is, these guys were honed killers, so they probably weren’t all such nice blokes. Shigurui is about samurai, but one can quite easily imagine its characters transported into the messed up world of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Another point brought up by the BBC’s documentary is just how frightening the sound in The Exorcist is. This is perhaps the most underrated element of horror. Critics often talk about how it’s best not to show everything and to let one’s imagination fill in the gaps. The Exorcist chills me to the bone every time I hear that old voice rasping out of young Linda Blair’s throat and Ghost Hound is one of the few anime that gets anywhere near that same sense of unease; certain scenes, including one where a ghost is found repeatedly running into a vacant road and getting knocked over by an imaginary car, is undeniably scary because of the sound that underscores every moment; a dissonant collection of electronic noises that keeps one perched in a state of worry, unsure of what’s coming next.

Sound is a crucial element of what people call the language of cinema, but if you can understand that language, you can often predict what’s coming next, and to me, that’s not scary. The core sentiment of a certain H.P. Lovecraft is that horror is what one feels when confronted with something that’s truly unknowable, yet that’s a feeling one rarely gets whilst watching anime. I’ve tried to come up with a few notable examples, but I would be delighted to know if there’s anything else that I really need to see?

Author: bateszi

A huge bloody nerd. I apologise in advance. I live in Cambridge, England. That's not an excuse, by the way.

32 thoughts on “Can anime do horror?”

  1. Haré+Guu.

    Yes, it’s a comedy but Tsutomu Mizushima knows his horror and he borrows heavily from methods of Sam Raimi to build tension here and in some of his later works like xxxHolic. He’s even dropping Evil Dead homages into Squid Girl!

    But Haré+Guu has Guu and so it works much more like Raimi horror/comedy than his other shows. Haré is basically a 10 year old Bruce Campbell being dragged through one terrorising situation after another by Guu.

    1. I don’t know if I would call Hare+Guu horror, but I there are definitely stylistic and visual elements/devices borrowed from the genre and used for contrast in the anime’s comedy setting.

      Really, bateszi, you should just watch Hare+Guu anyways, because it’s really quite awesome :p

      1. I’d not call it horror either, but Mizushima directs horror better in non-horror shows than most shows/films that are supposed to be horror.

        Even his episode 9 of Genshiken creates more tension in Madarame’s panic about being stuck in the same room as Kasukabe than most horror anime are capable of.

        Also worth checking Shin Chan – Attack of the Adult Empire (which he co-directed). There’s a sequence on some high rise girders in that screams Mizushima in terms of building tension.

        1. So I’m definitely going to watch Hare+Guu now, I’ve had the first few episodes gathering dust for too long.

          All this talk reminded me of Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island (One Piece Movie 6.) That was a pretty terrifying film, too :|

  2. I think the most unnerving anime I’ve ever watched has to be Boogiepop Phantom. And it used creepy sound effects to a great effect.
    Definitely not something to watch alone at night, ‘s what I’m saying.

    1. Oh, man. I can’t believe I forgot about Boogiepop Phantom, I even watched it last year :(

      It’s a proper horror series, too.

  3. I’m with you on Ghost Hound, they created a whole soundscape which contributed a distinctly unsettling atmosphere. The series wouldn’t have been nearly as good without that.

  4. It’s interesting to look at Shigurui as a horror anime. It certainly plays out in a style of horror anime, even though its premise or story has nothing supernatural in it.

    Anyway, Le Portrait de Petite Cossette and Requiem from the Darkness!

    and higurashi

    1. To me, Shigurui is a horror series in the same sense that Silence of the Lambs is a horror movie – they both squarely fall in the realm of “suspense”, but the idea (and genre) of suspense so tightly neighbors horror that it’s difficult to find the line between the two.

      Petite Cosette is on my to-watch list, but I can’t speak of the author’s intents, so :)

  5. Still waiting for Junji Ito’s work to be animated… Pet Shop of Horrors also has countless episodes in manga, I wonder why no one picks that up again.

    1. I’d pay good money to see Uzumaki animated, but it would need a really high animation budget to properly detail the amount of gore/mutilation. I guess that’s one of the reasons why horror doesn’t tend to work as well in anime? Horror needs lavish detail, but anime has always been on the lower budget side of things.

  6. The sound Ghost Hound show was magnificent. Though I didn’t find the series all that scary. Maybe that’s why I liked it so much. I am not a horror guy. On the other hand I ate up HSotD. It might not have a sense of despair but it’s replaced with anger. Again, maybe that’s why I like it so much.

    1. I quite liked Highschool of the Dead too, but it all went awry in the last few episodes. I was really liking it up until point where they left the appartment, but it just seemed to lose momentum/focus after that.

      1. I can see that. They leave the apartment in episode 7 (my favorite) while rescuing Alice. The team is complete. Everything that happens after feels like Act II, only we didn’t get to see all of it …

  7. By and large the Japanese anime horror does tend to lead towards the ‘unnerving mood’ variety, which I often prefer over simple scares. I guess the emotion I’d most associate with anime horror is ‘tension’. Mononoke and Monster were both shows that elicited feelings of tension and unease, but still no ‘scares’.

    Yet, fourteen responses on the subject of ‘classic’ horror and no-one’s mentioned Berserk?

    The final two-part conclusion certainly contains many of the more disturbing and grotesque elements associated with monster horror, as well as an overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere. And we shouldn’t forget Urotsukidōji either.

    1. Berserk’s an interesting one; I couldn’t really recommend it as a horror anime just because I find it more dramatic and philosophical than scary, but the way it ends, not to mention the fact that it’s full of monsters and other weird things, means that it could qualify as horror. Hmmm.

  8. There are two genres of anime that usually avoid: tragedy and horror. They are like the rap and hip hop of anime, something that I just can’t understand why anyone would like. Why would anyone want to be scared or sad when watching or reading a story, when the real world is so full of sad and scary things? I watch and read stories to escape them.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that I don’t like any horror or tragic stories. Horror often has certain fantasy elements that I like, and occasionally horror elements bring a powerful atmosphere to a story, such as in Ghost Hunt. A little tragedy, on the other hand, often brings certain depth to a story or a character. But horror for the sake of scares or tragedy for the sake of sad cries (as opposed to happy cries, which you can get at a happy ending or a romantic scene)… I just can’t understand.

    Maybe I’ll understand some day. It’s about as unlikely as me learning to tolerate rap and hip hop, but it’s possible.

    1. You could well surprise yourself, Krozam. In the last few years, I’ve dipped into the occasional hip-hop album and really liked it. If you’re looking for a way to bridge the gap between yourself and the music, try looking into the Japanese hip-hop scene, which has its own sound and is divorced from all of the cultural bullshit that surrounds Western/US hip-hop. Did you like the music in Samurai Champloo? Try listening to this; the song is Luv Sic pt 2 by the recently deceased Nujabes.

      1. Well, I suppose it’s tolerable. The singer can, surprisingly enough, pronounce English decently. I had much more fun transcribing and translating the title than listening to the song, though.

  9. Horror is not my forte, but I’d like to mention Mononoke as an anime that expertly builds a tense, eerie atmosphere, and concludes each of its arcs with a truly unsettling twist. Really a buried treasure of the medium.

    1. Yeah, I still need to finish/watch Mononoke. Based on what I’ve seen of it, though, I’d agree, it most definitely is a horror anime, and a burried treasure at that.

  10. Maybe you should try reading the original Devilman manga. Try reading it on a rainy night with your lights out and your door closed. It’s not scary in the “jump out of your chair” way but as you keep reading the feeling of uneasiness and anxiety are piling up.
    Never read Lovecraft but I think Devilman gives off that feeling he describes.

    1. Hey Gorilla, I actually read this back in 2008 for Halloween and wrote a little something about it, too.

      Just to quote one of Brack’s comments on that post;

      The thing I love the most is that moment in Volume 3 where Akira addresses the reader and warns you that things are about to get really, really bad.

      Things do get really, really bad :)

  11. I am quite a horror fan, just to prove it I managed to watch 20 horror movies from 25 oct. to 1 nov., not bad at all considering how busy my schedule is lately(I just like to brag). But yeah, no anime managed to stir in me the feelings I have while watching a truly great horror movie. There are some good horror manga that can be quite creepy, like the works of Junji Ito or Umezu Kazuo but I can’t think of an anime I would recommend to a horror movie fan, Boogiepop and Ghost Hound thanks to the sound do create a tense/unsettling atmosphere but so far no anime managed to scare me, there are disturbing anime but not ones that manage to frighten me. I guess Mononoke and Hundred Stories are worth mentioning, both use the sound and animation to create a creepy atmosphere.

    btw I have to try Shiki too.

    1. Shiki won’t scare you, but it has its creepy moments :) Anyway, yeah… it’d be interesting to see whether or not manga by Junji Ito or Umezu Kazuo could transfer well to anime? The thing is, series like Uzumaki and Fourteen (Umezu) are just totally gross, and to depict that same sense of pure and utter revoltion in animation is probably quite difficult. The art would have to be so detailed.

      1. Yeah, you were right, Shiki is not scary but it does have some creepy moments, especially the scene with Megumi crawling from under the bed was brilliantly executed (ep.4). Anyway, I have a weak spot for horror stories that take place in small towns so, so far I am enjoyed Shiki quite a lot. I also just found out that Shiki is meant as an homage to Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, which is great since I love that novel.

  12. I’ll second Berserk, perhaps it has more of a lean to fantasy but all the same it’s pretty damn horrific in places.

    Has anyone mentioned Kara no Kyoukai? I think just about every movie in the series had at least a few moments that made me feel queasy – has plenty of outright horror and shocks throughout.

    1. I wish I could say I’ve seen all of Kara no Kyoukai, but it’s one of those things that’s just remained a mystery to me all these years. I watched the first film and it seemed okay… I should probably get back to it.

  13. Apparently the guys at ANNCast had the same idea to talk about anime and the horror genre, and both of you even touched on a lot of the same topics and titles, so you should have a listen to their thoughts. One of the notable anime horror titles they mentioned was Magnetic Rose from the Memories collection, which doesn’t come up often in the horror discussion but is actually an excellent example of the genre.

  14. Horror isn’t my favorite genre to begin with, but yeah, there isn’t a whole lot of it in anime. One title that almost always gets left out of the discussion, possibly because of the age, is Vampire Princess Miyu. The TV series aside, the OVA is quite good.

    Now that I think about it, Rumiko Takahashi’s Mermaid Saga might count. Haven’t watched that in a long time, and I’m not sure it counts as pure horror, but I definitely recall the themes fitting.

  15. I’m curious, have you seen the latest episode of Shiki, 14? After that particular installment, I don’t know if one can still claim that it is lighter than it is dark. As a former employee in the medical field, there was a sequence in the second half of that episode that struck me as probably the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen committed to mainstream anime…

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