Japan has nurtured a storytelling tradition rich in demons, spooks and things that go bump in the night, so it’s not surprising that horror anime is extremely popular.
No matter what you’re in the mood for, there’s probably a show that caters to whatever supernatural thing you’re seeking out. Exorcists, psychics, vampire hunters and demon slayers are commonplace, and even non-horror anime shows usually have at least one “let’s explore this supposedly haunted house/hospital/cave/tunnel” episode, with typically terrifying results.
What follows isn’t exactly a definitive list of the best Japanese horror anime but a representation of what horror anime has to offer.
Let’s start with a tried and true classic in the genre. Vaguely based on the Van Helsing character in Dracula, this anime focuses on one of the legendary vampire hunter’s descendants. Sir Integra Fairbrook Wingates Hellsing, who is in the running for best character name ever, is the granddaughter (or great-granddaughter, it’s never explained fully) of the titular Van Helsing. She is the de facto leader of the Royal Order of the Protestant Knights, a group dedicated to the protection of England from supernatural forces. Integra, groomed from childhood to take over her father’s role in the order, is the first female leader, and she has to deal with sexism within the group. She plays down any displays of femininity, likes smoking cigarettes, and is portrayed as aloof and cold.
Integra’s gender doesn’t play a huge role in the anime, but that’s a part of its appeal. She doesn’t look specifically feminine. Her innocent nature was literally taken from her after she witnesses her father’s death, but she doesn’t suffer from it. Her cold nature is an asset when killing vampires, and even though she’s aloof, her fondness and respect for Alucard, the vampire servant sworn to protect her, still shines through. If you’re good with badass female characters, vampire motifs, and a healthy dollop of anti-Nazi symbolism, then Hellsing could be for you.
Ichigo Kurasaki can see ghosts, which makes him unique among his high school classmates. Not wanting to stand out, because high school is difficult enough, he keeps his powers quiet. But one night he meets a girl named Rukia Kukichi. She’s a shinigami, or Soul Reaper, dedicated to purifying the souls of the dead so that they can go on to the afterlife. If the souls aren’t purified within a certain time limit, they can turn evil and become gigantic monsters called Hollows. After Rukia is gravely injured in a battle with a Hollow she transfers her shinigami powers to Ichigo, so that he can finish the job she started. This split-second decision changes both Ichigo and Rukia’s lives forever.
A popular series when it was first released, Bleach still resonates with its top-notch action sequences, colorful cast of characters, and a focus on the political machinations which govern shinigami society. Who deserves this kind of power, and is it right that a regular human is able to wield it?
Brilliant neurosurgeon Kenzo Tenma has saved hundreds of patients in his lifetime, but there’s one patient he regrets rescuing from the brink of death. Years ago, a young child was brought into the emergency room with a gunshot wound to the head. Tenma didn’t hesitate to save the boy’s life, but he became wracked with guilt once he discovered that this young boy has grown up to be a cold-blooded murderer. Not all horror features vampires or ghosts. Monster is devoted to a horror of a different kind, and Tenma has vowed to correct the mistake he made.
Monster is a fantastic example of psychological horror. It doesn’t use jump scares or tons of gore to freak you out, but instead, it focuses on the frightening aspects of the human psyche. What would push a normal person to start killing other people? And is a doctor still bound by the Hippocratic Oath if the patient he saves is a murderer? The show starts off as more of a mystery/manhunt, as Tenma struggles to track down his former patient. However, once more and more of the murderer’s backstory is revealed, the body count starts to rise, and the morality of Tenma’s decision gets more and more muddied.
Paranoia Agent (2004)
This is another horror anime without much gore but with a good helping of the heebie-jeebies. Random people in Tokyo begin to suffer from mental breakdowns and are unable to cope with the modern stresses of life in the big city. They’re living extremely close to other people, so why do they feel so alone all the time? The only release for these people is an urban legend named Li’l Slugger, who supposedly stalks the streets of Tokyo and bashes people’s heads in with his bat. As Li’l Slugger’s victim count rises, others are left to wonder if this kid is even real. He leaves no other clues to his existence other than the bodies of his victims. Is he real? Maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. The right one might be: why is he real?
Paranoia Agent is the only TV series fronted by legendary anime film director Satoshi Kon. Known for his mind-warping visuals and head-scratching plots, Kon brings many of his concerns about what modern society does to the human mind to /Paranoia Agent/. The show is also pitch-perfect in its depiction of how things go viral and the power of social media, a few years before the rise of Twitter and Facebook. Paranoia Agent is a master class in the concept of mass hysteria, and how a single bizarre idea can permeate through a society, over and over, until it becomes the truth.
Blood + (2005)
This anime is kind of like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, except the vampire hunter has a katana. And there’s more blood. There’s so much more blood. Saya Otonashi lives a fairly normal life with her adopted family until her mysterious past rapidly catches up with her. She has a strange connection to a group of vampire-like creatures called Chiropterans. These monsters crave human blood, and cannot be sated once the bloodlust hits, but Saya’s blood is deadly to them. Tasked with hunting Chiropterans down, Saya must uncover her tragic history with these creatures before they end up taking over the world.
What sets Blood + apart from many other vampire hunting anime (and trust me, there are a lot) is the use of locations to create mood. Saya’s vampire hunting takes her all over the world, and she makes some allies along the way. But even with folks fighting beside her, like Buffy she ultimately realizes that she has to face her enemies, and her past, alone.
Allen Walker, the protagonist of this popular series, is an exorcist capable of defeating demons with the help of a blade that emerges from his arm. Just stay with me on this. There are even more ridiculous weapons in anime. There’s a pirate whose body is made of rubber. A blade arm isn’t the worst. Another shocker, this anime is meant for all ages. Chock it up to the Japanese to make an exorcist a family-friendly hero.
Set in a steampunk version of 19th century Europe, D.Gray-man depicts Allen’s continuing battles against the evil Millennium Earl and his ghoulish army of Akuma, sort of mechanical demons that only Allen can defeat. With me so far? The list of Allen’s enemies rivals Batman’s Rogues Gallery in number and in personality. They’ve all got grudges against him, and they won’t stop until Allen is resoundingly defeated. But Allen, true to hero form, isn’t one to just give up, even if the entire world is against him. If you like your demon-hunting with a dash of heroics, this could be for you.
Natsume’s Book of Friends (2008)
Takashi Natsume has had a hard life. After the death of his parents, he’s shuffled around from uncaring relative to uncaring relative until a distant cousin and her husband agree to take him in. Not only that, his ability to see spirits and demons has marked him as an outcast among everyone he meets. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to stick around with his new family for very long and keeps his ability a secret from his guardians. He also has to deal with the legacy of his grandmother Reiko, who had the same ability. She collected the names of all the demons she fought and then befriended (Grandma was a badass, apparently) into a book, which Takeshi has inherited. Owning the book means controlling the demons, and now that Takeshi owns the book, he also inherits the problems brought upon by those demons.
Despite the proliferation of demons in the show, there’s surprisingly little gore or violence in it. All the demons who confront Takashi just want their names back, which he’s more than willing to give to them. As Takashi befriends more demons, he starts to make friends with more humans as well. The plot mostly revolves around Takashi’s slow acceptance of his own abilities and what that means in light of his grandmother’s legacy. Oh, and there’s lots of humor thanks to Takashi’s friendship with an old but powerful demon named Nyanko-sensei, who takes the form of a fat, roundish, cat-looking...thing. Kind of like if Totoro were voiced by a cantankerous old man.
The title literally translates to “ghost story,” but behind the mundane trappings of the title lies a show with a visually arresting style which practically dares you to make sense out of it. Koyomi Araragi is trying to get his life back together after a near-fatal vampire attack. He still has some weird bouts with craving blood, but those are mostly gone thanks to the help of a not-so-friendly exorcist he met during the attack. Unfortunately, the attack had some other side-effects. He’s now a magnet for supernatural occurrences in the form of possessed classmates, whom he’s obligated to help because no one else is able to.
This is another anime without much action in it, but with dense conversations between characters about the nature of humanity and what it means to be a part of and apart from society. This is a show that will exercise your metaphorical thinking muscles. It can be an acquired taste, but there’s no arguing that the artwork is unusually stunning Plus, the series is so popular that multiple sequels have been produced for it. It’s a challenging show, but a rewarding one for those who want to devote the time to it.
Yato is a wannabe luck god, but he’s down on his own luck. Once, he was a powerful god of war, but no one needs a war god anymore, so Yato has to look towards newer pursuits to keep himself relevant. Gods can disappear into oblivion if they’re not worshiped, after all. Yato is willing to take on any prayer task, as long as those devoted offer him a 5 yen coin. Someday, he’ll have enough money for his own shrine, but first, he has to face the remnants of his bloody past. Luckily he has the help of upbeat Hiyori Iki, a human who can see the spirit realm after Yato saves her life, and Yukine, a departed soul who is bounded to Yato as his servant and his weapon.
This show is more of an action piece with some horror elements, and Yato’s past as one of the most violent war gods in history makes up much of the gore in the show. He’s a bad guy trying to atone, which is admirable, but certain acquaintances he knew from back then don’t want him to forget who he was. This is a show for folks who enjoy redemption arcs, teenage angst (in the form of Yukine’s mistrust of his new master), and the antics of a god who will do practically anything to be worshiped, including cleaning a potential believer’s bathroom. C’mon. That’s impressive. He even goes for the grout whitening.
Alien beings with a taste for human flesh are taking over the world, one possessed body at a time. These parasites are supposed to take over the brains of their victims, but Shinichi Izumi is a hapless teen who ends up with one of these beings in his right hand. The result? His hand now has a mind of its own, its own name (Migi), and a hankering to devour every human Shinichi meets. With Shinichi still in charge (mostly) of his own body, how will he deal with his own parasite?
Parasyte is a modern classic representing the Japanese horror subgenre known as “body horror.” Think of the kind of grotesque body transformations in movies like John Carpenter’s The Thing or Ken Russell’s Altered States and you’ll come close to the horrifying contorted creatures that are depicted in this anime. The human form is twisted into something definitely alien, but still recognizable as human. There’s lots of gore and blood for the regular horror fan to enjoy, as well as the psychological horror of Shinichi struggling to remain human while dealing with Migi. If Migi dies, then Shinichi will too. They’ve truly become symbiotic, but at what cost?
Tokyo Ghoul (2014)
As you can probably tell from the rest of the descriptions, many horror anime seem to be concerned with the unknown invading one’s ordinary life. Tokyo Ghoul is similar to Parasyte, in which another ordinary guy gets caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Ken Kaneki is attacked by a ghoul, a being that looks and acts human but craves human flesh. After the attack, Ken is transformed into a ghoul himself, and now he must deal with his new life, with disastrous results.
Ken’s story arc is perhaps the most tragic of all the protagonists in this list. He tries to cling to his past identity as a human while doing his best to survive in ghoul society. But he’s tortured and loses sight of that humanity as he embraces the violent, ghoul side of himself. His features drastically change to go along with his personality change. His hair turns white, giving him a more menacing, less human look. There’s no happy ending in sight for him, but he keeps pushing through his life and surviving. This is definitely not the type of show you’d watch to cheer yourself up unless you enjoy watching the slow deterioration of a character’s identity and transformation into something else entirely. But that might be what you’re into. Who knows?
Death Parade (2015)
What if, right after you died, you ended up in a bar? What if, in this bar, you had to play a game? What if your skill in said game determined whether your soul reincarnates or is tossed into oblivion? This is the concept of Death Parade, the show which probably has the most misleading opening theme song of any of these titles. It promises a feel-good, disco-driven, smile-fest, but what’s actually depicted is anything but feel-good, smiley, or disco-driven. Decim is the white-haired bartender who watches as newly departed souls literally play for their lives. Chiyuki is Decim’s dark-haired assistant, who has a mysterious past.
Each episode follows a different pair of souls who must play for their futures, and what follows is a masterpiece of psychological horror. Decim teases the patrons’ expectations, and while some blame the bartender for what’s happening to them, it’s clear that wherever the souls go, they brought their fates on themselves. Karma is a fickle, fickle mistress, but not as fickle as Lady Luck. Watching this show might make you want to be a better person if only to save yourself from having to play for your life.
Mob Psycho 100 (2016)
The newest title on this list features Shigeo “Mob” Kageyama, a teen with powerful psychic powers. He’s under the employ of fake psychic Arataka Reigen, who is basically using Shigeo to get his “Spirits and Such Consultation” psychic business off the ground. Even though Arataka is a con man who plays at having spiritual abilities, he’s something of a mentor to Shigeo, and he’s taught him a moralistic approach to his powers. ESP, says Arataka, is like a knife, and like a knife, you should never point your powers to other people. As Shigeo exorcises powerful spirits, Arataka reaps the financial rewards.
Why does Shigeo need a mentor, especially a fake psychic? Because if Shigeo loses focus and lets his emotions get the better of him, then the true extent of his powers are unleashed and no one in the immediate area is safe. Unfortunately, Shigeo is a thirteen-year-old boy in the middle of emotional turmoil, because he’s thirteen. Shigeo harbors a crush on a childhood friend, he has no friends apart from his younger brother Ritsu, and he struggles for acceptance to the extent of suppressing his abilities as much as he can. None of these are good for keeping his emotions in check, and this ends up as an awful way to go through puberty. Shigeo’s struggles are relatable to anyone who’s been an outsider, which is practically everyone. Plus the show’s unique art style could also be appealing to those who are tired of gigantic, shimmering, anime eyes staring at them through the TV screen.
As you can see from this roundup of Japanese horror anime, there’s more to it than body horror and monsters. There are also characters struggling to understand their identities and struggling to understand the human condition. There are questions of what it means to be human, and if being human (or staying human) is really important. And there is a bunch of blood, guts, and gore too if that’s what you’re seeking. It’s just a matter of looking around, and finding something you’ll dig.