When the average person hears the word “anime,” they think of big-eyed, effervescent school girls fighting evil by moonlight, or pretty boys piloting giant mecha in dystopian wars. The truth is, these kinds of stories apply to only a small segment of anime. With this stylized form of animation originating as far back as 1951 with Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy series, there’s an abundance of titles that differentiate from preconceived notions.
A great thing about anime is its absorbent quality when it comes to storytelling. In general, animation allows for creators to dabble in any genre without the limitations of live-action. And at the start of the 1980s, anime was embracing genre narratives more than ever in Japan. The space opera was growing in popularity thanks to Star Wars, but there was a notable interest in horror, too. Japan’s rich folklore was inspiring mangaka and animators; visceral gore and body horror were on the rise. No surprise on the latter seeing as imported slasher movies were especially successful in Japan.
The underside of Japanese cinema has never shied away from taboos or the pushing of boundaries. Yet live-action isn’t always the best medium for manifesting those ideas. Animation, on the other hand, makes the fantastical and the macabre all the more feasible. So in observation of this important decade in anime, below are ten horror titles that could stand to have some more attention.
10. MIDORI (1992)
After she joins a sideshow troupe, a young orphan is constantly abused and assaulted by her peers. Help finally comes in the form of a small and strange magician.
The protagonist in Midori is based on a Shōwa Japan era (1926-1989) stock character from kamishibai (street theatre). Typically a penniless and adolescent street vendor who sells camellias, she’s known as a Shōjo Tsubaki (camellia girl). Hiroshi Harada — using the pseudonym Hisaaki Etsu — produced the 1992 film Midori all by himself. The scandalous content of the movie eventually led to all copies of it being destroyed outside of some bootlegs and French distributor Ciné Malta’s now out-of-print release. By all means, Midori is an unsavory anime that will upset viewers. So unless subversive horrors like The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film are of your liking, proceed with caution when seeking this lost film out.
9. LILY C.A.T. (1987)
In the 23rd century, the crew of a corporate space vessel on a survey mission is under siege by a dangerous, extraterrestrial organism.
Since the success of Alien inspired a lot of copycats, it’s unsurprising Japan would add their own interpretation to the mix back in the eighties. Except this one is animated. Lily C.A.T. isn’t a far cry plotwise from the aforesaid trailblazer in sci-fi horror. It even has a cat. But clocking at barely seventy minutes, this movie is a brisk, character-driven space thriller with some notable gore.
8. VAMPIRE PRINCESS MIYU (1988)
With the help of her faithful companion Larva, a daywalker named Miyu takes it upon herself to rid the modern world of malevolent demons known as Shinma.
Before there was Buffy, there was Miyu. The similarities are there if you want to get persnickety. A glaring difference between them, however, is Miyu focuses on Japanese mythology. Oh, and of course the heroine is a bloodsucker. The manga by Toshiki Hirano and Narumi Kakinouchi is discernibly Gothic in tone and ethereal in appearance. Aside from the four-part video OVA (original video animation) that came out in 1988, there’s also a 1999 television anime that lasted twenty-six episodes. There’s a visible “monster of the week” formula to both adaptations, but Miyu in all forms is satisfying for anyone who likes brooding antiheroes.
7. DEVILMAN (1987)
Teenage Akira‘s parents have disappeared, and his friend Ryo may have an idea as to what happened to them. For Ryo‘s father discovered that demons once ruled our world. And now the only way to save humanity is for someone of pure heart and soul to become the Devilman. After all, to defeat a demon, one must become a demon…
Perhaps Go Nagai’s most popular title is Devilman, which was originally a manga before it was adapted into a serialized anime in 1972. The main problem with that version is it was sterilized due to its airing on broadcast television. As a result, the show was really no different from a number of other juvenile superhero anime airing at the same time. It wasn’t until 1987 and 1990 that Nagai’s controversial work received more a faithful adaptation in the form of two straight-to-video anime — Devilman: The Birth and Devilman: The Demon Bird respectively. With Nagai working closely with the production’s staff, the pair of OVAs more accurately depicted Devilman‘s iniquity and unmitigated violence.
6. USHIO & TORA (1992)
At Ushio‘s family’s temple, a tiger-like demon later named Tora is immobilized by a magical weapon called the Beast Spear. The spear’s wielder is imbued with enhanced abilities in exchange for their soul. So when Tora‘s mere presence attracts other demons, Ushio has no choice but to remove the Beast Spear so he can defeat these unwelcome guests. Tora — who most certainly wants to eat his liberator — reluctantly aids Ushio in the ongoing war between good and evil. At least until he can catch Ushio off guard and away from the Beast Spear.
There are two anime based on Kazuhiro Fujita’s shōnen (boys) style manga Ushio & Tora. The first is a 1992 series of eleven OVAs, and the second is a more recent television show that ran between 2015 and 2016 for thirty-nine episodes. The OVAs are bona fide dated at this point, but they’re amusing, buddy film-esque adventures that highlight the terrifying yōkai of Japanese folklore.
5. THE LAUGHING TARGET (1987)
Yuzuru was betrothed to Azusa when they were aged six. Now, she’s come to claim her beloved. And no one, including Yuzuru‘s current girlfriend, will get in her way.
Rumiko Takahashi is famous for Ranma 1/2 and Inuyasha, but she’s dabbled in horror, too. This includes a standalone story called The Laughing Target. It’s a far cry from the antics of Takahashi’s comedies; the self-contained anime is moody and convincingly creepy. While the artwork might not be the most refined-looking, The Laughing Target is an engrossing supernatural tale.
4. PET SHOP OF HORRORS (1999)
In Chinatown, Los Angeles, a mysterious pet shop is managed by the even more enigmatic Count D. His animals — including killer rabbits, a mermaid, a gorgon-like reptile, and a Qilin — are beyond exotic, and they come with certain rules for their new owners. Failing to abide by these strict guidelines results in precarious predicaments.
Matsuri Akino’s manga lasted an honorable ten volumes, but the television adaptation is fairly brief. The four episodes of the anime all play out like a Gremlins homage with varying levels of enjoyment. If you find pleasure in cruel, just desserts kind of stories, Pet Shop of Horrors could be a good fit.
3. DEMON CITY SHINJUKU (1988)
A man must carry on his father’s legacy as a demon slayer when a portal to hell is opened in Shinjuku.
Brought to you by the animation studio Madhouse (Perfect Blue), this feature-length OVA is a really stunning-looking horror anime. The plot is a tad thin considering the running time, but Demon City Shinjuku stands out among its contemporaries. The art alone seems straight out of a giallo.
2. THE GUYVER: BIO-BOOSTER ARMOR (1989)
After Sho comes in contact with an alien artifact, he’s transformed into a superhuman warrior known as the Guyver. His and his loved ones’ lives are now in danger. And to keep everyone safe, the Guyver must battle an all-reaching, hidden organization of evil monsters called Zoanoids.
Yoshiki Takaya’s testosterone-fueled manga has been animated three times so far. The second incarnation was a twelve-part OVA series that started in 1989. It’s a gory, fast-paced thriller with high stakes and plentiful action. Be sure to check out the 26-episode television series from 2005 in addition to the campy live-action films while you’re at it.
1. DEVILMAN LADY (1998)
A model named Jun learns she’s a Beast Hunter. This revelation comes from Lan Asuka, a government agent assigned the task of tracking down those who evolve into monster-like superhumans. But every time she succumbs to her Beast Hunter persona — the Devilman — she loses more and more of her own humanity…
Go Nagai’s sequel to his manga Devilman is often deemed contemptible because there’s a lot of unbridled and nefarious sexual violence in it. The anime removes all of that in favor of a psychological dimension to Jun‘s character. Although that’s not to say Devilman Lady (The Devil Lady in English language markets) doesn’t have the red stuff. There’s a lot of limb-tearing and bone-cracking to be found in this highly underrated, mature anime.