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Horror is one of the hardest genres to put on screen. Stephen King put it best: Nothing is scarier than whatever you are imagining, so the moment a monster is on screen, part of the suspense is missing.
Anime has the same problem. It’s very easy to cross the line between horror and involuntary humor. And yet, there are some jewels that shine because they bring the shivers, the goosebumps, and the cold touch of fear when we watch them.
One of the hardest things in horror is to keep the suspense for a long time. And thus, it seems that the short format of the OVA is perfect for these kind of stories. That is why today, we bring you our top 10 Horror OVAs, for your consideration. Just remember, we’re only talking about stand alone OVAs that are not a continuation from a TV series, and we will try to keep the spoilers at a minimum.
10. Kite (A Kite)
- Episodes: 2
- Aired: Feb 1998 - Oct 1998
Detective Akai is investigating a series of bizarre murders in Tokyo: all the victims are rich, and were killed with the same weapon, but those are the only leads on the case. However, the truth is that he has a small conflict of interest in the case, since he and his partner Kanie were the ones who ordered the murders, and the killer is his adopted daughter –and lover- Sawa.
Kite, known as A Kite in Japan, is usually considered an action thriller anime due to its high content of action scenes. However, when one starts thinking about the plot and the circumstances around it, this OVA becomes quite terrifying. Let’s start with Sawa’s situation. She was “rescued” from the scene of her parents’ murder by Akai, who promptly used her gratitude to abuse her and turn her into a cold blooded killer for hire –who doesn’t even get to keep the money from her work.
Things get darker from there. Sawa is not the only child brainwashed by Akai and Kanie, and the discovery of this fact is what makes Sawa start questioning her life. It soon becomes a question of moral versus survival. And because that choice is pretty terrifying, Kite gets the tenth place in our list.
9. Toshi Densetsu Monogatari Hikiko
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: Aug 2008
Urban legends are a funny thing. No matter how absurd they sound, since we all know a friend of a friend who had it happen to them, it’s easier to believe they’re true. Satoshi seems to be living inside one: after being chased by an angry ghost woman, he meets his new neighbor, a girl named Satoko. But Satoko’s life is not easy. Satoshi is quick witness to how Satoko is bullied by other children in the school, and mistreated by her mother. And the ghost woman seems to chase those who cross her path, to take them to horrible ends.
Toshi Densetsu Monogatari Hikiko is a hidden jewel of Japanese horror. Done completely in CGI, the uncanny valley quality of the characters gives it a creepy atmosphere that adds to the story. If you are fan of Ringu, Dark Waters or any similar Revenge Ghost story, Hikiko is just for you. The OVA is only 40 minutes long, but each minute is filled with tension.
And yet, the most horrible part of this particular OVA is not the ghost story; it’s the terrible abuse we see Satoko live through. Sometimes, humans are worse monsters than ghosts, and that is why Toshi Densetsu Monogatari Hikiko gets our ninth place on the list.
8. Mermaid Forest (Ningyo no Mori)
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: Aug 1991
What do you do with your life when you can’t die? For Yuta and Mana, the answer is not easy. After eating mermaid flesh and being lucky enough to be one of the very few who don’t die horribly from the poison that may grant eternal life, they walk all over Japan looking for something to do with their immortality. It is this way that they cross paths with a mysterious woman named Sawa, her elderly companion Towa, and Dr. Shiina, three mysterious characters who collect arms from freshly dead corpses.
From the mind of Rumiko Takahashi, Mermaid Forest is completely different from her usual fare. The horror of it doesn’t come from Yuta and Mana’s immortality –despite everything, both have decided to live as long as they can- but from the reactions of other people to immortality. In this cautionary tale, Sawa looks immortal, but is in fact an old woman who has very little time left. While Towa seems chained by her loyalty to her family, but has secret guilt that devours her, just like a monster would.
The horror of living for one goal, ignoring all other possibilities, as well as living with the betrayal of the one person you trusted with your life, are what make Mermaid Forest have the eighth place in this list.
7. Pet Shop of Horrors
- Episodes: 4
- Aired: Mar 1999
There’s a very special pet shop hidden in Chinatown. They say that no matter how exotic the animal you are looking for, Count D will be able to find it for you. But you will have to pay the price, and there are rules that you must follow. Because if you don’t, be warned that the store won’t be liable for your safety.
Pet Shop of Horrors is an anthology series; each chapter showing the story of a pet that was sold and the consequences of breaking the rules in the contract. We see a human-looking rabbit that suffers from too much love, a mermaid that eats love, a medusa who longs for love, and a kirin who demands love as payment for her services.
The consequences of not listening to reason, and the knowledge that in many cases one would do the same, are the root of horror in these stories. And because those consequences are deadly, Pet Shop of Horrors gets the seventh place in our list.
6. Le Portrait de Petit Cossette (Cossette no Shouzou)
- Episodes: 3
- Aired: Apr 2004 - Dec 2004
When love goes unrequited, it can become a dangerous obsession. This is what seems to happen to art student Eiri Kurahashi when he starts dreaming of a beautiful blonde girl; at least, that’s what his friend Shoko, as well as his boss at an antique shop think. He is skipping classes, running all over the city and muttering about cursed objects. What they don’t know is that he sees the girl, Cossette, and has sworn to free her from her supernatural prison.
Cossette was an aristocrat in the 18th Century, who was killed by a painter obsessed with her beauty. Once he painted her portrait, he wanted to preserve her just as she was, thus killing her and unleashing a terrible curse on everyone who owns the objects that witnessed her death. Worse, the only way to break the curse is if someone chooses to die for Cossette, and Eiri is the chosen one.
Blind love and dark secrets give shape to Le Portrait de Petit Cossette, and because those are two of the main ingredients of a good gothic horror story, it earns the sixth place in our list.
5. Mermaid’s Scar (Ningyo no Kizu)
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: Sept 1993
In their eternal road trip through Japan, Yuta and Mana have met many strange people. But no one is as strange as young Masato and his mother Misa. When they meet Masato, he seems happy to go back to his mother, a rich woman who is the subject of many rumors in town. The housekeeper, Yukie, is afraid that perhaps Misa is mistreating Masato; but as she is soon to be married, Yukie can’t do much but leave Masato alone with his mother. It is then when Yuta walks in on them, while Misa is trying to kill her son with a pair of scissors.
While this may seem like a small cheat on the list, Mermaid’s Scar is not a real sequel to Mermaid Forest. Both are based on the same manga, Mermaid Saga by Rumiko Takahashi, they are animated by different studios and are not considered connected except for the main characters. And Mermaid’s Scar is more terrifying than Mermaid Forest, thanks both to a better animation from Madhouse and to a better story.
A chilling tale of codependency and how family can turn against each other, Mermaid’s Scar earns the fifth place in our list.
4. Laughing Target (Warau Hyouteki)
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: Mar 1987
Yuuzuru Shiga has a pretty normal life for a teen in the eighties. He practices archery, has a girlfriend, and doesn’t really think about the future. However, his life changes when his cousin Azusa comes to live with them, and not for the better. When they were younger, their parents decided to arrange their marriage when they were of age; Yuuzuru forgot, but Azusa didn’t. And she doesn’t take kindly to Satomi, Yuuzuru’s girlfriend. She hasn’t talked to another boy since the promise to marry Yuuzuru, and she is not going to let anyone stop her from marrying him.
Yet another early story from Rumiko Takahashi, this is a darker turn of her usual love triangles with a supernatural element. Like Kagome in Inu Yasha, Satomi has to deal with the strangeness that surrounds Yuuzuru’s life. Like Lum in Urusei Yatsura, Azusa has many advantages to make sure her “darling” stays at her side. But this is no comedy, and Satomi and Yuuzuru’s lives are really in danger.
Because of the dark atmosphere created in this short OVA, and the horrible way in which love can go wrong, the Laughing Target gets the fourth place in our list.
3. The Curse of Kazuo Umezu (Kazuo Umezu no Noroi)
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: 1990
Never play with the supernatural. That is the warning that starts this anthology of two short stories from one of Japan’s masters of horrors, Kazuo Umezu. The first story, What did the Camera register? starts with the arrival of a new student from Mexico to Japan. Her arrival causes every boy to fall in love with her, but Masami is confused as to what she feels: Is it admiration? Or Fear? And why? In the second story, The Haunted Mansion, four friends decide to explore a haunted mansion that just appeared in their town. Curiosity killed the cat, and they soon are face to face with a real ghost.
Kazuo Umezu is famous for his body horror stories, and both curses we see here are no exception. While they may start like classic vampire or ghost stories, he soon gives them a twist that is both gross and unexpected. And given that he has been working on these stories since the early eighties, he is also one of the first to give these twists to the audience.
Because of the originality, and great atmosphere that Umezu gives us with these two short stories, The Curse of Kazuo Umezu gets the third place in our list.
2. GYO: Tokyo Fish Attack! (Gyo)
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: Feb 2012
Kaori and her friends are on a girls-only vacation when their seaside cabin is infected with a horrible stench that seems to come from the ocean. Soon, it’s not only the stench: fish are walking, coming out of the sea to attack anything that gets on their path. When a shark attacks them, infecting Erika with a bacteria that makes her bloat up and produce the same stench as the fishes, Kaori decides she needs to find her boyfriend, Tadashi, to try and escape the walking fish. Only by then, fish are not the only walkers that spread the stench.
Gyo is the first attempt to animate a manga written by Junji Ito, who is one of Japan’s best horror mangaka right now (Not the first adaptation, though. Both Tomie and Uzumaki have been adapted to live action, with varying degrees of success), and while the character designs by Takuro Takahashi don’t quite capture the expressive and horrifying transformations that Junji Ito gives us in the manga, he comes quite close.
Many phobias give form to the horror of the undead walking fishes that start the horror in Gyo: fear of death, fear of the ocean, fear of the unknown, and fear of germs. All have something to do with the story, and this is why Gyo gets the second place in our list.
1. Corpse Party: Tortured Souls (Bougyakusareta Tamashii no Jukyou)
- Episodes: 4
- Aired: Jul 2013
Building a school on top of a school that was devastated by tragedy is a terrible idea. This was a hard lesson learnt by the students of the Kisaragi Academy, a school built on top of the Heavenly Host School, when they’re transported to a hell dimension. In this place, the restless spirits still trapped within the Heavenly Host campus stalk their prey, killing them in the most gruesome ways possible.
Friendships are tested to the limit, as well as sanity. The students who were transported to the supernatural side of the school did so because of a charm to make sure they would remain friends forever. This becomes ironic, as soon, each has to choose between their own survival, or being in danger for their friends.
Due to the extreme contrast between the gore in the story and the character designs, as well as the hard choices each student has to face, Corpse Party is no doubt the first place in our horrifying list.
Fear is something personal. We each have different phobias, and different things that make our blood go cold. This is another reason why horror is such a complicated genre to make, and even harder to rate.
Do you agree with our list? Or perhaps there are other OVAs that make your skin crawl and force you to sleep with your lights on? Please let us know in the comments, and also let us know if you could sleep after viewing the ones we recommended.