Asian horror series’ have opened up a whole new world of terror to Western audiences. From the body gore delights of J-horror to the cries of the medieval zombie infected in K-horror and on to more obscure mythologies drenched in blood and unholy folklore, here are some of our picks for the best modern series of recent years to slash up our streaming screens.
They’re not ranked in any particular order by the by.
Best Asian horror series to delight fans of fear
A zombie mystery series set in medieval era South Korea? You’d think the undead genre had all but been played out, what with the Nth The Walking Dead spinoff or the Nth iteration of dynamic running undead molded from Danny Boyle’s 28 franchise.
Nope, it only took showrunner Kim Seong-hun, and the amazing screenwriter Kim Eun-hee to whip up a pitch perfect atmosphere of sociopolitical intrigue in 16th century Joseon peninsula. In Kingdom a plague of risen corpses mysteriously eats through their fictional kingdom.
Asian horror at its finest! Both writer and showrunner were initially endeavoring to simply mirror their modern fears back in 2011, when they were writing the story through the lens of a historic horror story.
But Kingdom turned out to be so top quality that it immediately got a second season and an origins spinoff in Kingdom: Ashin of the North. Both have been superb and made converts out of casuals, quicker than a zombie bite turning new infected.
With a delicious central story about the mysterious and folkloric origins of the zombies, an embattled crown prince and his unlikely allies trying to wake up his father’s corrupt and scheming bureaucrats to combat the plague. Plus, great set design, cinematography, casting, acting, and all-around exquisite production values (the historic costumes alone must have cost quite the budget), Kingdom is as fast-paced, ruthless, and bloody as the running hordes of corpses it features.
Make no mistake this is a complex sociopolitical thriller ala Game of Thrones, except that it takes place in the east and has more sprinting zombies eager to make samgyupsal out of royals and commoners alike.
Ghoul would have been a perfect movie. In fact, director Patrick Graham intended it to be a long feature film, but instead it was later recut into a miniseries for Netflix.
This is probably why the three-part miniseries still feels like you should watch it in one sitting for continuity, thinking of each hour plus as chances for snack and bathroom breaks. Still, the premise and execution of this Indian horror series are irresistible, even from the opening title card announcing the premise.
The viewer are informed that India is now in the near future and has become divided by deep sectarianism, with those in the opposition being sent to military detention centers, ostensibly for “rehabilitation.” In reality, the Islamophobic authoritarian government is sending its critics and detractors to rot in cells or be tortured, so they can further root out dissidents.
Nida Rahim is a young mil school graduate, a noob who’s assigned to a special unit inside one of these detention centers. The unit and the jail are both notorious for the enhanced interrogation (read: torture) of its prisoners.
But this one, new and very special detainee, the notorious jihadist Ali Saeed, is proving uncannily resistant to Rahim and Co’s techniques. Turns out he may not be all he says he is.
In fact, this anti-national terror leader may not even be human at all. I loved Ghoul for how it mixed South Asian horror with socio-political themes and Arabic folklore.
If you haven’t watched it, the mythological creature that the terrorist Saeed is revealed to be will look familiar but won’t be the kind of thing you’d expect after all the Disney movies where it figures. Rahim is well-written too.
He’s a tortured character torn between nationalist duty and familial ties. Her depth is established after it’s revealed that she got her military promotion, after she turned in her own father to the authorities for harboring subversive materials.
Rahim’s deep guilt, as well as the sins that haunt the rest of the torture unit, is something the ghoul will leverage, as he literally eats his way through the prison crew, chanting in Aramaic: “Finish The Task, Reveal Their Guilt, Eat Their Flesh.”
Tokyo Ghoul (Anime)
Body horror is something Japanese storytellers of horror do well and it’s on full display in this anime adaptation of the original manga. Tokyo Ghoul is all about cannibalism; a superior race nicknamed “ghouls”, has suddenly made their presence known to Japan.
They appear just like humans at first but can be identified for their diet of human flesh. They’re also imbued with body warping powers that can transform torsos into armor or limbs into weapons.
A crisis is rising and human authorities and ghoul appetites clash in the Tokyo metro. But for Ken Kaneki, just a regular and pretty reserved college student who’s avoiding news and the new creatures, the beautiful young woman Rize Kamishiro pulls him out of his solitary hikikimori-ism when she asks him out on a date.
Sadly, their date goes way wrong when it turns out that Rize was a ghoul hunting him with the intent on eating him. Though it seems like he successfully fended her off, he wakes up after the struggle to find that he’s in the hospital.
Ken is badly injured and Rize is dead. Not to worry, as the doctors inform him they’ve successfully transplanted some of Rize’s organs to replace his own damaged ones.
From there on, the series tracks how Ken changes into a ghoul himself because of Rize’s parts and blood inside him. Ken’s story, his coming to grips with new powers, identity, and cravings, is a haunting one about how one must struggle to keep your humanity, despite undeniably powerful new appetites.
What’s worse? Rize continues to haunt him as a spectral vision because of all the flesh they now share.
The first season of this Asian horror anime was excellent and frankly disturbing for its meditations on how to pick, prepare, and eat human flesh. The second season, the live-action version, and the spinoff are less stellar.
The original Ju-On story has undergone so many retellings that the remakes and sequels (13 of them, so far) make it hard to parse the original spirit of cursed malevolence from its less powerful echoes. So when Ju-On: Origins came out it was a great breath of fresh air for this story of bloody curses.
Yes, it’s still a disjointed kind of anthologized series that, on this prequel, tracks how the curse began and was passed down. But the story of this one begins with a reporter trying to track down folks connected to the infamous haunted house.
The journo speaks to an actor whose boyfriend went to the house. Later on, they discover he may have brought back more than pictures with him as they are haunted by footsteps in the dead of night and other strange occurrences.
Still centered around a haunted house, where an act of violence so horrific happened that it stuck to the walls and the energy of the place, Origins follows an ensemble of characters through their own timelines. All of these multi-timelines take place during the years leading up to 1998, when the violence that birthed the curse occurred.
And like the original 2000s Asian horror movie by Takashi Shimizu, this series is a slow burn that almost eschews jump scares but focuses on real world violence that begets the spiritual violence that ripples through dimensions and time. With VAW and domestic child beating, as well as body horror sharing the stories, it’s often hard to watch at times.
Yet the extreme nature of these denouements are never in doubt. They always service the commentary and insight of the story, often about stifling Japanese culture and the vicissitudes of the socioeconomic milieu when they happened.
Trese was originally part of Netflix’s push to produce more original Asian stories. With this comic adaptation by showrunner Jay Oliva, about an iconic Filipino comic book series, Philippine mythology and folklore gained a ripe foothold on Western audience’s imagination, just like ube did in mainstreaming Pinoy cuisine.
Trese is set in an alternate Metro Manila, where modern tech and pop culture live alongside a bestiary of mythic creatures. Viscera-sucker manananggals fly across the CBD skyline, ancient demigods influence politics, and crimes are intertwined with a literal spiritual underworld of corrupt dwarves, gangster horse men, and murderous lightning spirits.
Central to the tale is occult detective Alexandra Trese, who, with her enchanted warrior assistants, aid the real world police in solving cases and apprehending criminals that aren’t exactly human. In a cross between noir procedural and supernatural horror, many viewers were introduced to the deep and complex world of Filipino lower mythology and its strange creatures, via this anime.
But showrunner Jay Oliva, (the same guy who directed a two-part animated film Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) deftly and respectfully expresses the Third World setting of the series with grimy visuals and catchy dialogue. It’s a place full of police beatings and corrupt systems, as well as the range of characters that original comics scribes Kajo Baldisimo and Budjette Tan penned to popular acclaim.
Detective Trese herself still as fascinating and stoic as in the comics, voiced with intense aplomb in English by Fil-Canadian Shay Mitchell. This series, despite the sometimes predictable plot, starts out intriguing enough when Trese finds herself in a sprawling web of both a real world and supernatural court conspiracy.
It starts with a ghost and missing passengers, until Trese’s investigation leads her to consult a vampiric aswang clan for help and it all tracks up to the highest levels of government. Welcome to the dark and hot world of South East Asian horror.
Attack on Titan
The Terror: Infamy
Junji Ito Maniac
What is your favorite modern Asian horror show or series? Share your answers in the comments below!