My wife refers to the films of the Japanese Horror boom of the late-1990s / early-2000s as “floaty dead girl movies” – after one of their most prominent tropes – the floaty dead girl. Ring (Ringu) (1998) and Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) are two of the most well-known and popular films of that era, and both have fairly successful American remakes. Only slightly less well-known, but just as influential and also the subject of a Hollywood remake, is Honogurai mizu no soko kara (Dark Water) (2002) from Ring (Ringu) director Nakata Hideo. A single mother going through a messy divorce moves into a rather run down apartment building with her six year old daughter. A persistent leak from the apartment above, visions of a missing young girl, and other eerie phenomena become increasingly menacing as clues to a past tragedy come to light. Combining themes of loss, abandonment, parental guilt, and the lengths to which a parent will go to protect their child, the film has a strong emotional core. True to its title, Dark Water is filled with watery imagery that provides for a gloomy, creepy atmosphere that ties in with essential story elements. Coming in the midst of the Japanese Horror boom of the late 20th/early 21st century, the film is a prime example of how to effectively use the tropes of that genre.
Matsubara Yoshimi (Kuroki Hitomi) is going through a messy divorce and custody battle over her six year old daughter Ikuko (Kanno Rio). Her husband’s lawyers keep trying to prove her unfit to have custody of Ikuko, and she is terrified of losing her. They bring up Yoshimi’s history of undergoing psychiatric treatment when she was younger as evidence of her being unfit. Not having much money, mother and daughter move into a run down apartment building. Shortly after moving in, they notice a growing leak in their ceiling from the apartment above. Small instances, such as dark stains on the elevator buttons and Ikuko finding a child’s toy purse start taking on increasingly ominous significance as Yoshimi learns more about the apartment building’s history. As if struggling to balance work and caring for her daughter were not stressful enough, Yoshimi has started having visions / flashbacks regarding the fate of a missing girl (Oguchi Mirei) that seem to parallel both her own experiences as a child and those of her daughter. Can Yoshimi keep it all together and not lose the one thing that matters to her most, her child?
Themes of loss, abandonment, and parental guilt run throughout Dark Water. The film opens with a flashback to Yoshimi being the last child left at school on a rainy day, waiting in vain for her mother to show up. This scene gets mirrored a number of times in the film, first when she is held late at work and Ikuko has to wait, and later in a flashback to the missing girl, who also was left waiting for her mother. One of Yoshimi’s driving forces is her attempts to prevent her daughter from being taken away, be it by her husband, child welfare, or a ghost.. She does not want to lose Ikuko, and she does not want Ikuko to have to feel abandoned as she did. Yoshimi feels guilty that she cannot provide a nicer home for them and that her long hours take her away from her daughter. She will do what she needs to so as to protect Ikuko. There is a sense of desperation to Yoshimi. She does not believe she is a naturally strong person; instead, she has to work hard to be stronger than she thinks she is. There is no guarantee that she will prevail, and this helps motivate her and it invests the audience in her fate.
The filmmakers fill the film with watery imagery, aptly enough. Most exterior scenes take place either in the rain or after a recent shower. Visions of the missing girl in her yellow raincoat tie in with the rain and up the creep factor. Even inside the apartment building, one can almost feel the humidity of the setting. Strange puddles in the elevator and water stains on the walls all add to the atmosphere. Then, there is the matter of the leak in the apartment ceiling. Starting off as a small water stain, it grows and darkens over the course of the film. Eventually, it provides a constant drip that Yoshimi does her best to collect in a pan. Just as flood waters rise, the watery manifestations increase as the film progresses. Flooded apartments, elevators full of water, and self-filling tubs all feature prominently. All of these watery images end up relating to the central mystery of the story, but they also, add to the overall atmosphere of dread and decay that permeates the film. Thematically, the rising waters fit as well; between the divorce, custody battle, work, and protecting her daughter from supernatural forces, Yoshimi feels overwhelmed and is struggling to keep her head above water, both figuratively and literally.
Dark Water is directed by Nakata Hideo, who is also responsible for probably the most famous film of the late 1990’s/early 2000’s Japanese horror boom – Ringu. As such, he is well versed in the tropes of that genre and uses them quite well in Dark Water. The scares in the film start off slowly and subtly, and they gradually build to more intense horrors. There are classic ghost story moments throughout – footsteps from an empty room, holding someone’s hand who turns out not to be there, spectres seen on security cameras but not “in person”. Those familiar with Japanese culture may also pick up other eerie details. For example, the main characters live on the third floor, meaning that the apartment that is leaking is on the fourth floor. Just as the number 13 is considered unlucky in the West, with many hotels and buildings skipping the 13th floor, the Japanese have a strong dislike for the number 4. The reason generally given is that the Japanese word for four (shi) is pronounced very similar to the Japanese word for death (shi). Another not-so-subtle but still creepy detail is that the family name of the missing girl is Kawai. Some fans of anime may be familiar with the Japanese term “kawaii” – which means cute. Kawai (or kowai), on the other hand means . . . scary. Yes, the missing little girl’s family name is “Scary”. Eventually, the subtler scares are replaced with more outright threats, such as ghostly hands that shoot forth from under water, trying to drown those who get too near. The film has a nice slow build with a great payoff. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Dark Water has one of my favorite reveals of any horror film. Both the audience and the main character share a fantastic “oh shit” moment of realization at the exact same time. In an instant, they know exactly what is up and realize the consequences.
Dark Water is an eerie, creepy, atmospheric classic from the late 1990’s / early 2000’s Japanese horror boom. A powerful emotional core with a sympathetic and vulnerable main character helps keep the audience invested. The filmmakers use watery imagery throughout, giving the film a strong atmosphere of decay while also mirroring the main character’s feelings of being overwhelmed by her circumstances. Award winning director Nakata Hideo knows how to scare audiences and skillfully paces the film, starting small and upping the terror as the film progresses. Dark Water is a prime example of Japanese horror from the late 20th / early 21st century and should not be missed by fans of the genre.
Dark Water (4.3 / 5)