Potent and packed with emotional resonance, Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water (2002) is a film that remains just as compelling today as when it was first released, fourteen years ago. It is difficult to believe that if you take things back to the beginning, it has been the best part of twenty years already since the contemporary J-horror boom induced a worldwide fever. There was a time when it seemed that no one could get enough, before the genre cannibalised itself, became oversaturated and worn out. Dark Water represents those heady days, where it felt fresh and new. And where lone ghosts lurking in the shadows, ready to flash into shot for a split second and make you jump out of your skin, didn’t populate every other genre film. Regardless of the fact this formula feels familiar as a result of its own legacy, Dark Water has lost none of its power. It is the real deal, and demands to be celebrated as such. This recent upgrade of Nakata’s poetic masterpiece, from Arrow, certainly gives respect where it is due. The release provides a nice upgrade of the main feature, alongside a host of fascinating extras; including an exclusive interview with the director talking about his entire career and the part he played in establishing modern J-horror. For fans like me, this package is a real treat.
Made just four years after Nakata’s breakout hit Ringu (1998)— a film that helped to define the J-horror movement— Dark Water carries some of the same themes as its predecessor: fractured families, past trauma, child abuse/neglect, a connection to water and a strong female protagonist. Not surprising when you consider both films were adapted from the literary work of the same author: Koji Suzuki; although Nakata has put enough of his own stamp on matters, to make the work a statement piece of his own. While Ringu offered up an entire novel ripe for adaptation, Dark Water had much more humble beginnings; starting life as a short story, entitled Floating Water, in Suzuki’s anthology, Dark Water, to which the feature owes its name. Scriptwriters expanded the narrative for the latter, keeping the core plot and layering on a strong sense of emotional drama that packs quite a punch in all the right places.
The world of Dark Water is rich in subtext; a ballad of supernatural terror deeply rooted in the agony of the human condition. Using a traditional ghost tale at its core, the director explores themes of isolation, grief and longing, that govern the melancholic tale. But then this is classic Nakata, regardless of the disparity in quality of some of his later films, these same themes dominate much of his oeuvre. He is a master at creating characters you can really invest in, and for my money, after Ringu, this film represents the director on top form.
Central to the story is Yoshimi Matsubara (Hitomi Kuroki— who also appeared in Nakata’s Kaidan five years later ); a fragile woman who is being pushed through a particularly acrimonious divorce by an aggressive husband. They are fighting over custody of their six year old daughter Ikuko (Rio Kanno), with it indicated the father is only interested in winning so his wife can lose (having previously never shown an interest in his daughter). To add to her problems, Yoshimi constantly has to fight off accusations about her mental stability; with her childhood trauma and previous mental breakdown being used as weapons against her in court. Yet, she continues to fight. She wants to be a good mother, even moving to a rundown apartment complex on the outskirts of town to make a new home for her and her daughter. Here she can be close to the child’s nursery, so she can hold down her new job as a proofreader for a publishing house. Despite these issues, things seem to be coming together. Or at least they would be, if strange things didn’t keep happening in their new home: damp patches on the ceiling, rumours of a five year old girl, Mitsuko, who used to live in the apartment above, disappearing under unexplained circumstances, something unseen in the shadows, noises from the empty apartment upstairs, and a child’s bag that keeps appearing no matter how many times it is thrown away. And this is just the start…
Less an outright horror, more a dark fable with touches of Gothic, Dark Water is adept at using its titular theme as an oppressive force throughout. The ubiquitous nature of water— an element that can both give life and take it away— is used in a number of subtle and not so subtle ways to ensure it seeps dread into every frame. It is in the expanding damp patch on ceiling, the never ending rain outside, it spews from the taps, leaks from the apartment above, it is consumed, it cleanses, it smothers. There is literally no escape, something which Nakata never ceases to stop reminding the audience. The depressing atmosphere of the continuous rain carries a metaphor for a number of things; including child abandonment, neglect, and Yoshimi ‘s fragile mental state. Even in her safe haven, the inner sanctum, the family home, she isn’t safe from its touch; as it continues to drip, drip, drip into her apartment; invading the peace of her new life with her daughter, causing an ugly black stain to spread over the ceiling: a reminder that past trauma is very much a part of the present and can never be ignored. Nakata uses traditional Japanese Kaidan (ghost) tropes, but reinvents them for a contemporary setting, just as he did with Ringu, to represent everyday pressures of modern life, the stresses of single parenthood, the toil of economic and emotional strain. Although the framework aligns strictly with J-horror, many of the deeper themes— especially those concerning the senselessness of child death, the sadness of loss— cross the cultural divide to present something relevant and engaging regardless of setting.
Stylistically, and say whatever you will about Nakata, visually his work is always worthwhile (a few ropey CGI effects aside, which are thankfully not present here), the contrast of the mundane apartment, the grotty labyrinth like corridors of the complex, combined with surreal elements of horror— a lone child sat in the rain in a yellow mac as the heavens tip down, a bright red child’s bag sitting in the trash, children’s paintings on the nursery wall that provoke a dreadful feeling that lies in direct opposition to their cheery outward appearance— work in total synergy. The director never shows his hand too much, something that the later Western imitators of J-horror tradition haven’t quite got their heads around yet; instead picking his moments— a child’s hand here, a pair of small feet approaching, dripping in water, a split second of a dark haired girl in the shadows there— to build up an unsettling sense of the uncanny. Of course, being a Nakata film, the core themes are much more affecting than any cheap need to shock. His propensity to evoke a deep emotional response, as the story plays out, is far more penetrating than the overt melodrama displayed in the Hollywood remake. In this way the film is very much J-horror, through and through, for all its beautiful ambiguity; especially when it comes to exploring the boundaries of life and death in a way that identifies with Buddhist/Shinto belief systems. In this way it delivers a far richer experience than the pale imitation copies that followed in its wake.
With a limited cast, Hitomi Kuroki, as Yoshimi Matsubara, earns her money, being the centrepoint for nearly every scene. The archive extras on the disc demonstrate the seriousness with which she approached the role; her performance adding a delicate sense of an unravelling mind, that never overstates its purpose or falls into hysterical territory. Rio Kanno, as six year old Ikuko, is equally strong in her part. Both of the younger actresses, Mirei Oguchi, who portrayed the poor lamented Mitsuko, and Rio Kanno, had to endure some pretty impressive stunts (given their ages) which are discussed on the making of featurette provided on this disc. Asami Mizukawa, who appears in a small part as sixteen year old Ikuko, gives a memorable performance that lends a poignancy to the film’s parting shot.
The disc comes with the following specs, with the print proving to be a decent upgrade from the previous UK Tartan DVD release:
- High Definition digital transfer
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
- Original 5.1 audio (DTS-HD on the Blu-ray)
- Brand new interview with director Hideo Nakata
- Brand new interview with novelist Koji Suzuki
- Brand new interview with cinematographer Junichiro Hayashi
- Archive interview with actress Asami Mizukawa
- Archive interview with actress Hitomi Kuroki
- Archive interview with composer Shikao Suga
- Original ‘Making of’ documentary
Also, with the first pressing only, there is an illustrated collector’s booklet containing new writing by David Kalat, author of J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond, and an examination of the American remake by writer and editor Michael Gingold.
Although all of the extras prove fascinating, my personal favourites were the interviews with Hideo Nakata— who gives a generous entire career overview, and discusses his complicated relationship with the genre—and author Koji Suzuki (who has been dubbed the Japanese Stephen King) who gives an exuberant talk about his collaborations with the director for both Dark Water and Ringu, as well as discussing his own career in broader terms.
The Bottom Line
If you haven’t seen Dark Water, now is the time to pick up one of the leading forces in the J-horror movement; which together with its peers inspired countess of Hollywood remakes as well as a horde of Western ghost based genre cinema. For existing fans this is a great upgrade of previous DVD releases, with some smashing extras to boot.