In a newly recorded interview, director Hideo Nakata not only talks about his rise through the studio system and his break directing the original Ring, he also talks about Dramatic Horror. Such a notion is only given credibility by the art-house, independent and marginalized, even in the parts of Asia which viewed the otherworldly with a modesty are more concerned with horror’s immediacy. It is in this revelation that the newly released [by Arrow Video] Dark Water has grown to more closely resemble the classic idea of horror, a standing that suits it well. Nakata also mentions that he did everything in his power to make 1998’s Ring as scary as possible, he looked at his then return to horror in Dark Water as an opportunity to develop characters, a story and find the scares within.
Hitomi Kuroki is Yoshimi, recent divorcee and Mother to 6-year-old Ikuko, the two of them move into a new flat in a near derelict tower block. The Mother and Daughter move into a flat that has a disconcerting leak accumulating on the ceiling above their bed, despite Yoshimi’s many unsuccessful complaints to the buildings caretaker the patch continues to grow. Meanwhile, Ikuko is starting a new Kindergarten and Yoshimi’s ex-husband is mounting a serious claim for custody. With the daily push and pull on Yoshimi, she becomes more and more compromised by mania and depression, the escalation of which goes hand in hand with the exponential growth of that water patch. Add to that a missing six-year-old in a raincoat and mysterious visions on the roof of the tower block emanating from a grimy, dilapidated water tank.
Two qualities define Japanese cinema from the outside, in that their films are slow and/or incomparably weird. Dark Water is the prior, a patience that will challenge some but completely validated in the depth of character and subtext built up by Nakata and Jun’ichirô Hayashi’s imperious cinematography. Many 90s-00s films had a similar look, drained gray and grain, this was a technological limitation of this era of horror being designed for the straight to video market, however, there is a level of serendipity. Much of Dark Water takes place in a suburban nightmare of multi-storey buildings and isolated, dank corridors, with the drained palette and Hayashi’s cinematography develops a meaning of its own. His framing sowed the seeds of dread and social commentary, his camera tells of the rampant isolation and depression that smothers Japanese society. There is also an implication that the sins of one generation will be inherited the next. Hayashi also worked as cinematographer on the Ring films and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, and his style was consistent throughout, yet it was only here in Dark Water that all the components lined up to make a world without relent or hope.
It takes a good while for any horror to reveal itself despite the cinematography constantly keeping you expectant that anything could happen at any time, especially with the film seeking to use the motif of leaking water as its nucleus. Whether it’s the repeated appearance of a red child’s bag, shadows or glances of something untoward, the horror is hinted at in dribs and drabs. After all, if horrible things happen to characters we have no connection to it matters little. As these small moments escalate they accumulate for these moments of literal skin-crawling dread, everyone responds to effective horror in a different way – personally the hairs on my arm stand on end, Dark Water has such moments. One is a sequence in which Ikuko is playing hide & seek at school, only the person who finds her is not a fellow student but a ghost with water bellowing from where it stands. For a film to be genuinely frightening and not a build up to an inevitable jump scare is a magnificent novelty, and few have a mastery over it like Hideo Nakata.
As is often the case with horror films, the true scares come in the final act with the slow build paying off beautifully. That aforementioned feeling of the hair standing on end in congratulations of good horror becomes almost constant in the last fifteen minutes. Crawling its way from dark character drama to horror, Dark Water functions on a level similar to that of today’s most celebrated triumphs (See: the Babadook or the Witch). Jaws made people afraid to go to the beach, well, Dark Water can make you afraid of what lies beneath the surface of a bath in one of the tensest moments in modern J-Horror. Even the terrible use of turn of the century computer imagery fails to curtail the dread. At 90 minutes, Dark Water is a near perfect film from a national cinema climbing its way back up after nearly two decades of obscurity.
At 110 minutes, Nakata stuck the landing, at least from the perspective of cultural polarity. The last ten minutes see the film jump a decade into future with Ikuko featuring as a teenager, in this scene she visits her former home and has an otherworldly interaction that shows a much more Japanese perspective on the afterlife, showing that ghosts are as benevolent as they are vicious. It damages the film, speaking as a British person, but the intended idea behind the epilogue is to suggest that there is always hope, either in this life or the next. For proof in the pudding look no further than the melodramatic musical cues post-climax and the closing number by Kenji Kawai and singer Shikao Suga.