In 1998 Hideo Nakata released Ring (or Ringu) and in doing so created one of the most terrifying horror characters ever seen on screen. Vengeful spirit Sadako is so distinctive as be part of modern culture itself, and Nakata became the poster boy for the rise in the popularity of Japanese horror – or J Horror – at the turn of the millennium. He followed Ring with a direct sequel, and a couple of dark thrillers before releasing Dark Water in 2002. Focussing on another malevolent ghost, Dark Water centres on young mother Yoshimi moving into a rundown apartment block with her 6-year old daughter. The thing is, Dark Water isn’t actually that scary. So is it really a horror film?
It’s fair to say that anyone expecting Ring-like scares from Dark Water will be hugely disappointed. This is a film full of brooding menace rather than jumps and frights. There is very little “ghostly” action for the first two acts, with Nakata instead choosing to concentrate on the mother-daughter relationship at the film’s heart, and the lack of one for child spirit Mitsuko. Abandonment is an important theme for Nakata, and one that runs right through to a finale that is as powerful as it is deftly handled.
Instead of “real” horror, Dark Water as a film emulates the dark presence of its protagonist. There is barely a scene that is not awkward or uncomfortable, creating an oppressive atmosphere that clings to you like a dense fog. Every surface, every inch of this world feels grimy and unwelcoming, with the seemingly perpetual rain failing to wash away any of the inherent sadness. This is a film that creeps slowly around behind you, uncomfortably caressing your shoulders rather than jumping up and screaming in your face. It is a film that chills you without really scaring you, and is a work of brilliance.
Suspense and subtle chills are major themes throughout Japanese horror literature and film and Nakata exemplifies that more with Dark Water than with any other film he made. It’s interesting that, in a fascinating new interview commissioned purely for this new Arrow release, Nakata states that the film’s writers didn’t like the finished film; they thought it not scary, and not in keeping with what they wrote.
It seems in many ways they were missing the point. To make Dark Water more frightening would have meant simply repeating much of what Nakata achieved in Ring and its sequel. This is a different film, with different themes, and as such should be appreciated for that distinction. This is an uncomfortably beautiful, grim and horrific film; just don’t expect too many scares.
DARK WATER (2002) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: HIDEO NAKATA / SCREENPLAY: YOSHIHIRO NAKAMURA, KENICHI SUZUKI / STARRING: HITOMI KUROKI, RIO KANNO, MIREI OOGUCHI / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW