It was at a film festival that Japanese director Hideo Nakata once saw the late Wes Craven comment to the audience that to direct any more than two horror films was to forever be labelled as a horror director, a tale Nakata recounts in an interview recorded earlier this year exclusively for Arrow’s new edition of Dark Water, the 2002 horror film which marked his own fifth entry into a genre of which he says he is “not a fanatic.”
Nakata’s second adaptation of the work of novelist Koji Suzuki following 1998’s Ringu, neither does Suzuki regard himself as a horror writer, yet it was that film and its sequel which ushered in the “J-horror” boom in mainstream western cinema, with many of the key films being remade in English language versions, Nakata himself directing the sequel to the remake of his own Ringu, though bearing no similarity to his own Ringu 2 nor Rasen based on Suzuki’s sequel novel, while Walter Salles directed the 2005 version of Dark Water.
Separated from her husband and fighting over custody of their daughter, Yoshimi Matsubara (Hitomi Kuroki) needs somewhere to live and a job; with six year old Ikuko (Rio Kanno) stubbornly in tow they walk through the driving rain to arrive at the apartment block and are conveyed upwards to view the vacant 305. Told that it’s “old but solidly built,” they have little choice but to accept their new accommodation.
Convinced that her husband is trying to hurt her, he has informed the divorce court that she has previously undergone psychiatric treatment, but Yoshimi states it was over a decade previously, blaming it on her work at the time, proofreading graphically violent texts over and over, yet her new employment is also proofreading at a small press, and once again her behaviour is becoming erratic, but not without reason.
There is the stain that spreads across the bedroom ceiling, the water that trickles down while they sleep, the clumps of hair that come from the taps into their drinking water, and Ikuko is not unaffected, her tendency to vanish causing concern to Yoshimi who has read of a girl who lived in the apartment directly above theirs who went missing and was never found.
Based on Suzuki’s short story Floating Water (Fuyū Suru Mizu) from the collection From the Depths of Dark Waters (Honogurai Mizu no soko kara, the Japanese title of this film), the narrative is too sparse to support the hundred minute running time and the atmosphere too tenuous, with cinematographer Junichiro Hayashi declaring in his interview that he too has never been a fan of horror, being too scared to watch ghost stories as a child.
Crucially, unlike Ringu with the curse passed on to anyone who viewed the videotape and no escape from Sadako’s supernatural revenge, here there is little sense of danger or threat, the haunting confined to one location, one family, and in contrast to Nakata’s own stated categorisation of the genre – “Horror films have to be scary” – Dark Water simply isn’t.
While it’s difficult to fault the performance of Kuroki, who dubbed Plastic Girl in the Japanese release of The Incredibles and was recently a featured voice in When Marnie Was There, it’s difficult to warm to Yoshimi, twitchy, nervous and needy, a shrill and unpredictable character who blames others, and in the frustratingly patriarchal society she is surrounded by men who rationalise and dismiss her and to whom she automatically defers.
Where The Haunting, Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby developed the idea that everything inexplicable which occurs might only be in the mind of the central character here any moves towards that theme such as when her husband asks Yoshimi if she knows what it is to be left alone, echoing the opening scene of the film, are scattered dead ends which fall flat.
Instead it is Rio Kanno in her acting debut as young Ikuko who is the centre of the film, wide eyed, fearful and wilful, and praise is given to both her and Mirei Oguchi as the mysterious former upstairs neighbour Mitsuko Kawai by Nakata, both of whom braved the water in the pre-digital practical effects required, five year old Oguchi diving headfirst into a deep tank and Kanno facing the flood in the finale inspired by the bloody trailer for The Shining.
In an archive interview Hitomi Kuroki explains that it was her own first outing in horror and she was unsure how to approach the piece, but Nakata would have her film scenes several times with readings both toned down and exaggerated, but it is the more hysterical performances which have been preserved, all the more pronounced in contrast to the more impassive actors around her.
It is interesting to note that all the key films of the J-horror boom and their remakes, Ringu/The Ring, Honogurai Mizu no soko kara/Dark Water and Ju-On/The Grudge were written and directed by men despite all featuring female protagonists, often in isolation, and it would be interesting had even one of these been crafted from a female point of view, giving a different insight and approach.
Also included are a “making of” which is little more than B-roll footage and archive interviews with actress Asami Mizukawa and Shikao Suga, the J-pop star who composed the end title song, which like the interview with Kuroki are sanitised and stage managed; while there is no doubting their sincerity or enthusiasm for the project, all are promotional fluff of little substance.
The contemporary interviews with Nakata, Suzuki and Hayashi are more akin to career overviews rather than focusing on Dark Water and are perhaps informative rather than engaging, but it is interesting to see Nakata, who recently revisited the genre in The Complex, graciously accept that despite it never being an accolade he sought that he is recognised as “the horror specialist” and express that he is grateful for all that this has brought him.