Dark Water by Hideo Nakata
I watched Hideo Nakata’s Ringu a few weeks ago, and while the movie had its moments, it never quite lived up to the hype surrounding it. There were some creepy moments to be sure, and Nakata knew how to create a tense atmosphere, but I was never as scared as I thought I could be. It almost felt like Nakata couldn’t really figure out quite what to do with all of the tension he was creating in his scenes, and ended up letting a bunch of potentially pants wetting moments go to waste.
With Dark Water, however, Nakata has it figured out, delivering one helluva scary movie.
Yoshimi is a recently divorced mother trying to start a new life with her young daughter, Ikuko. Not having a lot of money, she moves into a rather rundown apartment building, its grey drab walls and peeling paint a clear indication that the place has seen better days. But Yoshimi is determined to support her small family and for awhile, things appear to be going well. Yoshimi gets a job at a publishing company, while Ikuko seems to be getting along fine at her new school. But of course, that’s just when things start to get weird.
Mysterious water spots begin inching their way across the apartment’s ceiling, dripping all over the floor and creating a sense of decay and spoilage. Ikuko begins acting strangely, talking to an imaginary friend named Mitsuko (which just so happens to be the name of little girl who disappeared several years ago) and having “incidents” at school. A red bag keeps popping up throughout Yoshimi’s apartment building, the water has a funny taste, and Yoshimi keeps catching glimpses of a mysterious little girl.
Convinced that this is a trick from her ex-husband (and for a moment, it seems like this might be the case), Yoshimi’s mental state begins to break down, even threatening Ikuko’s well being. Her attorney, concerned that Yoshimi’s outbursts might harm their case, helps her investigate and manages to dispel Yoshimi’s fears. But just for a little while. The mysterious red bag appears again, strands of hair start coming through the faucet, and footsteps in the abandoned apartment above keep growing louder.
What makes Dark Water so incredibly freaky is Nakata’s skill at letting the viewer see just enough to jumpstart their imagination. He then pulls back, letting the viewer fill in the blanks with all sorts of horrible things. He lets the camera linger on a character’s face, dwelling on their reaction before showing you what they saw, and even then, he gives you only a glimpse. He’s also fond of putting off the inevitable, making you wait when you know something horrible is going to happen, and making you wait some more. And just when you think he’s fooled you — BAM — he lets you have it with both barrels.
On top of that, the things that often carry with them the strongest sense of foreboding are the most mundane of objects: a glass of water, a bathtub, or a running faucet. Trust me, you’ll think twice when reaching for the faucet after seeing this movie.
As creepy as Dark Water’s events become, they really resonate because of the characters. If the audience can at least sympathize with the characters, it makes the events of the film all the more terrifying because we’ve now identified ourselves with them. And Nakata does a great job with the character of Yoshimi (convincingly portrayed by Hitomi Kuroki).
Rather than treat Yoshimi as some sort of irrational, overprotective psycho-mom, he lends credibility to her fears. It’s obvious that Yoshimi is concerned for the well being of her daughter, and is scared of what her husband might do. Rather than brush these concerns off or milk them for melodrama, he develops them to the point where Yoshimi’s growing paranoia seems almost rational. Of course, we know it’s not. We know that there’s something more going on, but such handling allows us to sympathize with Yoshimi, to gain an understanding of why she acts the way she does.
Nakata also sprinkles small domestic scenes throughout the movie, as Yoshimi and Ikuko eat together, celebrate, and just live as a family. It becomes obvious that two need eachother’s strength, and it lends some hope to their plight. These aren’t major scenes, and never become trite or melodramatic. Rather, they add depth and warmth to the movie, serving as little moments of light and grace in a world that seems to be growing increasingly mad.
There are moments where Dark Water flounders. Nakata throws in a few flashback sequences that hinder the film’s pacing. They add some nice atmosphere to the piece (and are gorgeously shot, bathed in golden light as opposed to the rest of film’s blue and grey tones), but they often feel unnecessary, belaboring points that are already clear to anyone who has been paying attention.
While Dark Water can be appreciated as just a great horror movie, it works on another level as well. As it continues, it becomes obvious that the film contains many metaphors, both in the narrative and the visuals, for the tragic effects of divorce and abandonment.
At one point, we learn that Yoshimi herself comes from a broken home, her mother abandoning her when she around Ikuko’s age. It’s entirely plausible that Yoshimi’s overprotective zeal stems from this fact, that she’s determined to give Ikuko the mother that she never had. Ironically, her zeal threatens to separate them for good, as her protective outbursts are seen as possible signs of mental instability (we learn early on that Yoshimi once underwent therapy), which casts further doubt on her mental state.
The film’s flashbacks also carry this theme, especially when we learn more about the tragic story of Mitsuko, whose parents also underwent a divorce and whose mother later abandoned the family. As the film’s events play out, it seems like the cycle of neglect and abandonment might repeat with the next generation (Ikuko), even as Yoshimi races to save her small family, regardless of the cost.
The film’s visuals, filled with decay and neglect, continue this idea. Their apartment should be a home, a place of refuge, and yet it’s rotting ceiling threatens to cave in at any moment, exposing them to world outside. The water damage slowly, inexorably creeps across the ceiling, just as the tragic past and the terrifying present slowly creep in around Yoshimi.
Of course, none of this commentary comes at the expense of the film’s scares, but they certainly add an interesting dimension to what you see onscreen. This is, first and foremost, a horror film. And it’s a very, very good one. I’m not the most hardened of filmgoers, but I think I can hold my own reasonably well, and there were moments where I was watching out of the corner of my eyes or through my fingers.
Heck, I’m still creeped out, the odd shiver running down my spine as I see a flash of red that looks suspiciously like that little bag. I keep expecting to see a little girl in a yellow rain slicker everytime I turn around. And I know that if I see a single waterspot in my bedroom, I going to freak out. With Dark Water, Nakata has delivered everything you could ask from a horror movie (namely, that it still spooks you long after the credits roll), plus a little more.