Japanese Movie Review: Dark Water (2002)

Friday, October 26, 2018


Late 1990s and the early 2000s was a good time for Japanese horror. It paved the way for the genre's later widespread success and gave us such iconic titles like The Ring (1998), Pulse (2001) and Ju-on: The Grudge (2002). Somewhat less known from that era is Hideo Nakata's sorrowful horror tale Dark Water (2002), which like many of the Japanese horror films of that time later earned a Hollywood remake. Differently from the previously mentioned titles, however, I was actually lucky enough to see the Japanese 2002 original before the remake. In fact, it was probably one of the very first Asian horror films that I ever watched, if memory serves right.

The film tells the story of Yoshimi Matsubara (Hitomi Kuroki) and her six-year-old daughter Ikuko (Rio Kanno) who move into a new home at a run-down apartment building where soon strange things begin to occur. First, Yoshimi is distressed to discover a leak in the ceiling which keeps getting bigger. Then, Ikuko finds a red children's handbag that seems to reappear when thrown away. Adding to Yoshimi's worries is her ex-husband who tries to gain the custody of their daughter by bringing up Yoshimi's past struggles at family court. 

A recurring theme in the film is water, both physically and symbolically. Leaking ceilings and contaminated water worsen Yoshimi's financial worries, while the suffocating effect of nonstop rain adds to the film's sorrowful atmosphere. Water also alerts us to the presence of the spirit of drowned Mitsuko (Mirei Oguchi), the owner of the said red handbag who once lived in an apartment upstairs. As the story unfolds and Yoshimi grows more anxious over the many struggles in her life, water seems to take a mind of its own and reflects Yoshimi's declining mental state.

But water isn't the only element used to build an overwhelmingly oppressing atmosphere as the parts of the city we see during Yoshimi and Ikuko's daily commute seem deserted and are surrounded by big concrete buildings. But while the empty streets and grey cityscape feel depressing, it is no match to the slowly decaying apartment building with long dark corridors, dripping ceilings and little to no residents at all. It works so well as a setting for a horror tale, that the film gets away with minimal amount of actual spooks and scares. In fact, we barely ever get a good look at Mitsuko during her hauntings as she's mostly a shadow or a foggy figure in the background.

So while Dark Water is partly supernatural horror, it is perhaps even more so a tale of a mother's love. The film establishes early on a strong bond between Yoshimi and Ikuko, with the mother doing everything she can for her daughter's well-being and the daughter wisely assuring her mother that they only need each other. As the story slowly builds up to ghostly activity, Yoshimi's desperation grows as she becomes aware her daughter is being haunted by a menacing spirit but there is nowhere to seek help. Her mental issues are brought up at family court and she cannot move out as it might affect her position in divorce proceedings.

Finally, after multiple attempts to get rid of the bag that keeps reappearing, Yoshimi is led to a water tank on the roof and learns the truth that Mitsuko drowned in the tank after trying to retrieve her handbag. The story culminates furthermore when Mitsuko tries to attack Ikuko and when Yoshimi intervenes, she realizes that Mitsuko's ghost is trying to claim her as her mother. Tearfully, Yoshimi ends up sacrificing herself to save her daughter and devastated Ikuko is left behind.

The film concludes on a fittingly sorrowful note ten years later. Teenaged Ikuko returns to the now abandoned apartment building and finds their apartment untouched by time. She briefly reunites with Yoshimi who appears to her, happily affirming how much she loves her but apologizing that they can't be together. Ikuko senses Mitsuko's spirit in the room but is unable to see her and apartment returns to its damaged state. In voiceover, Ikuko makes her peace with the past, knowing that her mother is watching over her.

Perhaps more than fear, Dark Water leaves its viewers with the feeling of quiet wistfulness. This slow, sentimental ghost tale is not without scares and gloom but rather than scaring you out of your wits, it's more intent on making you feel a little sad. On my first watch, the film did get one good jump out of me which I still remember to this day but, like most horror films, Dark Water is not immune to time. The film looks rather dated 16 years and so many horror flicks later and is much less likely to scare modern viewers. 

However, there's much to appreciate about a ghost story that masterfully commands atmosphere and packs an emotional punch. With lovely performances from Hitomi Kuroki and Rio Kanno and a touching message about a mother's love, Dark Water remains a reminder of the early 2000s Japanese horror which captivated audiences and made evil little ghost girls a staple of the genre.

Rating: B

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