The poster proclaims it ‘A Hideo Nakata Film’, and it’s a happy state of affairs that, after the success of his terrifically scary movie Ringu/Ring (1998), his name can be used as a selling point for Western audiences. Nakata is perhaps the most sure-footed horror film director working today. And in Honogurai mizu no soko kara/Dark Water (2002) he again achieves what, for example, M. Night Shyamalan didn’t manage in Signs (2002): mounting dread conveyed through small, seemingly unthreatening incidents and details.
Of course, for a Western audience, Dark Water comes without the baggage of well-known stars and blockbuster marketing; it’s possible that his work plays very differently in Japan. But here, there’s still the high expectations created by Ring to overcome, as well as the danger of audience over-familiarity with the genre – other recent additions having included Miike Takashi’s poignant, yet very gory Odishon/Audition (2000) and the Pang brothers’ rather hyper Jian gui/The Eye (2002).
Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki) is fighting her ex for custody of their daughter, five year-old Ikuko (Rio Kanno). Mother and daughter move into a derelict apartment block, and soon after that Yoshimi starts to see what appears to be a girl upstairs. Meanwhile, there is a missing person poster for a girl who disappeared several years earlier; and, most menacingly, from a damp patch on the ceiling of Yoshimi’s flat, water takes on an increasingly disturbing presence.
As a horror film premise, this sounds fairly unremarkable. It’s fair to say, in fact, that Dark Water contains many situations which, in other hands, would surely come across as the most hackneyed of cliches. Yoshimi investigates strange goings-on alone, and without turning on the lights; also, any sane human being would flee that apartment and live on the street rather than put up with such an escalation of events. But Nakata makes it all believable, largely by presenting the story with conviction and distancing humour. His camera style is riveting, especially in the way shots are framed so that a part of the screen is in partial darkness, possibly containing a malign presence. As in the films of David Lynch, sound is often intensified and distorted to reflect psychological trauma. And the performances match the style perfectly.
As with many of the best movies of the genre, the horrific elements here offer symbolic, as well as material, threat. Yoshimi’s paranoia that her daughter will be taken away from her affects her judgement, so that for quite a while, she’s not sure what’s really going on, and neither are we. And by the end, it’s become clear that this is a film about parenthood, and more specifically, motherhood – seemingly Nakata’s consistent preoccupation, certainly across the films of his which have been released here.
The only pause for thought might be a sense of ground already well-trodden. Like Ring, Dark Water is based on a novel by Koji Suzuki, and so it’s hardly surprising that this film evokes the earlier work in many ways – a single mother, an abandoned girl, and the almost matter-of-fact presence of the supernatural in a contemporary setting. For many filmmakers, repetitions of their thematic concerns and trademark style can eventually lead to self-parody or lack of involvement. Nakata, to his credit, certainly manages to direct Dark Water without falling into these traps, but now that he has proven that Ring wasn’t a one-off, and that he can without a doubt deliver on this kind of material, it would be great to see what else he can do.