Nakata Hideo landed with a bang in the UK with the 1998 Ringu, one of the few
genuinely scary horror films of the past ten years.
For many of us who loved that film, his follow-up Ringu
II was a bit of a disappointment, and with his
mind-batteringly complex 1999 thriller Kaosu [Chaos] yet to receive a UK release
on any medium* (but already swallowed up by the Hollywood
remake machine), the promise of a return to the atmospheric
terrors of his breakthrough film was a mouth-watering prospect.
But despite many similarities with Ringu, Dark Water was to prove a different beast,
a more complex and layered work with more socially based
is recently separated from her husband, with whom she is
fighting a legal battle over the custody of her 5-year-old
daughter Ikuko. When she and Ikuko move into a run-down
apartment in a drab tenement block, strange things begin
to happen: a water stain on the ceiling soon begins to spread
and leak into her apartment; a discarded red school bag
repeatedly returns to the building, despite Yoshimi's determined
attempts to dispose of it; and both she and Ikuko begin
catching glimpses of an unidentified young girl in a yellow rain
coat. Yoshimi soon starts to link these events to the unexplained
disappearance two years earlier of local schoolgirl Mitsuko
similarities between Ringu and Dark
Water are at first glance numerous – both are based on novels
by Suzuki Kôji, both have a female lead character
who is separated from her husband and is the guardian of
their small child, both feature nerve-janglingly effective
(and not dissimilar) scores from Kenji Kawai, both see supernatural events play out in modern urban settings,
and both stories surround the uncovering of a mystery that has the suffering of a single, lost individual at its core.
Indeed, these similarities prompted some to be a little
dismissive of Dark Water when it first
appeared here, largely because it failed to simply re-run Ringu with a new set of shocks and twists. Certainly there was some disappointment expressed by the
younger Ringu fans at our cinema screening, but the older viewers seemed to take a different
view – they got what Nakata was up to, something second and third
viewings make increasingly clear. Ringu was a ghost story, but Dark Water uses the
trappings of a ghost story to tell a deeply moving, intelligently
realised tale of the pain of separation, the effect it
can have on a child caught in the middle, the generationally
repetitious nature of human behaviour, and the extraordinary
lengths to which a devoted mother will go to protect her
child from harm.
horror genre's ability to effectively comment on social
issues through subtext and allegory is one of its key strengths
and fascinations. Certainly the issue of separation and
custody battles has been dealt with in both mainstream cinema
and genre independents – Robert Benton's Kramer
vs. Kramer and David Cronenberg's The
Brood were released the same year (1979) and
both dealt with the issue head on, but while the former
won all the awards, it was Cronenberg's film, with its disturbingly
metaphoric look at the emotional and physical damage such
a break-up can cause, that for me was the stronger and more honest work.
approach to the subject is initially very up-front – the
first scene featuring the adult Yoshimi has her and her
husband in separate custody discussions with grey-suited
beaurocrats as rain pours outside, reflecting Yoshimi's
melancholy and pointing the way to the significance of water
in scenes to come. In one brief later sequence, Nakata
tackles the whole issue head on, as Yoshimi arrives late to pick
up Ikuko from school (a fate she had also repeatedly suffered
as a child) and ends up fighting a physical tug-of-war with her ex-husband
over the child, both of them refusing to surrender
her to the other, while Ikuko herself seems uncertain who she actually wants to be with. Increasingly,
though, this element becomes more subtextual, climaxing
in an extraordinary womb/birth metaphor involving a water-filled
elevator that is clearly designed to be read (and in narrative
terms understood) purely in symbolic terms. This gives the
drama an emotional depth beyond that of simply scaring the
audience – second time around I found it genuinely heartbreaking,
and how many recent horror films can you say that about?
of which may make the film sound like a scare-free social
drama, but Nakata has already proved himself a master of
genre techniques and they are all to the fore again here.
There is an almost other-worldly creepiness established
from the start by the constant heavy rainfall, which bonds
atmosphere to plot in a way that recalls Peter Weir's The
Last Wave (1977), Nicolas Roeg's Don't
Look Now (1973 – the influence extended to the
raincoat-wearing young girl and the use of symbolism) and
even the opening scenes of Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977). That the first ceiling stain is ring-shaped may well be an in-joke on Nakata's part, but as it spreads, tentacle-like
across the room, it becomes strangely menacing, and when
Yoshimi wakes to find the bed she is resting on soaked with
water, the effect is genuinely unnerving. If some of Nakata's
cinematic jolts seem to have less meat than their Ringu equivalent – the reappearance of the red bag is never as
scary as that distorted polaroid in the earlier film, but
both are given a similar visual and aural bang – their cumulative
effect is nonetheless unsettling. And late in the narrative,
when Yoshimi spots a strangely smiling Ikuko attempting
to look inside the bag in question, you share her fear at what might
happen if she actually gets it open. As with Ringu,
the film slowly gets under your skin, then in the final
10 minutes of the main narrative (more of this in a minute)
it really lets rip with a climax that delivers completely on
thunderous atmospherics, sudden scares, and boldly realised
metaphoric horror. And despite the fact that most viewers
will have worked out what lies behind Yoshimi and Ikuko's
troubles long before the film itself chooses to reveal it,
Nakata still manages to pull off a jaw-droppingly effective
twist towards the end, one that makes absolute, perfect
sense in context of the film's subtextual concerns.
While the central mystery is not much of a mystery at all and
some of the dramatic elements play out as expected, others,
thankfully, do not. The introduction halfway through of Kishida,
the good-looking and kind hearted lawyer who takes up Yoshimi's
case and smartly sorts out her landlord, initially seems
designed to provide the story with a Hollywood-style
hero-saves-princess conclusion, but Nakata refuses to be
dragged down that route and Kishida's role in the narrative proves to be a purely functional one. And while strong,
self-sacrificing female lead characters go all the way back
to the silent cinema of Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), they are still painfully rare, especially in western cinema.
it's almost a one-woman show, with Kuroki Hitomi (who, perhaps
co-incidentally, was in the Ringu TV spin-off Ringu: Saishuu-shô 1999) having to
run the full emotional range, cheerfully playing with
Ikuko (in a scene that couldn't help recall a similar bonding
sequence in The Exorcist), angrily attempting
to assault her husband for his underhand attempts to discredit
her, and looking on with wide-eyed terror as an overflowing
bath threatens to give birth to something unspeakable. But
as the young Ikuko, Rio Kanno manages that rare trick amongst
child actors of being sweetly engaging but never insufferable,
and towards the end displays a distress that is so gut-wrenchingly
effective that it brings tears to my eyes on every
viewing and is key to the emotional punch of the
climactic scene. The supporting cast are all fine, but few are required to stand out in any way.
brings me to the ending. There has been a fair amount of
criticism of the final ten minutes, a '10 years after' coda
that many felt was unnecessary and even tagged on. Coming from a horror movie angle this may well
be true, but I would argue that from the social drama standpoint
it is both appropriate and rather effective (I won't go
into details, lest it spoil the film for those who haven't
seen it), and gives it considerable weight to one of the
film's underlying themes. It is only the final line of the voice-over, delivered
by the now teenage Ikuko, that seems a little clunky, spelling out
for the slower audience members what the previous ten minutes
had suggested with more subtlety. Oh, and what is going on with
that horrible pop song over the end credits?
Water is both a splendidly low-key horror movie – not a drop of
blood in sight – and an emotionally affecting social drama,
elements that successfully compliment and interact with the other. The result is a supremely creepy cross-genre
work whose characters we actually feel
for, something that tends to hit home more on the second viewing, when all the little clues dropped
early on as to the real intentions of the drama actually
register and Nakata's intentions can be more clearly understood.
It has, of course, already been picked up for an American
remake, which I believe I can live without seeing until
the end of time – I have no doubt that, once again, the
original will prove to be the greatest.
continue to improve the quality of their transfers and
the anamorphic 1.85:1 picture here is for the most part
rather good, though does vary a little in some areas. Nakata's
decision to shoot the interiors with a limited colour range,
all grey walls, colourless costumes and functional lighting,
would present problems for most DVD transfers, and here
some compression artefacts can be seen on areas of single
colour (and there are quite a lot of them). Contrast varies
from low when inside the apartment block, to a little heavy
in the school, to just about bang on when Yoshimi and her
lawyer are on the apartment roof patio looking for evidence.
This is the only scene set in bright sunshine and the blue
sky is very cleanly rendered. On the whole it is very watchable,
sometimes pleasing transfer, but a little way short of perfect.
a direct comparison with the Widesight Entertainment region
3 release, the picture on the Tartan disk tends to come
off best, despite the consistently higher transfer rate
on the Widesight disk. Compression artefacts are more visible
on Widesight's transfer, which is also slightly muddier
and less distinct. This is particularly evident in the aforementioned
rooftop sequence – the contrast and colour are clearly superior
on the Tartan release.
now you're talking. There are three options available here:
Dolby 2.0, Dolby 5.1 – hey, 5.1 on a Tartan disk! – and,
yes, DTS. DTS? On a Tartan release? In a recent press release
Tartan announced their commitment to DTS as the format of
choice for future releases, and on the evidence of this
mix this is very good news indeed. If you've only got a
surround amp or (worse) are running the sound through your
TV (why?) then Dolby 2.0 will have to do. Those not DTS
enabled will have a very good 5.1 track to tickle their
ears, but if you are able to play DTS, then you are in for
a treat, as this is an excellent mix that really enhances
the atmosphere and scare factor of the film.
is actually a good disk to demonstrate the differences in
the different sound formats to visiting guests. Select the
first scene in which Yoshimi and Ikuko walk out in heavy
rain and switch between the soundtracks – the Dolby 2.0 track
presents the rain as background noise, spread narrowly across
the front soundstage, the 5.1 track sends the rain around
the room, but the DTS track adds volume, clarity and depth,
and places you gloriously in the centre of the rainstorm.
Dialogue is largely confined to the centre speaker, but
sound effects and music make full use of all speakers and
are very precisely directional. This nicely aids an early
transition from flashback to present day, when the rainfall
comes very prominently from the rear speakers in both scenes,
providing an aural link between Yoshimi as a young girl,
waiting again to be picked up from school, and as an adult
preparing to go into an office to discuss the custody of
her own child. Lower frequencies are very well used, never
more so than in Yoshimi's dream/vision of Mitsuko Kawai's
rain-drenched return home, when the rumble emanating from
my subwoofer seemed to be shaking my house.
Widesight region 3 release features 5.1 and DTS ES 6.1
surround tracks. Technically this suggests a superior mix, but the
Tartan track appears to have slightly more kick to it, especially
in the rear speakers and subwoofer usage. It's still a
first-rate mix, though.
subtitles on the Tartan disk are white with thin black outlines
and are always clear and a good size. Targeted at an American
market, the translations include lines like "Careful
now, hon," and are sometimes a bit literal: "I
think she was kidnapped by some perverted individual,"
for example. The exact same translation can be found on
the Widesight release, suggesting a probable source for
Tartan's disk. The subtitles on the Widesight disk are smaller,
but just as clear.
much here – indeed, only one I would call a real extra in
that it relates in any way to the film.
The Original Theatrical Trailer runs for just over
a minute, is anamorphic 16:9 and Dolby 2.0, in Japanese
with English subtitles. This is clearly the original Japanese
trailer and is a little dark and grainy, but still interesting
to see, but only AFTER you've seen the film, as it gives
away one of the best scares from the climax. It also has
that bloody pop song from the end credits at the start.
The Extreme Asia Trailer Reel is a collection of trailers
for other Tartan releases from this label: The
Happiness of the Katakuris, Sympathy
for Mr. Vengeance, Shiri, A
Snake of June and Public Enemy.
All are Dolby 2.0 and in a variety of aspect ratios. Most
are from their home country, but Shiri is a trailer for the US release. The sound on Public
Enemy is pretty ropey. All are non-anamorphic except The Happiness of the
Katakuris and A Snake of June – a bit odd considering the latter was shot 4:3.
Widesight region 3 disk has no extras.
Water may not seem the instant horror classic that Ringu was, but its emotional and dramatic
depth mark it as a remarkable work in its own right. The
film still delivers on creepiness and scares and has a climax
in which all of the elements combine to extraordinary effect,
a scene in which you both bite your nails in fear and fight
the lump your throat that comes with really caring about
the fate of the characters.
disk is woefully short on extras, but has a decent enough
if unspectacular transfer and a mother of a DTS soundtrack
that adds immeasurably to the film's fear factor and its
atmospheric effectiveness. The disk comes recommended on
this score alone.
The film has, since this review was posted, been given a
limited UK cinema release and is set to be released on DVD
The Japanese convention of surname first has been used for Japanese names throughout this review.