A Mother's Love
A UK region 2 / Hong Kong region 3 comparison review of
DARK WATER / HONOGURAI MIZU NO SOKO KARA by Slarek
 

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 thriller Kaosu / Chaos 1999) 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 central concerns.

Yoshimi 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; 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 Kawai.

The 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 centre. 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.

The 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 stands as the stronger and more honest work.

Nakata's 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 Ikuko, both 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 those 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?

All 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 counterpart – 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 red bag, 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 very 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 is purely a 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.

Performance-wise 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.

Which 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?

Dark 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 that 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.

vision

Tartan 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.

Making 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.

sound

Woo-hoo, 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.

This 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.

The Widesight region 3 release features a 5.1 and DTS ES 6.1 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 an first-rate mix, though.

subtitles

The 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.

extra features

Not 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.

The Widesight region 3 disk has no extras.

summary

Dark 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.

Tartan's 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 by Tartan

Dark Water
Honogura mizu no soko kara

Japan 2002
99 mins
director
Nakata Hideo
starring
Kuroki Hitomi
Kanno Rio
Oguchi Mirei
Mizukawa Asami
Kohinata Fumijo

DVD details
region 2
video
1.77:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby Stereo 2.0
Dolby Surround 5.1
DTS Surround
languages
Japanese
subtitles
English
extras
Trailers
distributor
Tartan
region 3
video
16:9 anamorphic
sound
Dolby Surround 5.1
DTS ES 6.1
languages
Japanese
subtitles
Chinese
Simplified Chinese
English
extras
none
distributor
Widesight
review posted
22 February 2004