Dark Water (2002). Japanese original version, not the American remake.
Ari: Rain and gray everywhere. A lot like like in Japan during the winter is like in real life. This movie is not a feast for the eyes in any sense. It about as visually stimulating as a muji showroom, and the tones are as muted as much of the acting is, although much of the acting is performed by children anyways. The constant clouds, the dreary apartment flatblocks which seem to have no lights inside, and the quickly disappearing hair of the apartment manager, a lazy old man, take much of the cheer away from everyone.
In some senses though, this movie is about more than a miserable working class life in a rain drenched house in a decaying city. It is about the Japanese family unit. The central theme is the mother’s insistent worry about her kindergarten-aged daughter, and the daughters tendency to freely slip away and wander around a strange unlit apartment building with literally no other residents and play on the wet roof by herself. The mother is so scared of losing custody of her daughter to her ex husband, though, that both her and her daughter’s bizarre idiosyncratic behavior play like a plot point, instead of revealing a realistic relatable characters.
Their misery and troubles are persistent. Leaking water, poorly lit hallways and drab living, except for the nice muji furniture in their model studio apartment.
The mother is initially unemployed, and yet insistent on gaining full custody of her daughter, with her primary motivation apparently being that the father often forgot the daughter’s birthdays. In her search for a stable income, she is off at work or at interviews right at the same time as her daughter should be getting off of school, and this occurs persistently, creating a repetitive theme of temporary child abandonment. This is generational, and even plays into the tragedy at the end. The mother herself came from a divorced household, which in 2002, must have still carried taboos, and the mother’s parenting style and lack of choice to escape this haunted apartment building reflect her background.
She often talks to her daughter as though an infant, never explaining or rationalizing the rules she creates or actions she takes, only frantic shouts are offered. The persistent marginalization of women and children is evident in this film as a caricature of changing roles in society.
Visually, the movie has interesting elements which nearly every tense scene is filled with, which for a thriller keeps your eyes following the motion, making it more compelling. Mobiles suspended from the ceiling, mirrors, and of course the persistent dripping water. Tension building is refined at certain parts, and the blurred face of the main ghost are all useful tools, with the unknowable always more frightening. In tense moments the door or doorframes are always kept in shot, showing the only escape from these awful studio apartments, so the audience can keep watch over the heroines only exit.
The ending of the movie was frustrating and not well explained, but Japanese horror films seem to have a deep focus on cycles, and we can only hope that the cycle of child abandonment does not continue again for another poor victim in the future.
This movie was a fun and compelling horror film, but was neither groundbreaking or unique in any particular way.
Rating: One Chinese-made red vinyl child’s bag only 3/5 filled with plastic toys.
Dark Water (2002) is a Japanese thriller revolving around the life a a single-mom, Yoshimi Matsubara, and her daughter, Ikuko. Though Yoshimi is not technically single yet, she is actually in the middle of tense divorce proceedings regarding custody over Ikuko. 2002 was actually the peak of the divorce rate in Japan and may give us some insight into the setting and emotion of the film.
The movie is based on a novel by Koji Suzuki, the author of Ringu (or the Ring). This film also captures a lot of the ambiance of works like the Ring. It too is dark, damp, and deeply unsettling.
As the mother daughter team move into a new apartment in an industrial looking part of their new town, they discover some worrying signs. One of the first seems innocuous, the toy purse of a child left on the ground outside their apartment, which they promptly give to their security guard, who floats somewhere in the space between sweet old man and fossilized child murderer.
Once inside their new digs it seems there is yet another problem. A pesky leak coming from the floor above. It seems no serious matter when the mother daughter duo move in, but it quickly beings to spread, eventually soaking one of the bedrooms.
Our young mother then embarks on a quest to obtain employment. She does find a job as a proofreader. This was likely a common theme in Japan at the time, as the divorce rate crept up, women who gained custody of their children were forced to return to work, something many had likely left to raise their children. This loss of job experience resulted in many struggling to find employment, eventually taking job that were low-paying and that they were likely over experienced for.
We see this Yoshimi’s struggle to provide the best life for her daughter when she goes to her interview and is forced by the boss to wait, making her late to pick up Ikuko from school. When the mother finally does go to get her, she is gone. Yoshimi quickly find her ex-husband walking with her daughter. It should also be noted that there is not such thing as joint child custody in Japan, which just makes it more of a battle to determine who cares for the children of divorce.
After this stressful experience, the mother daughter team start to be sucked deeper into their new home. The leak in their ceiling continues to grow, as Yoshimi grows increasingly angry that those managing the building refuse to do anything and curious about the source of the water. Eventually this leads her to the roof, to find the red bag again in the wild, she also spots a water tower that looks to have been neglected for some time.
Eventually she makes her way to the room above hers, room 405. Now it should be stated for Western audiences that in some Asian cultures, including in Japan, the number 4 is an unlucky one. This is because the number 4 and the word for death are homophones. Thus many hospitals, apartments, etc “don’t have” 4th floors, and in this movie of course the creepiest stuff is on the 4th floor.
The 4th floor shenanigans that occur in this movie quickly commence including more flooding and some sleep walking. To avoid too many spoilers suffice it to say that were dealing with a superpowered child ghost that can pun dents into steel plates.
Yoshimi shows what it means to be a parent, especially a single one, willing to fight and sacrifice everything for one’s children. At the end there is a flash forward, this gives us clues that maybe society is improving, ie chidden no longer left for hours on end at their kindergartens.
The film is a solid one, if a bit campy and average at times. The story is moving and can be used as lens to view familial relationships and may give us glimpses at the anxiety created by shifting cultural realities. If you like horror, especially Japanese horror, you won’t go wrong with Dark Water.
3 water tower denting child tantrums/governments unwillingness to provide for their citizens