Made Overseas: Dark Water (2002)

Apologies in advance: I’m going to go all “stereotypical blogger”. This is the part where I tell you a long, rambling story about my boring personal life before I get to the actual movie review. But before I do that… no, this isn’t about that Hanna-Barbera cartoon about pirates on an alien world.

My dad always wanted to move us from our old ramshackle house in Detroit to a much larger two story house in the country. He was also a frugal man who was always looking for bargains. So when he was given an offer for a house that was much more affordable than the other houses in the subdivision, he couldn’t pass it up. One slight little problem: it was the model house.

Anyone who has ever watched Arrested Development can tell you what the problem is in this scenario: model houses are built for show, not for reliability. Eventually pieces of this house would start to fall apart. The mounding would come off. The wallpaper would peel. And worst of all: something would leak from the third floor bathroom.

A dirty stain would form right above the kitchen light fixture after someone took a bath in the bathroom attached to the main bedroom. We’d smell the familiar odor or water mixed with drywall. My parents called the plumbers many times to try to fix the problem. The grouted the tub. They pulled out the tiles to get into the plumbing. They tightened some pipes. Every time we thought it was fixed, it would spring a leak and a new stain would form.

This has been one of my greatest fears as a homeowner. Someday, an ugly brown stain will form on my ceiling after someone takes a shower, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Somehow, director Hideo Nakata managed to pull up her waders, wander into my brain, and made a whole movie about my deepest, darkest fear called Dark Water.

This is the second time I’m covering a Nakata-directed movie adapted from a Kōji Suzuki story (the first being Ring). The movie is based on one of the stories in the book Dark Water, a collection of short stories that are linked by water. One of the stories might take place on a boat, for example. Compared to the twisted mythos that evolved around Ring, the story is fairly straight forward. Maybe the narrative constraint of a short story format leads to tighter ghost stories.

Now, despite all this star power behind the scenes, it seems like the movie wasn’t a hit. It made less that a million in the Japanese box office. Box Office Mojo sticks this all the way down as the 90th highest gross that year. Ouch. It did manage to get an American remake starring Jennifer Connelly, which gathered a respectable $49 million. If Dark Water retains any cultural relevance, it would be because of the American version. Suffice to say, though, Mitsuko (the ghost of the film) likely won’t be joining a battle royale with Sadako and Kayako any time soon.

So what was it about Dark Water that failed to capture audience imaginations? I imagine it’s because the movie itself is a bit of a bait and switch. Some Japanese movies will pretend to be another genre and then blindside you with the horror. Dark Water does the opposite. It sets you up with a horror movie, only to hit you with the thing you really should be afraid of: the indignities of modern society.

(Though… there are certain aspects of the movie that are creepier now than when it was first released. Several things that happen in the movie have a creepy parallel to a 2013 event. I’ll talk about it later under a spoiler tag.)

Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki) is a single mother. She has a daughter named Ikuko (Rio Kanno) who has a tendency to wander off. She’s involved in messy divorce proceedings, and suspects her husband is gaslighting her to gain custody of her daughter.

She’s struggling with other problems. She lost her previous job. Her current job forces her to work so much overtime that she can’t pick up her daughter after school. She suspects that the school is being emotionally abusive to the kids. At the same time, they passively aggressively tell her that her divorce is the cause of Ikoku’s emotional issues. Every man she runs into feels that they have to mansplain everything to her. Everyone is a total asshole, seemingly blaming her for everything that has gone wrong. Here’s the real horror: real life.

And then there is that damn leak. A wet brown stain slowly spreads across the ceiling. Yoshimi moves here after her separation, and in a way it is a symbolic reminder of failures. She rented a cheap apartment without noticing the tiny leak forming in the corner. The leak gets so large that it eventually starts soaking the mattress. When she does notice it, the staff of the apartment complex are completely unhelpful. She pesters them all the time to do something about it, but they refuse to deal with the situation until a sympathetic lawyer subtly threatens them.

Yoshimi eventually tries to take matters into her own hands and tries to contact the tenants who live above her. Knocking on the door gets no response. At one point, though, as the elevators close, she noticed a mysterious little girl peeking out the door….

Ikoku also starts coming home with a small pink purse. The first time they find it, they bring it to the security guy at the front desk. He empties it. There’s nothing inside indicating who the owner is. He suggests Ikoku keeps it under the “finders keepers” clause, but Yoshimi nervously swats it away. Something about the purse bothers her.

Later, Yoshimi sees the purse again, this time in the garbage. Someone has thrown it away. But then, later the same purse reappears on the apartment roof. Yoshimi throws it away again, but it keeps coming back. It’s here where Yoshimi suspects that her ex-husband is gaslighting her. Perhaps he’s planting these purses so she suffers a mental breakdown. And yet… supernatural elements may be at play. From time to time, she also catches a fleeting glimpse of a girl in a raincoat.

Eventually, Yoshimi becomes aware of the existence of Mitsuko. She glimpses old signs posting about the girl’s mysterious disappearance two years ago. She then learns that Ikoku is going to the same school Mitsuko went to, and the apartment above hers was once where she lived. As she learns more about Mitsuko, Yoshimi becomes more and more unhinged.

This ties into something we learn about from earlier in the movie: Yoshimi had, in the past, been deemed mentally unstable. Is it possible that all the hauntings are a figment of her imagination. It’s an interesting dilemma. We naturally want to side with the woman who is barely holding on to the most important thing in her life. But… what if the explanation behind all the paranormal activity is that Yoshimi really is going crazy?

Take the school situation, for example. From the point of view of the principal, it’s justified. The child had made fun of the teacher in front of class, and he deserved to be disciplined. They don’t lay a hand on him. They just give him a stern talk. Yoshimi, though, is in constant fear for her child. She’s overprotective. What she sees is bullying.

There is also another interpretation, which is supported by the movie’s conclusion: the whole movie is from Ikoku’s point of view. What she sees is her own troubled childhood. The ghost story is merely a fanciful creation to cover her real life trauma. Maybe it’s a way to explain away her mother’s unstable emotional state. Mama’s angrily snatching away a purse you found lying on the rooftop because… because she was afraid of a ghost, right? It makes all the sense in the world. A little girl would have no frame of reference for the pain her mom is going through.

Dark Water is a little like The Shining. Interesting parallels, too. The Shining could also be taking place completely in Jack Torrence’s mind. There are a lot of visual and thematic parallels: both have a mystery room that’s likely inhabited by a spook. Both involve elevator scene were gallons of liquid spill out. I’ve always wondered if Kōji Suzuki was Japan’s Steven King, what with their love of turning common everyday fears like video tapes and clowns and trucks wearing Green Goblin masks and poor housing construction and turning it into full-blown horror stories. Like The Shining, Dark Water is a fun exercise in trying to determine what the writer and/or the director were trying to say. If anyone wants to put together a Room 237 for Dark Water, El Santo is available to talk about his poorly thought-out crackpot theories. Did you see how Yoshimi could see all the way to the end of the hallway in her dingy apartment building? Notice the door at the end doesn’t disappear over the horizon? This is Hideo Nakata clearly admitting to his part in perpetrating the lie that the world is round!

What it’s not, though, is terrifying. (See also: The Shining.) When the A.V. Club recently rated the movie for horror, they awarded it 4 out of 5 Spook-Em-Ups. I wouldn’t quite go that far. (Though they are quite right that this movie presaged modern horror movies about motherhood like The Babadook.) Mitsuko is nowhere close to being the angry vengeful spirit of Sadako. Rather she is a sad ghost, more to be pitied than to be feared. If you’re looking for something to frighten you this Hallow- … uh… Day of the Dead (of which today is where you honor deceased children, approporiately), you won’t be at the edge of your seats here.

That said, Dark Water does contain decent horror elements. Though not frightening in the traditional sense, Hideo Nakata imparts the entire movie with a sense of isolation and dread. There’s the sound design. It’s unnerving in its near silence. The exception is the sound of water. It’s a regular, echoing rhythm that never disappears into your subconscious but reminds you of its presence with every trickle and splash. It is the sound of loneliness. It is the sound of a girl sitting along in the rain, or a faucet that has been left on unattended.

There’s also the pacing. It slow and deliberate, with several shots of a character slowly creeping around corners. There are several shots that pan around its space as if to assure the viewer that there’s nothing to see… only to make you wonder if something has occupied the space of where the camera has just passed. When we see Mitsuko, it’s usually out of the corner of our eye. She may be there in the shadows, and we just missed her.

And, honestly, is there anything creepier than seeing dirty water with little clumps of dirt floating in it? Dear God… imagine that filth getting in your mouth. It’s a truly novel horror element that I don’t see explored that often: that wet things are the goddamn WORST.

Dark Water can currently be streamed on Prime Video.

NEXT: a movie about a desperate husband makes a superhero movie on a super-low budget with Pek Yakinda.

And now… the part of the movie that’s way creepier today.

Dark Water spoilers

so quite a bit of this movie shows Yoshimi going up an down a slow elevator in the decrepit old building. We see her staring down long, dark abandoned hallways, as if she’s caught something out of the corner of her eye. Often, we see her actions through grainy security footage.

Later, we discover what happened to Mitsuko. She had apparently climbed to the top of the water tank in her building, and she fell in and drown.

It’s at this point you realize that this scenario had been depicted eleven years before the death of Eliza Lam.