Dark Water, a 2002 Japanese horror film directed by Hideo Nakata, is a motion picture that stands out from the others. Yeah, it has some of the traditional aspects like a vengeful ghost, but it plays more as a drama than a horror film. The film is about a young struggling mother named Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki) who is dealing with a very messy unfair divorce with her douchebag of a husband who is exaggerating black spots in her life to make her look like an unsuitable carer for their young daughter Ikuko (Rio Kanno). Yoshimi has no home, no job, suffered from psychological stress after proofreading unpleasant novels, and has abandonment issues due to being neglected as a child, now fearing she will do the same to her own daughter.
Needing a cheap apartment to live in Yoshimi picks the most dingiest, rundown, creepiest building she can find since it is close to her childhood kindergarten. No one else appears to live in the building aside from the lurching, useless old manager, an entire floor is inaccessible due to flooding, the elevator is as cliché as you can get in a hororr film, and Yoshimi finds a growing stain on the ceiling making puddles in the bedroom.
But while things start to look good for Yoshimi and Ikuko, supernatural oddities and creepy secrets about the building begin to appear. Yoshimi keeps crossing paths with a red Hello Kitty bag that won’t go away no matter how many times she tosses it into the trash, Ikuko talks to an imaginary friend named Mitsuko, and that stain on the ceiling keeps getting bigger and bigger.
It is slowly and disturbingly revealed that Ikuko’s "friend" is in fact the ghost of a girl who once lived in the apartment above Yoshimi’s, but was heavily abused by her parents and eventually drowned in the water tank on the roof. Similar to Sadako Yamamura from the Ring films, Mitsuko is villainous yet sympathetic. She lingers between being an innocent girl or an envious violent character who wants Ikuko dead, and thankfully never evolves into something that is pure evil or malevolent. She is just a little girl who wants a good mother.
What I enjoy about the film is the slow pace and focus on the relationship between mother and daughter. There is a strong theme of being a good parent and child abandonment. Yoshimi herself was neglected by her own parents, Ikuko suffers this a little since her parents hate each other’s guts, Mitsuko is a victim of abuse, neglect, and possibly rape, and there is another scene towards the end of the movie that looks like it is going to continue the trend but is thankfully averted.
Yoshimi is a very compelling sympathetic character. She’s not the cliché final girl or a Ripley-esque badass. She’s just a normal, struggling mother with what feels like the whole world against her. With a history of time in therapy, medication, depression, and what was likely a terrible divorce, she has a lot of weight on her shoulders. She has to keep up a strong stance and not break down in front of her douchebag husband and his team of lawyers. You get the feeling she is all alone in the world and only has her daughter for company.
Another aspect I like about her as a character is that she has zero interest in the supernatural stuff going on. All she wants to do is to look after her daughter and get through the god-awful divorce procedures. Unlike other female characters in Japanese films, she isn’t the reserved, quiet type that Japanese society expects. She is a loud, angry, emotional person who vents out a lot of stress, is quick to anger, easily put on the defensive, and can become quite the mess it Ikuko goes missing which happens a lot in this movie. There’s a pivotal scene midway through where she imagines her husband as Mitsuko’s abusive father and ends up breaking down right in front of him and his lawyers, and all they do is walk away. The only one who is sympathetic to her issues is her own kinder lawyer. He is much better father material that Ikuko’s douche of a dad.
There is another theme that all the men in this movie are useless or cruel, aside from Yoshimi’s lawyer and Ikuko’s kindergarten teacher. The apartment manager is frankly useless, refusing to fix the leak in Yoshimi’s apartment. It is never implied if he is aware of what happened in the building or not. Maybe he’s just lazy. Ikuko is a delightful, adorable, but also a very mature character. She is still curious and sweet, but she knows when it is time to get serious. T
here is another scene where her mum flips out on her father, even though he was taking Ikuko home after Yoshimi was late to pick her up, and when Yoshimi tries to drag her daughter away, Ikuko tugs on her arms and gives her a look like “Don’t argue with each other again.” Her actress is phenomenal, particularly towards the end of the movie. More on that in a moment.
The spooks are subtle and quiet. You don’t always need to rely on blood and gore to make a good movie. Like Sadako, we don’t see Mitsuko all that much but you can catch lurking around corners or in doorways in the background. The creepiness is quietly implemented and it is fantastic. The Hello Kitty bag keeps reappearing in Yoshimi’s apartment or around the building, seemingly haunting Ikuko, and makes Yoshimi more disturbed every time it makes an appearance. Who knew product placement could be so chilling. The surveillance cameras show shapes and shadows unseen by anyone else. The elevator is old and squeaky, the buttons don’t respond on command and it opens on the wrong floors. And, of course, there is a heavy presence of water in the film, being guided by the unseen by Mitsuko, usually with ill intent.
My favourite scene is the climax. Yoshimi rescues Ikuko from their flooding apartment, having been seemingly drowned in the bath by Mitsuko. She carries her unconscious body into the elevator but it stops on the floor where Mitsuko’s old apartment is. The apartment door slowly creeps open and you expect the ghost to step out, but instead Ikuko falls out.
Take three guesses who is in the elevator with Yoshimi. The scene is very heartbreaking. Then at the end of the scene, in a nod to The Shining, poor Ikuko has an entire elevator’s worth of water dumped on her head.
The ending is definitely a first for me in horror. In the epilogue, Ikuko returns to the apartment building as a teenager, where she finds her mother’s ghost waiting for her and they actually sit down and have a short conversation, though Mitsuko’s ghost hovers in the background. This is why I like Japanese horror films, they always do something different and unexpected. Dark Water has some similarities to The Ring, and not just because it is directed by the same guy. It is its own product and definitely one of the best.
Final Score: 9/10