Dir: Hideo Nakata. 2002. Jap. 91mins.
The latest film by Japanese horror master Hideo Nakata, who directed two of the celebrated Ring series, relies on classic genre staples to run its narrative motor, including a creepy old building where bad things happened, a little girl in jeopardy and parents badly in need of therapy. Think The Shining transposed to Tokyo, with mum, not dad, now on the verge of meltdown. The film's leisurely pace, as well as its straight-ahead take on its orthodox subject matter, may deter younger foreign audiences used to the kinetic editing, high body counts and self-directed irony of much Hollywood horror. The film is based on the on the best-selling novel by Koji Suzuki, Japan's answer to Stephen King: like Ring, it has also been optioned for a US remake.
Yoshimi Matsubara (Hitomi Kuroki) is divorcing her abusive husband and fighting a messy custody battle over their only daughter, five-year-old Ikuko (Rio Kanno). Mum, however, has a history of mental instability, precipitated by a lonely, miserable childhood that she obsessively remembers and desperately wants to avoid inflicting on her daughter. Needing to demonstrate her independence to the family court, she moves into a new apartment - a mould factory with a leaky ceiling. Exploring the building, Ikuko encounters the shadowy figure of a little girl in a yellow raincoat who seems to be beckoning to her. Then Yoshimi starts seeing her too, while the spot on the ceiling mysteriously grows. The senile old man in charge of the building and the sneaky real estate agent are no help with the leak or anything else - and every day it rains torrents.
Not unexpectedly, Yoshimi starts to lose it, culminating in a raging row with her husband in front of the family court officials. Then, after an especially frightening encounter at her kindergarten with the girl in the raincoat, Ikuko falls ill with a high fever. What, Yoshimi wonders, does this pint-sized apparition want' The answer is on the roof of the apartment building, in visions that clutch her with dread.
Dark Water is wet through and through, both visually and emotionally: Nakata puts more precipitation on screen than any Japanese director since Kurosawa, while focusing on the teary turmoil of his mentally unstable heroine. Given its emphasis on family disharmony, the film could have easily devolved into soap operatics, but Nakata expertly ratchets up the tension, while slowly building the Dark Side atmospherics.
Playing the mother, Hitomi Kuroki conveys not only her desperation and terror, but the worm of madness eating at her core, in a strong, nuanced performance that shows why Kuroki is at the top of her profession in Japan. The tech credits are also first rate, with set designer Katsumi Nakazawa transforming a mouldering apartment building into the ultimate Japanese horror movie spook house. Cameraman Junichiro Hayashi also designs shots that put the audience squarely into the goose-pimpling action, without giving away too much story information.
Unsurprisingly, given the cult reputation Nakata has earned from the Ring series, Dark Water has been acquired by Pandemonium, Bill Mechanic's production company, for a Hollywood remake. How will an American director put the uniquely Japanese atmospherics of this film on the screen' The incessant rain he can find in Seattle. But how is he going to replicate Nakata's peculiar hum of menace, the feeling in his films that this stuff about evil in the spirit world is more than junk fiction bunk' Mechanic can always hire Nakata himself - but he'll have a tougher time importing Tokyo's inimitable rainy season slime.
Prod co: Kadokawa Shoten, Nippon Television Broadcasting, Bapp, Nikkatsu, Office August, Oz
Japan dist: Toho
Int'l sales: Kadokawa Shoten
Exec prod: Takeshige Ichinose
Scr: Koji Suzuki, Yoshinada Nakamura
Cinematography: Junichiro Hayashi
Prod des: Katsumi Nakazawa
Ed: Nobuyuki Takahashi
Music: Kenji Kawai
Main cast: Hitomi Kuroki, Fumio Kohinata, Rio Kanno, Shigemitsu Ogi