While it's not entirely accurate to say that Ringu was the first J-horror movie (the momentum for that had been building in the direct to video and TV movie markets) it was certainly the first breakout hit in the genre that marries the traditional image of the long black-haired female, a staple of Japanese ghost stories, with modern anxieties. Ironic now that it was done with the thoroughly dated black VHS, this marriage of the modern world with the classical imagery formed the thematic backbone of this new phase in modern horror cinema.
When Ringu was re-made in America as The Ring, it was thoroughly Hollywoodized, meaning in part everything looked fantastic, as if a lot of people had spent a lot of money making it. I've always felt this diminished the impact of the film, particularly with the haunted videotape which looks less like the nightmare imprint of a ghostly consciousness and more like a mid-90s Nine Inch Nails video. Ringu's aesthetic (and budget) was much smaller, more understated, with flat compositions and lighting, all of which emphasized the intrusion of the fantastic into everyday life.
Dark Water, which Nakata made some four years and six films after Ringu, is also based on a story by Ringu novel writer Koji Suzuki, and it returns to the J-horror aesthetic but places it in a more personal, more intimate context. Yoshimi Matsubaru is a soon to be divorced mother of little Ikuko. One of the early scenes of the movie takes place in a mediation, where Yoshimi discovers her husband is trying to get custody of their daughter, despite being an absent and uncaring father figure.
But he knows that Yoshimi had some mental problems some years back, and had seen a psychiatrist. She blames that on the novels she had to proofread, with their sadistic sexual content. It gave her bad ideas, see. Exactly what was the extent of her problems is not revealed, but despite them, Yoshimi deeply cares for Ikuko. When they move into their new apartment, the warmth between the actors is palpable (helped by the fact that Ikuko is one of the cutest little kids ever put on screen.) Their new apartment is in a run-down building with a listless, uncaring caretaker who ignores Yoshimi's complaints that the ceiling is leaking.
The setting is entirely modern Japan, though not the colorful neon Japan of downtown Tokyo. Dark Water takes place in more domestic spaces - lawyer's officers, kindergartens, the ramshackle apartment building. It's all concrete and asphalt, and the closest connection to nature is the constant rainfall which makes everything drab and musty and wet.
Dark Water is all about this musty atmosphere, and is indeed a very slow burning horror film. It doesn't follow the modern strategy of a shocking moment at the beginning and smaller "horror" moments doled out through the film until it reaches its ultimate, terrible climax. There are small, scary moments in Dark Water, but they’re subtler than the horror norm. Things seen out of the corner of the eye, the touch of a hand of someone who isn’t there.
They are based around, of course, a figure with long, dark hair. In Dark Water, it's a little girl that Yoshimi sees in flashes around the apartment. Is she the ghost of a girl who had gone missing a couple years before from the very kindergarten Ikuko is now attending? Is she a figment of Yoshimi’s imagination, brought on by the guilt she feels for not being around for her daughter, when she had been abandoned by her own mother at Ikuko’s age?
Like the best horror movies, Dark Water successfully marries the everyday plight of its victims to the movie’s supernatural terror. As Yosihmi becomes convinced that, yes there is something scary in her apartment building (and not even confined there, since it apparently attacks poor Ikuko at Kindergarten) she sensibly wants to move out of the apartment. Her lawyer tells her that if she does that so soon after moving in, it will give evidence to her husband’s claims of instability. To save her daughter she must lose her daughter, and around her, all Yoshimi finds are impossible choices.
Which isn’t to say that Dark Water is all Lifetime movie emotional drama. It bases its scares in the emotional core of a mother fearing that she’s losing her child, in every way possible. Yoshimi has her most frightening encounters in the times she’s looking for Ikuko, who has a tendency to run off. One of the most visually arresting set pieces comes when Yoshimi finally gets into the apartment upstairs, and finds it completely flooded with running water, ankle deep. It doesn’t seem like much - just getting her feet wet, but water everywhere makes a roar that nearly drowns out her voice crying for Ikuko. It makes the light cast weird shadows so she can barely see her daughter even when she’s a few feet away. It’s the accumulation of detail and discomfort that makes the set piece, and the entire movie, work.
The Arrow video Blu-ray release of Dark Water is, I think, their first US release of a movie from the J-horror era, and it’s a welcome first foray. The video on this release isn’t going to be reference material for showing off anybody’s home theater, but that is due to the nature of the material, not the disc. The visuals are deliberate and stylishly crafted, but intentionally muted and gray. As usual, there’s a hefty array of extras on disc, both archival and new material. The new extras consist of a trio of interviews with the director Hideo Nakata, novel writer Koji Suzuki, and cinematographer Junichiro Hayashi, material that runs altogether a little over an hour. In archival material there is a contemporary Behind the Scenes featurette, which consists mostly of raw behind the scene footage of Nakata directing various scenes (including the climax of the film.) There are interviews with two of the actors, the composer of the ending credits song, and promotional material. The booklet contains an essay about the film and its context from David Kalat, and a second essay on the Hollywood remake by Michael Gingold.
Dark Water is a slow burner that rewards concentration and attention. It’s also one of the few follow-ups to Ringu that uses the material of J-horror to tell its own, intimate, terrifying story, rather than re-hashing what has come before.