by Jason Suzuki
The strongest titles of the J-horror boom of the 90s and early 2000s were the films that held unease in higher regard than palpitations. Beyond that these films could be seen as genre mashups and not just straightforward horror films. Cure and Pulse were psychological and supernatural thrillers combined with social commentary and Hideo Nakata's Dark Water is a family drama mixed with the supernatural. This combination works extremely well and can found again in Sono's underrated Exte (2007). But while that film works because the two halves of the supernatural horror story and the melodrama of a young woman taking on the responsibility of raising her niece were made better by being stitched together, Nakata's film expertly blends these two elements. A woman (Hitomi Kuroki) is in the middle of a custody battle over her six year old daughter while trying to adjust to their new apartment, which is rundown and possibly haunted. The pressures of being a single mother are heightened/symbolized with the concurrent paranormal activities.
Throughout the film we return to the custody battle between Yoshimi (Kuroki) and her ex, who can;t even be in the same room with one another but must instead talk through their legal counsels. Despite not showing much interest in his daughter, Yoshimi's ex wants full custody of Ikuko (Rio Kanno who has since gone on to appear in Lesson of Evil). In cases like these with the child so young, the mother is usually favored says the lawyers. But Yoshimi and Ikuko's new apartment, complete with leaky ceiling and disinterested landlord will prove to be trying to Yoshimi's outward stability. It's even located on the fourth floor to add insult to injury. The film does not shy away from familial details but is rich with them. When it wants to up the tension and continue the ghost thriller aspects of the story it does wonderfully with the same subtly as the rest of this low-key film. More than just running parallel to these single mother pressures is also the relationship between mother and daughter including the fear of anything bad happening to your child. The disappearance and death of the ghost girl is a direct reminder to Yoshimi of the frailty of Ikuko. The film achieves its pathos through Yoshimi's traversing of the supernatural side of the film but only by how it relates to the family side.
The film itself looks good and given the amount of rainfall in the film, details still come out through the raindrops. This was no V-cinema production and the quality of its production show. Yet the source used for the Blu-ray might not have been the best, personally I felt the at times murky look worked for the film and was not too distracted. Most of these screenshots do not convey the adequacy of the video presentation when in motion. For audio there is the original 5.1 track. The detailed production on both an audio and visual level stand out as exceptional and nuanced.
Surprisingly, neither Tom Mes nor Jasper Sharp appear on this disc. Instead we have about an hour and a half's worth of bonus material both archival and newly produced for Arrow Video's release. For archival material we get some behind the scenes footage (15:49) which shows Nakata working with cinematographer Junichiro Hayashi on a handful of scenes. There is special care put into this BTS look at the film where picture-in-picture is used to show the filming of a scene and how it will look in the final cut. Along with this there are three archival interviews included on the disc: actress Hitomi Kuroki (7:59), composer Shikao Suga (2:55) who did the ending theme for the film, and actress Asami Mizukawa (4:38) who gets a surprising amount of screen time in these features for being in the film so sparingly. not only do we get to see her audition, which was apparently part of a contest, but the opening third of the BTS footage is of a scene featuring her. Mizukawa expresses her disinterest in blood and guts horror, instead favoring the more suspenseful, internal horror of Dark Water. Knowing that she would later star in Mari Asato's Bilocation (2013) [covered in Vol. IV of Cinema Adrift] it seems she held that interest in a more subtle brand of horror.
The three interviews shot for this release make up the bulk of the supplements and feature individual interviews with director Nakata (26:02), cinematographer Hayashi (19:15), and author Koji Suzuki (20:19). Arrow Video allows every one of them to talk about much more than just their involvement with Dark Water and its here we get more anecdotes about the Japanese film industry at the time. These also serve as good portraits of them men, who all are very candid and honest about their work. Just like Arrow's releases of Retaliation and Massacre Gun featured expansive information on much more than the films themselves you will find the same happening on this disc.
"If you are a director, never imitate what you have already done."
The extensive new interviews make this a worthwhile purchase for those interested in any facet of Japanese film. Junichiro Hayashi has worked with Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Dark Water is just as deserving of the art-house praise Kurosawa's work has received. The film itself is so strong and favors its human element so much that it should be a great watch even for those not too keen on J-horror. It's a loving package and succeeds in presenting Nakata's film as well as increasing excitement for Arrow Video's upcoming release of Pulse, another incredible entry in the J-horror boom (interestingly enough, both Nakata and Kurosawa have admitted to turning to horror films at times due to its times of maximum fad).
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.