Yoshimi is a single mother, struggling to win sole custody of her only child, Ikuko. When they move into a new home within a dilapidated and long-forgotten apartment complex, Yoshimi begins to experience startling visions and unexplainable sounds, calling her mental well-being into question, and endangering not only her custody of Ikuko, but perhaps their lives as well. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
When I first started writing Blu-ray reviews, my screener prospects were largely limited to now-defunct boutique labels Tartan, Discotek, and Artsmagic – companies that thrived on the Japanese horror movies churned out in the wake of Hideo Nakata’s super-popular Ring (Japanese stylized: Ringu, 1998). Meanwhile, mainstream Hollywood started remaking every J-horror hit they could get their hands on. While I maintained a preference for the work of Takashi Miike, Kiyoshi Kurosawa. and Shinya Tsukamoto, this constant onslaught of kaidan movies and their American equivalents grew exhausting. But, times change, J-horror (as well as its Korean, Chinese, and Thai counterparts) no longer dominates the digital video market, and I’m finally ready to reconsider the impact of these formulaically eerie films (2020 edit: this was written in 2016, since then, early-post-millennial Asian horror has really grown into a very important marker for international genre filmmaking), beginning with Nakata’s own post-Ringu series tale of aquatic terror, Dark Water (Japanese: Honogurai Mizu no soko kara, remade for American audiences by Walter Sales in 2005).
Dark Water’s greatest strengths are found in its twisted version of reality. Like he did with Ring, Nakata shoots the movie in a sombre, almost vérité manner, yet the mesmerizingly understated performances, deliberate pacing, and dream-like tone imply a universe where something as innocuous as a puddle of water or a child’s lost lunchbox can become a sinister omen. These mostly uneventful hints of aberration are what Nakata has constantly bested most of his contemporaries, and serve him well here, succeeding where the more pronounced startle scares fail. The screenplay – based on the book by Ring author Koji Suzuki and written by The Booth (Japanese: Bûsu, 2005) director Yoshihiro Nakamura and producer Kenichi Suzuki – is a not very subtle parable about the trials of divorce and single parenthood. As it deconstructs the stigma surrounding a working mother who is forced to raise a child alone (ultimately coming to a rather ‘problematic’ conclusion), it tosses Toshimi (played by Hitomi Kuroki) into embarrassing moral positions that would easily fit a straight-laced dramatic portrayal (she often has to choose between her professional career and caring for her emotionally fragile child). This cliché-driven narrative normalizes the situation even further, allowing for Nakata to take us by surprise as he continues to peel back reality and unleash nightmare logic.
There is an ongoing issue with the quality of Japanese home video releases from the early days of DVD. The problem is that most of us didn’t notice until these same transfers started hitting Blu-ray and 1080i/p television/streaming. Dark Water is, unfortunately, no exception. According to specs, Arrow was given the HD master directly by Kadokawa Pictures and performed their own digital restoration of the material. The term “HD master” seems problematic to me, because, even armed with the knowledge that many of these mediocre Japanese HD transfers are derived from old scans, I suspect that this could just be an upconvert (related: their release of Kurosawa’s Pulse/Kairo was pushed back for the sake of more extras, rather than a new transfer). The fuzzy details and weak blacks are problematic, but the prevailing issue is how ‘artifacty’ the image is, including both compression effects (edge enhancement and blocky gradations) and scanner noise that overwhelms the original film grain. My former colleague Chris Gould also suspected in his (now defunct) review that the contrast problems are the result of being mastered at PC levels (0-255) rather than video levels (16-235), which is another common problem for digital home video releases from Japan. True color quality is harder to judge, because Nakata and cinematographer Junichiro Hayashi purposefully utilized sickly greens and golds, but I think that the intended palette is well-represented here.
Dark Water is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio and its original 5.1 sound. This is an extremely immersive mix without being particularly aggressive. Aside from the occasionally impactful tones of Kenji Kawai & Shikao Suga’s eerie score, the bulk of the track is devoted to the contrasts between utter silence and the louder threat of water in the form of rain, rushing rivers, dripping droplets, supernatural bubble jets, and overflowing bathtubs. There aren’t a lot of swirling directional effects, but plenty of stereo/surround involvement and plenty of LFE enhancement.
Hideo Nakata: Ghosts, Rings, and Water (26:03, HD) – The director discusses his early career, specifically the making-of Don’t Look Up (Japanese: Joyû-rei, 1995), Ring, and Dark Water, as well as his influences and opinion of the horror genre.
Koji Suzuki: Family Terrors (20:20, HD) – The author talks about his upbringing, his process, and becoming Japan’s pre-eminent horror novelist.
Junichiro Hayashi: Visualising Horror (19:16, HD) – The director of photography runs down his technique and his collaborations with Nakata.
Vintage making-of featurette (15:50. SD) – A behind-the-scenes EPK from 2002.
Actress Hitomi Kuroki interview (7:59, SD)
Actress Asami Mizukawa audition footage/interview (4:38, SD)
Co-composer Shikao Suga interview (2:54, SD)
Trailer, teaser, and TV spots