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Horror, Japanese Cinema, Melodrama

Honogurai mizu no soko kara (Dark Water, Japan 2002)

Mother and daughter in the dismal flat in Dark Water.

Mother and daughter in the dismal flat in Dark Water.

Dark Water was director Hideo Nakata’s follow-up to the remarkable series of films and television programmes based on the Ringu stories written by Suzuki Kôji, sometimes referred to as the ‘Stephen King of Japan’. Ringu and its prequel and sequel (Ringu 0 and Ringu 2) created a major impact in film and television markets in East Asia, helping to raise the profile of the horror/ghost story – a traditional genre in all the East Asian cinemas – and attracting the interest of Hollywood. Dreamworks re-made Ringu as Ring and created a worldwide hit. Dark Water was re-made by Brazilian director Walter Salles with Jennifer Connelly in the lead role. Nakata himself was invited to Hollywood to remake his own Ringu 2. The whole phenomenon began to be referred to as ‘J-horror’ (a trend which also spread to consideration of Korean or ‘K-horror’).

Dark Water is again adapted from a Suzuki story – this time from a short story collection that features tales about ‘water’ (Suzuki is interested in what he sees as traditional Japanese environments for horror). The film narrative extends the story significantly and uses many of the same elements as Ringu. These elements represent many of the features of Japanese cinema that have proved attractive to younger audiences in Japan and abroad. They also refer back to longstanding features of Japanese film culture.

Firstly, Dark Water is a traditional genre film. It offers a genuinely ‘scary movie’ with a threatening ‘presence’ in an otherwise ‘ordinary’ environment. Fear and suspense are developed through use of camerawork, set design, lighting, sound etc. By American standards, Dark Water is a low budget film. There are minimal special effects and no major stars. The pacing of the film is also slow – the producers feel no need to satisfy a teen audience with frequent gory/brutal moments of action. (Ju-on or The Grudge which appeared around the same time is much closer to typical Hollywood pacing for a horror/suspense film.)

The second main interest is the selection of characters and theme. Following Ringu, the focus is on the family and specifically the divorced single mother with a small child. Recent Japanese horror films have in one sense picked up on the American industry’s move towards young women as both ‘victim’ and ‘investigator hero’. This is striking in a Japanese context because traditionally the role of women in society has been more difficult to develop and expand in the face of a resolute patriarchy. In this sense, these recent horror films are certainly ‘modern’. The marrying of the modern ‘social issue’ (i.e. the break-up of the family, the independence of women) to the tradition of the ghost story is a familiar feature of Japanese culture – at once the most modern and the most traditional culture in the developed world.

It should be noted that the female hero in this and other films associated with this horror cycle (i.e. the Ringu films, Ju-on and others) is a recent feature of Japanese film culture. In Suzuki’s original novel for the Ring series, the investigator was male. The decision to change to a female investigator was made because the main audience for the cinema in Japan is younger and more used to Hollywood movies. One of the many interesting sets of questions about how the Japanese films differ from both earlier Hollywood suspense horror films – and the Hollywood re-makes of Dark Water etc. – concerns how the female characters and children are represented.

Dark Water is less an ‘investigation’ and more a domestic drama, but it makes references to and borrows from a number of high profile international film successes. Are these direct quotes or is the audience recognition simply a function of Nakata’s deep knowledge of horror genre conventions from international cinema? Certainly the central premise is the ‘woman in the haunted house’ and the mix of characters and locations has prompted comments about Roman Polanski’s Repulsion in which Catherine Deneuve gradually loses her sanity and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in which a ‘possessed’ Jack Nicholson threatens his wife and child.

In terms of tone and image, a further reference is Don’t Look Now, Nic Roeg’s 1973 film which featured a small figure in a raincoat amidst the dark and gloomy canals of Venice. Children are an important feature of Ringu and Dark Water. What may be specifically disturbing to western audiences is the way in which small children in Japan seem to be left to their own devices – something which now seems to terrify parents in the UK. What does this say about the UK and Japan?

A central question for feminists in the West has often been the extent to which female protagonists are ‘punished’ in the narrative for ‘transgressions’ such as ‘enjoying sexual pleasure’ and ‘neglecting duties as wife or mother’, i.e. not conforming to a patriarchal stereotype. Dark Water raises questions about the mother’s ability to protect her child – in an economic sense. Her love for the child is not in doubt. What do we make of the ending of the film?

A further major difference between Hollywood horror films and those in Japan is that Hollywood expects a ‘good v. evil’ fight with the ‘monster’ (in this case the ghost) ‘defeated’ or ‘laid to rest’. This is a clear ending, but it does not suit Japanese culture where ghosts are much more part of life and hauntings are much more ‘personal’:

“In America and Europe most horror movies tell the story of the extermination of evil spirits. Japanese horror movies end with a suggestion that the spirit still remains at large. That’s because the Japanese don’t regard spirits only as enemies, but as beings that co-exist with this world of ours.” (Suzuki Kôji interviewed on http://int.kateigaho.com/win05/horror-suzuki.html)

Further Reading

Gill Branston & Roy Stafford (2005) The Media Student’s Book, London: Routledge (Case Study on Ringu and J-Horror)

Jay McRoy (ed) (2005) Japanese Horror Cinema, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

The website at http://int.kateigaho.com/win05/horror.html also carries an interview with Nakata Hideo in a general article on ‘J-Horror looms over Hollywood’.

Notes first compiled in 2005 and presented here in conjunction with work on El orfanato.

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