“Dark Water”: An unsettling supernatural Japanese psychodrama about a “dead wet girl”

By on August 1, 2017

Japanese director Hideo Nakata first terrified global audiences with his J-horror classic Ringu (Ring, 1998), and its sequel Ringu 2 a year later, and in 2002 he returned with the unsettling supernatural psychological drama Dark Water, another contemporary ghost story sharing the common trope of the “dead wet girl.”

Watch the film now (it’s in Japanese, with easy-to-read English subtitles) in our collection of great Arrow Video titles, streaming over on Night Flight Plus.

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Dark Water (original title: Honogurai mizu no soko kara, (仄暗い水の底から, which translates to “From the bottom of dark water”) was released in Japan on January 19, 2002.

The film was adapted from “Floating Water,” a short story written by Kôji Suzuki, who also wrote the Ring trilogy. In the Japanese press he often called “the Japanese Stephen King.”

The screenplay was written by Nakata himself and a regular collaborator, Takashige Ichise, who also worked with him on Ring.

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Plotwise, Dark Water tells the story of Yoshimi Matsubara, a single mother involved in a heart-wrenching emotional struggle to win sole custody of her only child, six year old Ikuko (Rio Kanno).

Yoshimi — who had a troubled childhood herself, her parents divorcing when she was very young and leaving her alone with her fears — is in the middle of her own nasty divorce from her thuggish, abusive husband, Kunio Hamada (Fumiyo Kohinata).

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Kunio is concerned that Yoshimi has been given temporary custody of their daughter while she tries to move on with her life: not only is she trying to find a new job, a good school and kindergarten class for their daughter and a new place to live, but she continues to reveal signs that her own mental health is unstable.

We learn she has a history of mental instability — likely as a result of her miserable, emotionally starved childhood — and throughout the film the audience must decide if there’s really some very sinister things going on that are simply not her fault, or if she’s losing her mind as her life spirals out of control.

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Yoshimi and her daughter move into a creepy apartment in one of the upper floors of a dilapidated old building, and almost immediately she begins to experience startling visions and unexplainable sounds, almost all of which have to do with water.

The entire building is eerie, and atmospheric, and seems to have an ongoing problem with water leaks, and it’s particularly bad for Yoshimi, as there’s a large growing water stain on the ceiling of her own bedroom, which we learn may be the result of the water pouring freely from faucets in the bathroom and kitchen in the vacant apartment directly above hers.

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We learn that a young girl who once lived in the apartment upstairs went missing two years earlier, and they learn that her body had eventually been discovered in a rooftop water tank atop the apartment building.

Suddenly Yoshimi and her daughter begin to see the mysterious girl in the corridors and hallways of the building, wearing a bright yellow coat.

Yoshimi begins to believe that the little girl may be a ghost, a spirit child trapped in the building somehow… a spirit which may threaten not only her life, but her daughter’s life Ikuko as well.

Ikuko, meanwhile, begins disappearing at odd hours of the night, and she even ends up in the flooded vacant apartment.

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Yoshimi begins behaving more erratically too, due to all of the stress she’s under, and she begins having outbursts not only in family court, but at her daughter’s new school too. Yoshimi begins thinking that her ex-husband Kunio may be trying to drive her insane in order to obtain full custody of Ikuko.

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After she slumps into a coma after the end of having a psychotic episode, she realizes what the girl in yellow is trying to communicate to her what happened in the building two years earlier.

We’ll tell you much more about Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water below.

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Hideo Nakata

Japanese horror films — or J-horror, as it now known to its quickly growing band of devotees — have become increasingly more and more popular over the past couple of decades, particularly after the successful commercial release of 1998’s Ringu, which was of course was also directed by Hideo Nakata, and adapted from the novel Ring by Kôji Suzuki.

That film and its sequel, Ringu 2, were acclaimed by critics and horror fans both, and these films also inspired numerous follow-ups within the Ring franchise in Japan (like Rasen (らせん, or “Spiral,” directed by Jōji Iida) as well as also triggering a trend of English-language re-makes in other countries, beginning with the 2002 American film The Ring, directed by Gore Verbinski, and starring Naomi Watts.

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Verbinski’s unexpectedly thoughtful 2002 reworking of Ring found interesting new ways to make J-horror’s storytelling techniques more easily to grasp by mainstream U.S. audiences (there were fewer loose ends and psychic powers) without sacrificing what made these films feel so different to American audiences.

Those films often change the plots to make them more acceptable to western audiences too, and often they emphasize scary horror film moments rather than letting the audience feel a sense of dread about a scene without actually seeing anything specific, and in doing so, the western films end up removing much of the psychological dread and slow, deliberate plot pacing which define the original Japanese films.

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Critics often have drawn comparisons between Nakata’s films and certain revered filmmakers, though, including Nicholas Roeg and Stanley Kubrick; indeed, there are moments you’ll recognize in Dark Water which play like homages to both the elevator scene from Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece The Shining, and the ghost-like little girl in the hooded raincoat from Roeg’s cult classic Don’t Look Now, but Nakata manages to do this without making the scenes feel like ripped-off moments from favorite films.

In Dark Water — beautifully shot by Junichiro Hayashi, the same cinematographer whose work can be seen in Ring and Pulse — the use of water as a symbolic image is prevalent throughout, permeating nearly every scene of the film.

The action takes place during the Japanese tsuyu or their “rainy season,” which happens each year — depending on which part of Japan you happen to be in — during May, June and July.

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During this time, the humidity can be as high as ninety percent, which also adds to the overwhelming sense of dread which we’ve heard drives a lot of Japanese people absolutely bonkers.

Water is also a good symbol for kami, which is the Shinto “essence” or “beingness” which is said to permeate everything. They can be elements of the landscape, forces of nature, as well as beings and the qualities that these beings express, and include the spirits of venerated dead persons.

Many kami are considered the ancient ancestors of entire clans, and some ancestors became kami upon their death if they were able to embody the values and virtues of kami in real life.

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Ghosts, deities and demons are a prominent part of Japanese folklore and there are many different kinds and classes.

The girls in Japanese horror movies are usually onryō, which means “vengeful spirit,” and they are usually a type of ghost (yūrei) believed capable of causing harm in the world of the living, harming or killing enemies, or even causing natural disasters to exact vengeance to redress the wrongs they received while alive.

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The films which explore the horror of a “dead wet girl” are intrinsically tied to water’s role in Japanese folk myth, as a portal through which souls could travel to the world of the dead.

The dead wet girl trope became immensely popular after Nakata’s Ring, in which we see a sopping wet young female, dressed in white, with dark hair hanging down in her face, and although the images are slightly modified here for Dark Water, there’s enough similarities that the same sense of dread of that popular horror trope can be applied here as well.

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Ring (1998)

There’s also the use of claustrophobic spaces as symbolic of characters feeling trapped, particularly in elevator scenes, and Nakata makes good use of askew camera angles, wide shots and racked-focus shots which only add to the visual anxiety depicted in the film’s storyline.

Nakata is really a master at building suspense, and giving us a story that slowly unravels through tense moments followed by a few jumpy creep-out scenes which fans of psychological horror films obviously love.

The use of sound design is also terrific, and adds to the claustrophobia.

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Dark Water was shown at the AFI Film Festival on November 9, 2002, and was first released on DVD in 2004 (ADV Films), before being released by Arrow Video on DVD/Blu-ray on October 25, 2016.

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In 2005, director Walter Salles lensed an English-language remake of the film — also titled Dark Water — starring Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Camryn Manheim, Pete Postlethwaite, Shelley Duvall, and Tim Roth.

That film moved the storyline to Roosevelt Island in Manhattan and all of the action takes place in a dilapidated apartment building. It’s worth seeking out after you’ve watched Nakata’s film, to see how they compare.

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Jennifer Connelly in Walter Salles’ Dark Water (2005)

More recently, in 2013, a true crime story unfolded in downtown Los Angeles which seemed to have many mysterious and bizarrely similar connections to the the plot of Nakata’s Deep Water.

A 21-year old tourist named Elisa Lam — a Canadian student at the University of British Columbia, vacationing in Los Angeles in January 2013, and staying at the Cecil Hotel in the city’s downtown sector — went missing for approximately three weeks.

The LAPD were called in after they were contacted by the girl’s parents, and they began searching the hotel with police dogs, but they were unable to find out what happened to her.

The hotel released a video from a surveillance camera, located in the elevator, which was allegedly the last footage of Ms. Lam while she was still alive. In the footage, Lam is seen exiting and re-entering the elevator, talking and gesturing in the hallway outside, and sometimes seeming to hide within the elevator, which itself appears to be malfunctioning.

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Ms. Lam — who it was later revealed also suffered from bipolar disorder — is then seem appearing to be talking outside the elevator, and making several awkward contortions of her hands and arms. Ms. Lam then exits the frame of the camera. After Ms. Lam exits the frame, the elevator door closes, and she is seen going up/down the floors.

Some three weeks later, residents and guests at the Cecil hotel began complaining of low water pressure, and dirty “black” water flowing from their faucets and showers, and maintenance workers went up to the roof to check out the water tank on the building’s roof and that’s when they discovered the naked body of Elisa Lam, meaning that for possibly three weeks, the hotel’s residents and guests had been brushing their teeth and bathing in the very same water that she’d died in.

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Dark Water (2002)

Elisa Lam’s death was ruled an “accidental drowning” by the L.A. coroner.

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Curiously, at the same time this was going on, there had also been an outbreak of tuberculosis in the downtown L.A. area, and health officials were testing people in the area with a test that was actually named the LAM-ELISA test.

It turned out to be just one of many coincidences between what happened to Elisa Lam and both the Japanese and American movies titled Dark Water (2002/2005) even more mysterious.

You can find much more about the connections between the films and Ms. Lam’s sad story online if you care to research it further.

Watch Dark Water — and other selections from our friends at Arrow Video — over on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.