Yoshimi abandoned at school
Staring forlornly at the rain
Adult Yoshimi remembering her sad past
Staring out into the rainy courtyard.
Desperately trying to reach the school.
Mitsuko leaving school in her yellow slicker, bathed in yellow tones.
Mommy has forgotten her.
Frantic phone call.
Mother and daughter dwarfed by the looming building — a repeated composition in the film.
Ikuko’s final trip to her old home, in a shot similar to one where the apartment seemed to overpower Mitsuko.
Mitsuko’s water apparition.
The never-ending rain.
The leak bonds with Oshimi and gives her a dream about Mitsuko.
Hideo Nakata’s 2002 Japanese horror film Dark Water continues a theme formulated in his previous film Ringu (1998), in which the struggles of single working mothers — the heroines of both films — are visually expressed through the walls and spaces these broken families inhabit. In each film, a child haunts the heroine, a ghost born of both violence and neglect, and the only healing force seems to be a mother’s love. However, the psyches of these heroines are waging a violent battle within their home environments as these kaiden, or vengeful child specters, throw into horrifying perspective the demands that traditional ideals of mothering enact on these besieged women.
Dark Water takes place primarily in the confines of a dismal concrete apartment building, as the newly separated Yoshimi and her 5-year-old daughter, Ikuko, attempt to start anew. The grey walls and endless hallways of their new home highlight the bleakness Yoshimi now faces as she must quickly find employment while enmeshed in a bitter custody battle. As the young mother struggles to care for her small daughter, her fragile mental state is revealed through the persistent deterioration of her apartment building — manifested through the omnipresence of leaking ceilings, broken elevators, cracking wallpaper, and faulty plumbing. The film’s manipulation of mise-en-scène suggests that with the pressures placed on women as mothers, the home and its environs embody a dread that cannot be escaped.
Hollywood studios have remade both Ringu and Dark Water, transforming some of the Japanese films' cultural specificity, and employing new settings, stars, and many typical Hollywood horror conventions. This essay will focus exclusively on Dark Water, Nakata’s Japanese thriller — for my reading of the film’s uncanny elements and use of architecture is dependent on some distinctly Japanese cultural traditions. Still, what I hope to point out is that the backlash against single working mothers is a global issue. The portrayal, struggle and redemption of its female protagonist is contingent on her acquiescing to and embracing an idealized feminine role — the self-sacrificing mother. Visual tensions connote this struggle between the normally clean, safe realms of the home and school, and the invasive “dark water” that floods Yoshimi and Ikuko’s apartment, streaming down walls and relentlessly boring through ceilings. This overwhelming force not only dissolves the barriers between the living and the dead, the safe and the threatened, but it also renders the typically stable walls of the apartment building porous and permeable. The water's intrusion into the security of the home reflects the bleeding of social roles that contemporary Japanese women must face as they juggle work with motherhood.
This essay continues my work of exploring interconnections between architectural space, femininity, and cultural anxiety, where the buildings and settings of certain films not only stand in as physical manifestations of female subjectivity, but often the mise en scene overshadows the human characters within the film’s diegesis. As one reviewer explains:
Forgoing the special effects “pyrotechnics” common to U.S. horror cinema, Nakata employs subtler cinematic techniques, primarily through manipulating shot composition, in order to bring the setting to the film’s forefront and to situate its mother/daughter protagonists as outsiders, isolated and alone. As the film opens, a long shot reveals a young Japanese girl sitting forlornly in front of giant windows, her back to the camera, as she watches children meeting their parents in the midst of a torrential downpour. Her concerned teacher asks her, “Yoshimi…no one’s come for you?” In this shot/reverse shot, the camera slowly pulls back from the young girl’s solemn gaze as she realizes that she has been abandoned by her mother and father. The young girl turns out to be Yoshimi as a child; the memory, despite its grim quality, is bathed in a warm golden light in sharp contrast to the stark blues and greys of the rest of the film. Yoshimi twice recalls this lonely moment of waiting: as she stares at the outside downpour while waiting for a custody meeting with her ex-husband’s lawyers, and again when she is forced to wait at a job interview for a publishing company. Both of these moments, drawing sharply on Yoshimi’s failures as wife, worker, and mother, are meant as commentary on her childhood experiences of loneliness and abandonment.
This narrative of parental neglect is repeated several times in Dark Water, always by visually situating a young Japanese girl — either a younger Yoshimi, her daughter Ikuko, or the missing Mitsuko — as an outsider from the group, staring at the rain as if it formed an unbreachable boundary, confining her to a life of isolation. The camera consistently works to alienate the female protagonists in their environments, framing them turned away from the camera and in a long shot, often situated in doorways or looking out of windows. Hideo Nakata’s repetition of disquieting images is deliberate, for the film uses the uncanny trope of the doppelganger. It doubles and triples images and blurs the past into present, in order to show the cycle of neglect that impinges on these young heroines.
Crosscutting scenes illustrate visual connections between these characters and also highlight the cycle of guilt under which Yoshimi must suffer. For instance, when Ikuko is left waiting at the kindergarten for her mother Yoshimi, who is trapped at an interminable job interview as she desperately seeks employment, the camera once again situates the view behind the young girl’s back, her small body silhouetted and alone in the doorway. The classroom is quiet and empty as children joyfully greet their arriving parents in the outside courtyard. Ikuko, like Mitsuko and Yoshimi before her, is very still, silently gazing at the other children through the sheets of rain that drench the schoolyard. Back at the publishing firm, where Yoshimi is still forced to wait, she frantically tries to reach the school by phone. A flashback then occurs in which Yoshimi recalls her abandonment at school by her own mother, and the subsequent shame and despair she felt at the time. The scene is bathed in a warm, yellow haze to signify the past. Abruptly, the image cuts to Ikuko under an umbrella, alone in the school courtyard during a downpour. As she looks across to the distant street, she sees another young girl, also alone. This apparition is Mitsuko’s ghost watching Ikuko from under the hood of her shiny yellow slicker. Later, the film flashes back to Mitsuko’s own rainy abandonment by her parents, as she was last seen at the same kindergarten two years earlier.
Emptiness pervades the film. Static street scenes are held and characters walk in and out of the frame, further suggesting the film’s focus on expansive settings rather than a close-up visualization of its primary characters. These are not the teeming streets of Tokyo, but old, grey apartment buildings on the outskirts, somewhere along the edge of the city. Dark Water repeatedly imagines its protagonists in relation to the cold, mammoth structure of the looming apartment building. The most frequent image is a long shot as Yoshimi and Ikuko approach the entrance on their first visit, walking down a long grey path, their tiny figures entering the far left of the frame. As they near the building, the aerial view situates them as little specks, clearly dwarfed by the imposing structure. These same images recur in hazy flashback as Yoshimi dreams of Mitsuko, the missing girl, making her way to the same building, and, later, a grown Ikuko takes this walk again at the film’s conclusion. Throughout Dark Water, shots of the cold grey concrete of the apartment building emphasize the dank, poorly lit hallways and the building’s decaying façade. Characters emerge into empty hallways and stairwells, barely distinguishable from the walls and rooms bathed in gloom. The film emphasizes the dynamic settings of school and apartment by relegating human characters to small corners, mere shadows at the end of long, dark hallways.
Director Hideo Nakata often consigns important narrative information to fragmentary glimpses that skirt the edges of the film frame. Even when Yoshimi or Ikuko interact with other people, they are often somehow isolated within the frame, excluded from the group dynamics so important to Japanese culture. The world they inhabit appears completely devoid of life — visually expressing the stigmatism visited on victims of divorce. This “aesthetics of the edge,” as I like to call it, is especially prevalent in Japanese horror films, creating a feeling of dread and unease that slowly creeps up on the spectator (instead of jumping out at them). Jay McRoy masterfully describes this technique in reference to Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Grudge (2002):
These effective and subtle techniques appear intrinsic to Japanese horror cinema, and are visible in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (2001), as well as Nakata’s Ringu, Ringu 2 (1999) and Dark Water. These films also lack the more formulaic sound cues common to Hollywood horror cinema, as the flash of something frightening is usually unaccompanied by any non-diegetic sound, in some ways strengthening the impact of the visual by negating the usual aural sounds of suspense.
The most frequent “blink-and-its-gone” image is of the yellow rain-slicker clad Mitsuko as she lurks in every corner and doorway of the school and the apartment complex — her presence foreshadowed by the presence of torrential rain, leaks and puddles, and grimy running water. Yoshimi’s first glimpse of Mitsuko’s ghost appears as she attempts to confront the cause of her ceiling leak, banging on the door of the overhead apartment in a hallway identical to her own. Giving up in frustration, Yoshimi steps into the elevator, only to see the image of a young girl, with long hair and a yellow slicker, standing in the doorway of this seemingly empty apartment. As the doors shut on her view, Yoshimi frantically tries to reopen the doors, but in an instant the girl is gone. Later, she sees the ghost walk past the doorway to the roof and lurk behind the giant water tank on the same level, but Mitsuko’s figure always shimmers with transparency, blurred and indistinct. The film’s visual details help support the epistemological uncertainty common to the representation of the quasi-gothic heroine, as Yoshimi repeatedly questions whether she actually sees Mitsuko or whether the specter is a figment of her imagination. Unsurprisingly, the male figures in the film — her ex-husband, his lawyers, Ikuko’s teacher, a helpful male friend — doubt her experiences as well.
The ever-present torrential rain not only enhances Dark Water’s gloomy atmosphere, but also accentuates the liminal space of the apartment building Yoshimi and Ikuko now occupy — Mitsuko’s former home. Throughout the grey, dank building, water leaks and puddles, dripping through the elevator shaft, and forming a stain that persistently spreads like a virus across Yoshimi’s bedroom ceiling, contaminating everything it touches. Indeed, one can gauge the delicacy of Yoshimi’s mental state against the form and shape taken by the substantial overhead leak. Her ex-husband uses fragile moments from her past as a wedge to pry away Ikuko from her grasp and engulf the mother in vulnerable self-doubt. As Mark Kermode points out, the revelation that she was driven half-mad
As the ceiling leak continues to grow and mutate, the boundaries that separate Yoshimi’s subjectivity from her physical environment become increasingly fluid.
In both Dark Water and Ringu, water serves as a conduit for paranormal activity, elevating the natural to the supernatural. Water is Mitsuko’s chief source of communication with both Yoshimi and Ikuko, and the never-ending rain that surrounds these characters persists like a dark cloud continually overhead. Yoshimi’s first contact with Mitsuko occurs when she steps into a puddle on the floor of the building’s elevator — a space that the girl repeatedly haunts — and she feels the mysterious grasp of a child’s hand. The camera initially reveals a child’s hand, but when Ikuko skips merrily from the elevator, her mother realizes that she is not holding onto her daughter. Yoshimi later dreams of Mitsuko’s plight when water drips onto her sleeping form from the ubiquitous overhead leak. Only when Yoshimi presses her hand against the rooftop water tank that haunts her dreams, running her fingers over rivulets of water, does she experience a vision of Mitsuko’s demise as the unsupervised girl falls into the enormous tank. Although the girl is not literally pushed into the tank, as Sadako in Ringu is pushed into the well, the film implies that her mother’s inadequate care is ultimately to blame for this loss. Accordingly, Yoshimi must pay the appropriate price for this prior sin.