Bloody October: Dark Water (2002)

Dark Water (2002)

Ah, yes. Another big old hole in my horror education is Asian Extreme, the umbrella term that usually encompasses horror films produced across the continent. Last year I had the pleasure of experiencing, for the first time, Hideo Nakata’s original Ring, so this year I went for one of Nakata’s slightly lesser known films: Dark Water, a 2002 movie about some terrifying plumbing problems.

Dark Water follows Yoshimi Matsubara (Hitomi Kuroki), a woman battling for custody of her daughter Ikuko (Rio Kanno), who’s just going into kindergarten. In an effort to prove that she’s capable of caring for her child properly, Yoshimi moves into an apartment building right around the corner from Ikuko’s school. Things are a bit weird right from the start – the super is wholly uninterested in welcoming the pair to the building, and the manager seems very eager to unload the apartment. When Ikuko discovers a child’s bag on the roof of the building, Yoshimi freaks out, insisting that her daughter throw it out. Once they’ve moved in, Yoshimi notices a patch of water on the ceiling that seems to grow larger with every passing day. She complains, but the super won’t do anything about it, and the patch continues to grow, dripping water into the bedroom. The creepy bag continues to make appearances, along with the silhouette of a girl in the empty apartment just above them. Is Yoshimi going crazy or is there actually a ghost roaming the building?

Dark Water is a surprising film in many ways, not the least of them being that it’s more melancholic than terrifying. As we learn more about who the ghost might be, and why she’s wreaking such havoc with the water supply, what comes into focus is not a malevolent spirit coming after Yoshimi and her child, but a lost soul searching for something to cling to. The film plays with the notion of neglect passed down from generation to generation, infecting the entire society so that all wind up paying for their crime of simply doing nothing to help. Yoshimi’s one goal is to keep her daughter with her, but she’s strained to the breaking point, facing a husband she suspects is following her and a set of well-meaning but ultimately cold legal counsels. She has no friends and no real family – it’s implied that her mother more or less abandoned her. Her solace is Ikuko; her reason for continuing to work, and to suffer, is her daughter. That mother-love, intense and heartbreaking, is a thread that runs through the film.

This is a more restrained film than Ring. It’s also less overtly terrifying, relying more on the creation of atmosphere than on creepy creatures or jump scares. A melancholy pervades the film, focalized through Yoshimi, who cannot tell if she’s really seeing ghosts or just going mad. But her drive to understand and somehow expel the spirit, or whatever it is that haunts her, works in tandem with her desperation to keep her daughter. Dark Water becomes a movie about generational sacrifice to protect and give solace to children, including those that have been lost or abandoned.

Dark Water is a slow-burning, melancholic ghost story that never quite reaches the horrific heights of Ring, yet is not the less moving and horrifying for that. A lesser film, in some ways, but an interesting one nevertheless.

Noroi: The Curse (2005)

Noroi: The Curse (2005)

Thanks to Shudder, I’ve had the opportunity to watch some really excellent horror films that I’d probably never have even heard of, and many that I’d have never had the stomach to rent. And while I admit that my J-horror education has been sorely lacking, at least I have experienced the power of both Ju-on and Ringu, as well as their American counterparts. But Noroi: The Curse is an animal all its own, and in some ways a better film than either Ju-on or Ringu – a sharply made, very frightening found footage feature.

The Curse opens with several titles explaining that the film was put together from footage shot by documentary filmmaker Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki), who vanished after his home burned to the ground with his wife Keiko inside.  Kobayashi investigated paranormal activity around Japan, this time focusing on the story of Junko Ishii (Tomono Kuga) and her son, whom Kobayashi meets after a neighbor claims to hear strange noises coming from their house. The film builds slowly as Kobayashi investigates Ishii, who suddenly vanishes, and intercuts this footage with the experience of actress Marika Matsumoto (playing herself), who comes into contact with a malevolent spirit while appearing on a “ghost hunters” TV show. Meanwhile, a young girl named Kana Yano (Rio Kanno) appears on a psychic program and then disappears after being visited by a man in a tinfoil hat, whom Kobayashi eventually tracks down. As the narratives intersect in Kobayashi’s film, the horrible story of the curse begins to come to light.

Noroi: The Curse is a slow-burner of a horror film, far less dependent on visual scares than similar J-horror films. The effect is more psychological, allowing glimpses out of the corner of the eye, shadows across walls, and weird occurrences in the middle of the night. It plays like a documentary, a very precisely constructed narrative meant to elucidate the investigation of the paranormal, rather than a horror movie. As the narrative begins to take shape, with repetition of events and the slow reveal of what the curse even is, the film increases the tension. It blurs the line between documentary reality and fiction in casting an actress playing herself, and showcasing Japanese tabloid shows as part of the revelation of old evil. In that, it significantly predates films like Paranormal Activity, which rely on the same blurring of lines and slow-burn myth-making, rather than grotesque images, to strike fear into the heart.

The slow pacing of The Curse and the complex storyline that has to bring together several apparently disparate strands of narrative might turn off some horror viewers, who prefer their terror more straightforward. But I must admit that this is exactly the kind of horror movie that I love. The tension is there, but it builds slowly, the frames packed with meaning and little clues to the interconnectedness of the stories. Japanese horror films in general take a very different view of ghosts from many Western films, emphasizing the carrying over of demons and ghosts across generations and among people apparently unrelated. There’s a sense of inevitability, of a horror that cannot be put down or escaped but that must simply be accepted, because it’s going to get you eventually. What’s more, it will keep going, through the generations, a testament to the hubris of human beings.

The Curse surprised me in how thoughtful it was, and how dedicated to really creating the illusion of a documentary film put together after the death of its filmmaker. As the pieces of The Curse begin to fit together, the horror comes fully home, but it’s the build-up that’s really delightful, the slow and measured construction of real terror.

Noroi: The Curse is available to watch on Shudder.