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October 30, 2019updated 15 Jul 2021 4:40pm

Ring and Dark Water: on Japan’s urban ghost stories

By Mark Clapham

The ghost story naturally reverts to the archaic, the gothic, the rural. The genre by its nature tends to draw its fear of the unknown from poking a hole in the modern, rational world and calling back to some mysterious arcane past when spirits and magic were commonplace.

Which is not to say there are no modern ghost stories that firmly root their scares in a contemporary urban landscape – get some nerds going on BBC1’s 1992 mockumentary Ghostwatch, in which a TV crew disturbs spirits in suburbia, and your greatest fear is that they will never shut up about it – but it’s a hard to trick to pull off without resort to some ancient mcguffin like a plague pit under the floorboards.

Two of the finest examples of placing spectral scares firmly in the urban landscape come from Japan, and the combination of director Hideo Nakata working from stories by author Koju Suzuki.

Ring (1998), directed by Nakata from Suzuki’s 1991 novel, is a supernatural horror mystery in which TV journalist Reiko Asakawa investigates a seeming urban myth about a cursed videotape, putting herself, her ex-husband and their son in mortal danger in the process. Rather than the haunted bone whistles and muddy crowns of MR James, the curse in Ring works its way entirely through the safe technology of the modern home: after you’ve watched the video a phone call tells you that you’re going to die in seven days, and one of the signs of being cursed is that your image blurs hideously in photos.

While rooted in technology, Nakata’s film gains a lot of its sense of uncanny by stepping back from the overt science fiction elements of Suzuki’s book. In the novel there’s a relatively coherent pseudo-science explanation for what is happening, but Nakata and writer Hiroshi Takahashi strip the exposition right back in favour of a sense of something more (MR) Jamesian and oblique. 

The CRTs, VHS players and Polaroid cameras of Ring may seem retro twenty years on, but it’s still unnerving to see the benign spaces and gadgets of the modern home so mercilessly invaded by the supernatural. While Reiko’s investigation takes her to a traditional Japanese inn and a remote island community those are actually the points in the film with the least scares: Nakata’s supernatural set-pieces all take place in western-style, very clean and modern domestic spaces, from the cosy suburban home of the opening sequence to the modern apartment blocks that his estranged professional couple live in.

The nearest thing to the mould and cobwebs of traditional gothic in these places is the visible damp in the hallway outside Reiko’s ex’s apartment. Seeping, encroaching water is a motif throughout the film, with rain lashing concrete towers and frequent shots of the churning sea. Japan is an island nation with cities that have extensively built on reclaimed land, and both Suzuki and Nakata’s work plays on the sense that the waters could claw that urban space back.  

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Ring kicked off a boom in Japanese and Asian horror, both at home and in the west, and the second major Nakata/Suzuki movie would come out in the same year as the Hollywood remake of Ring, eventually getting its own Hollywood remake before the frenzy for J-Horror burned itself out. 

2002’s Dark Water, based on Suzuki’s short Floating Water, shares a few plot points with Ring and vastly expands the imagery of damp and decay. Like Reiko, Yoshimi Matsubara is a single mother trying to unravel a supernatural mystery that threatens her child; but unlike go-getting journalist Reiko she’s in a much more vulnerable position, a literary editor with a history of mental health issues going through a rough divorce and custody battle. Yoshimi and her daughter Iku move into a rickety brutalist apartment block that’s plagued by seeping, pooling water, with a useless old caretaker and a mysterious child’s bag that keeps appearing in untoward places. Yoshimi finds out about a little girl who went missing from the apartment above, and has to try and keep her sanity together as a supernatural presence exerts itself.   

With more concise material and less plot points to tick-off, Nakata lets creeping dread expand to fill the space. His main addition is an expanding patch of dripping damp on the ceiling, leaking through from the lost girl’s abandoned home, an on-the-nose but effective metaphor for Yoshimi’s growing anxiety. Anyone who has dealt with persistent damp and leaks, that feeling of constant chill encroaching on your home, will relate. While technology doesn’t act as a conduit for the supernatural as it does in Ring, neither does it provide any protection: the apartment building’s elevator is a leaky steel trap, while the fuzzy CCTV system offers glimpses of a diminutive ghostly figure unseen to the living.

Dark Water is somehow an even more oppressive movie than Ring – while that movie actually gains some chills from the fact that the supernatural is intruding into a colourful, warm urban environment, Dark Water has long scenes of relentless rain and interior scenes characterised by corridors of grey, damp concrete. Both movies capture the feeling of feeling isolated in a theoretically safe and busy urban space, the sense of turning a corner and being caught out by a sudden chilling silence. In those moments it can feel as if the city belongs to the ghosts, and it is the living that are the unwelcome intruders, forever in danger of being cast out.

Ring and Dark Water are both available from Arrow Video.

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