Water running down the rooftop tank.
Mitsuko’s encounter with the tank.
Divorce is to blame.
A plea for Mitsuko’s return.
Tainted water in credits.
The bag’s first appearance.
Will anyone claim it?
The bag returns
Lurking in the drain.
Yoshimi’s touch triggers a vision.
The bag falls into the tank.
Mitsuko reaches for her precious bag.
The water streams from the building’s pores.
Ikuko enveloped by the deluge
Teenage Ikuko remembering her past.
For small children, kindergarten is also supposed to provide a new inside group, a new uchi, where they can remain safe and cared for, away from the dangers of the outside world. Unfortunately for Yoshimi, Mitsuko, and Ikuko, the schoolroom is a persistent site of trauma, where their lives all intersect in a sharp moment of motherly neglect as they sit forgotten at school. During Ikuko’s second pivotal encounter with Mitsuko at the school, the water that symbolizes Mitsuko’s liminal state hemorrhages from her spectral body toward the terrified girl, thus forcing a physical, as well as emotional connection.
In the kindergarten’s busy playroom, a small group of children gather to play hide and seek. Initially, Ikuko is attached to the group, but as the children run off to hide, the young girl is left isolated again; when she asks two girls if she can share their hiding space, they immediately send her away. She subsequently runs to the end of a long hallway where she hides under a table, her view limited by a dangling tablecloth and some boxes. She shouts when she is well-hidden. Slowly the camera begins to move shakily towards her hiding place from a long shot positioned at the end of the hall. As it gradually draws closer, Ikuko turns in close-up, and we see her respond in terror to the image of a pair of water-logged feet noisily squishing toward her. When the soaking child comes within three feet of the young girl, rivulets of water begin to flow freely from the figure’s feet, reaching out like tentacles to Ikuko.
The scene abruptly cuts to a taxi pulling up to the school as Yoshimi rushes to Ikuko’s side, for the girl is lying on a small bed, drenched and unconscious. Yoshimi accuses the schoolteachers of mistreatment, and the male teacher takes her down the hall for a talk. He implies that Ikuko’s “strange behavior” may be due to Yoshimi’s divorce. As they walk further, Yoshimi sees some childish drawings of a girl in a yellow rain slicker, imploring “Mitsuko” to “come back” and “come home.” The teacher mentions that she too was a “strange child,” but that her mother abandoned her. In this moment, Yoshimi comes to the realization that Mitsuko, the missing girl, used to live in their apartment building, and that this ghost may now be haunting her and Ikuko.
The dissolution of the boundaries between inside and outside provides the unease essential to the film’s uncanny experiences. Ruth Goldberg points out in her discussion of Ringu that
Dark Water purposefully plumbs regions “where categories fail to maintain their integrity.” Nowhere is this more obvious than through Mitsuko’s watery, hazy manifestations. As a spirit, she is by definition a liminal entity, “negotiating the supposedly unbridgeable gulf between the world of the living and the realm of the dead.” Her negotiation of these worlds is always through some form of water, and this becomes her means of communicating with both Ikuko and Yoshimi, whether a piece of her hair is left floating in a drinking glass or she forces dark, roiling water to flow through the taps. While water is often seen as a cleansing presence, a symbol of rebirth and renewal, in Dark Water, as early as the film’s opening credits, water is always represented as contaminated, a substance that taints whatever it touches. The stain that spreads across Yoshimi’s ceiling is yellow and brown, an image of decay and rot.
The dark water in the film serves as a vehicle for Mitsuko’s attack on the young Ikuko. One of the film’s most visually terrifying set pieces occurs when Yoshimi briefly leaves her daughter alone while she investigates the water tank on the roof. As Ikuko peers hesitantly from the doorway to their apartment, she is startled by water suddenly rushing from the tap in the tub. The camera reveals the sudden spurting of water from over her shoulder. As she frantically tries to shut off the tap, the water suddenly starts to sputter and cough and then changes from clear to a murky brown. Ikuko stops struggling with the tub’s faucet. She eyes the water in horror as it gurgles and bubbles, soon overflowing and spreading over the floor of the bathroom. As the camera swings behind the young girl, closing in as Ikuko stares into the tub’s murky depths, two grey, decaying hands reach from within the tub and grab her head, dragging her face first into the filthy froth. The scene ends with Ikuko helplessly fighting against Mitsuko’s angry strength, as the ghost tries to annihilate her competition for Yoshimi’s love.
When Yoshimi rushes back to the apartment, she finds Ikuko unconscious on the floor of the bathroom, and desperately tells her daughter that she will never leave the child alone again. As she clutches her daughter in terror, the water angrily froths and bubbles at her as if responding to the mother's cry of devotion. Unfortunately for Yoshimi, she does not realize that she now clutches Mitsuko, who has somehow taken on her daughter’s form. Throughout the film, Ikuko and Mitsuko become increasingly interchangeable, and Mitsuko grows to possess Yoshimi’s daughter as a way to achieve the motherly connection she previously lost.
The primary conflict of Dark Water is that inadequate mothering, brought on by the disruption of divorce or the heroine’s excessive or inappropriate focus on a career, leads to neglect, and possibly irreparable loss. In some ways, the film suggests a certain amount of cultural nostalgia for the past that imagines a mother of myth rather than reality. Its vision of mothering has not adapted to the changes brought on by the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble in the 1990s, which compelled many women, including mothers, to enter the workforce. As Ruth Goldberg claims, quoting Masami Ohinata,
The film ideologically suggests that mothering is a “totalizing experience” of consuming self-sacrifice. In this way, it points to the “new momism” currently being decried by U.S. media scholars Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels in The Mommy Myth. They point out that motherhood is too frequently represented through the media as
Douglas and Michaels rightfully claim that these types of ideals are damaging to all women, mothers or otherwise, and that they stem from a persistent backlash against feminism — with a twist. The new “momism is not about subservience to men. It is about subservience to children.”
Still, Dark Water does not represent a soulful longing for a mother from the past, but a violent and vengeful horror that will not be denied. As Ramie Tateishi convincingly illustrates:
This past that refuses to remain buried is potently symbolized in the film by the recurring image of Mitsuko’s little red “Mimiko” bag, a startlingly bright prop that contrasts sharply against the dismal setting of the concrete apartment building. The bag first appears during Yoshimi’s and Ikuko’s first visit to the apartment complex. When Ikuko suddenly disappears while Yoshimi examines their possible new home, her mother’s panicked search finds her daughter on the roof, clutching the little red bag. Once the two are told that no children currently live in the building, a sense of foreboding attaches to the object, and Yoshimi assiduously places the bag in the complex’s “lost and found” box. Shortly thereafter, the bag reappears, as Yoshimi encounters it while taking out the trash. She firmly places her garbage on top of the bag, and tightly closes the lid on the can. The bag shows up twice more on the rooftop, nestled within a drain opening as if the water spit it back from the trash onto the building. Finally, as Yoshimi tries to prepare Ikuko for her return to kindergarten — after the young girl’s ghost-induced illness — she find the little red bag nestled at the bottom of her daughter’s backpack. When Ikuko insists that she did not put the bag there, Ikuko grabs the red bag and experiences a sharp vision of the bag falling into the rooftop water tank. The red bag, clearly a treasured gift of Mitsuko’s, turns out to have been the impetus for the poor child’s tragic death. The bag continually forces its presence on the beleaguered Yoshimi until she fully grasps its dreadful meaning.
Throughout the film, Yoshimi is haunted by her own mother’s neglect, and because of her ability to empathize with the sad Mitsuko, she is compelled to right the wrongs of the mothers that came before her. Her willingness to assume another mother’s guilt reflects the Japanese concept of reciprocity, a crucial idea for a society that depends so much on notions of shared community.
For Yoshimi, her memories of her own neglect, triggered by both the omnipresent rain and the presence of Mitsuko’s vengeful spirit, drive this young mother to try to save her own daughter at all costs. Yet she acutely understands Mitsuko’s forlorn state, having experienced the same feelings herself. Unfortunately, Mitsuko’s subsequent possession of the vulnerable young girl unwittingly places Yoshimi in a position where she must make an impossible choice. Her heartbreaking decision is literally forced upon her in the film’s shattering climax.
After Yoshimi finds Ikuko huddled unconscious on the bathroom floor, she desperately coaxes the girl back to life, and Ikuko delicately coughs as she miraculously breathes again. The mother carries the soaked girl to the elevator, clutching her to her chest in a frenzied attempt to leave the premises. Still, the dark water will not leave her alone, and a torrent starts to leak through the ceiling onto the mother and child. Seemingly by its own volition, the elevator climbs to the fourth floor and opens onto the floor housing Mitsuko’s old apartment. Yet as Yoshimi clutches her daughter in terror, she sees the apartment door open. Steeling herself for a frightful confrontation with the angry spirit, she instead sees Ikuko emerge from the dark apartment, apparently sleepwalking and calling her name. In that moment of recognition, Yoshimi turns to what she thinks is her daughter in the elevator, where she is instead attacked by the embodied Mistuko, whose grey decayed features cry out, “Mommy!” The ghoul’s hands lock around the mother's neck in an iron grip, and only when Yoshimi warns Ikuko away and turns to comfort the ghost does Mitsuko release her death hold.
The only way for Yoshimi to break the cycle of neglect is to acquiesce to Misuko’s demands and acknowledge the child specter as her daughter, thereby sacrificing her own daughter, Ikuko, and embracing an ideological ideal. A plaintive non-diegetic soundtrack now echoes through the film as Yoshimi’s daughter watches the elevator fill with water, clearly drowning her mother. She chases the elevator as it travels to the roof, trying for one last glimpse or connection with her beloved Yoshimi. The scene ends in a dynamic visualization of Mitsuko’s victory at capturing Yoshimi’s life and love. As Ikuko hurls herself, sobbing, in front of the elevator doors, the image holds again on the back of the young girl’s head; the only sound now is the bell as the elevator reaches the top floor. In an instant, the doors open and a wave of brown water envelopes the young girl, nearly swallowing her small form in a deluge. The scene ends with her crying, alone, abandoned by her mother and lying in a pool of dirty water.
The film concludes a decade after these calamitous events, as a teenage Ikuko joins a group of classmates on a bus trip to her old neighborhood. The bus drops the girls off in front of the kindergarten, and Ikuko silently watches as parents come to pick up their children. One girl stands alone, isolated from the group, her gaze staring back unwaveringly. Yet, like the absence of rain in the scene, the world has changed, and this seemingly abandoned child shouts with joy as her mother, profusely apologizing for her lateness, arrives to collect her. Ikuko traverses the same path to her old apartment as had her mother and Mitsuko before her, and the shot composition reiterates those lonely scenes from the past. Again, there are no signs of human life and the building looms ominously above. In that span of time, though, the apartment complex has noticeably deteriorated and decayed, as if it has lain uninhabited ever since that fateful night. Lighting fixtures hang with exposed wires from the lobby, but amazingly the elevator still functions.
Still, upon entering her old apartment, Ikuko finds it pristine and unaffected by time — an idyllic vision of mothering out of touch with contemporary Japanese reality, yet available to Ikuko as a cherished memory. The sunlight flows through windows, encasing the apartment in a glowing aura. Her mother’s selfless sacrifice has refashioned and stabilized the walls of the home, rendering them safe and comforting once again. Ikuko then encounters her mother in the bedroom, tangible and solid rather than a ghostly apparition. Yoshimi remarks on how much her daughter’s grown and that she must now be in high school, but when Ikuko suggests that she would like to come live with her mother, Yoshimi sadly declines. In that moment, Ikuko can feel the presence of Mitsuko, lurking in the background. The camera reveals the spirit’s watery image over Ikuko’s right shoulder, and as she turns to catch a glimpse of the girl, she finds Yoshimi has disappeared, even though the room remains unchanged. In the end, Ikuko acknowledges the sacrifice her mother made as a symbol of her protection, recognizing that relinquishing her mother is required to appease Mitsuko, a specter always capable of deluging other divorced mothers with her engulfing wail of need.