The Dark Water of Koji Suzuki

Rain Water DropsContinuing my immersion in the watery worlds of dark fiction, I turn my attention this month to the work of Koji Suzuki. Suzuki, an award winning Japanese writer of horror, fantasy and SF is best known for his Ring novels, which inspired the famous succession of Japanese films before a series of American remakes. I wasn’t familiar with Suzuki’s work but had been told that my novel, Bodies of Water possessed a similar feel to the 2008 film, Dark Water based on Suzuki’s short story collection of the same name. I was compelled to seek out both, starting with Suzuki’s fiction. Dark Water consists of seven stories within a framing narrative, all exploring the haunting and mysterious properties of the water. The stories explore a variety of settings, from urban spaces within sight of Tokyo Bay, isolated islands and remote underwater caverns to the boundless ocean. For the protagonists in these stories, whether they are on land or at sea, the water represents isolation and entrapment, often physically cutting them off from safety. Moreover, the water functions as a conduit from the past to the present, carrying objects or memories, the jetsam of their lives, back to the surface, often with terrifying consequences.

The idea of jetsam, the things we discard or leave behind, is central to the collection.

This is set up straight away in the framing narrative in which we are introduced to Kayo and her granddaughter Yuko. It’s Kayo’s habit to take her daily walk to Cape Kannon, a place where “all the debris from Tokyo Bay was said to wash up”. Cape Kannon is a treasure trove of “old shoes and children’s toys…the remains of wrecked fishing boats and wooden doorplates bearing addresses as far away as Hachioji.” The items washed up on the shore speak of our collective, excessive consumer culture, whilst specific items which refer to their former owners via their names or addresses, personalise the debris and allow us access to their narratives. This is Kayo’s task, “weaving a tale around a piece of driftage” for the entertainment of her granddaughter, who, lucky for us, likes a scary story. What follows is Suzuki’s collection of short stories, most of which pivot around a central, found object. Though Kayo’s voice is absent from these stories, it is easy to imagine that they are her offerings, inspired by the fragments washed up at Cape Kannon. But before the collection gets underway, Kayo cautions Yuko against picking things up from the shore,  “if you love the sea, you ought to be mindful.” It is one thing attaching stories to driftage but wholly another picking up things that may have their own stories to impart and possibly negative energies to pass on.

The first story of the collection, ‘Floating Water’ features a found object, which propels the story forward, whilst functioning as a tangible link to the past. Yoshimi, a single mother has just moved into a new apartment building overlooking Tokyo Bay with her daughter Ikuko. Deciding to let fireworks off on the roof, they discover a red vinyl Kitty bag. Ikuko immediately wants to claim it as her own but Yoshimi refuses and insists they take it to the apartment superintendent. Like Kayo, she cautions her daughter about taking things that do not belong to her. The superintendent promises to give the bag to Ikuko if nobody claims it (which is unlikely, as Ikuko is the only child in the apartment building) but Yoshimi overrides him, much to her daughter’s dismay, intuitively distrusting the bag. But the bag isn’t the only thing that is amiss. The water, though seemingly clear, tastes odd, her daughter begins talking to an imaginary friend and Yoshimi learns that the previous tenants had a daughter of a similar age to Ikuko who mysteriously disappeared. The fact the Kitty bag returns to the roof, strangely close to the water tank confirms Yoshimi’s fears about the whereabouts of the missing girl. The story sets the tone for the collection, outlining themes such as entrapment and confinement that will continue throughout, as well as drawing attention to the bodily deposits we leave in the water. This idea is taken up in another story in the collection, ‘Watercolours’ in which the unclogging of a nightclub sink reveals swathes of hair, moving across the floor like “seaweed floating in the sea.”  ‘Floating Water’ was the inspiration for the Walter Salles’ film, Dark Water, starring Jennifer Connelly and Tim Roth. The film takes some imaginative leaps but retains the sentiment of the short story, especially with regard to the relationship between mother and daughter and the notion of unquiet spirits needing to be laid to rest.

Likewise, ‘Dream Cruise’ also alludes to the idea of child neglect and possible infanticide. In this case, the haunting is attached to a child’s shoe, found caught on the propeller of a yacht. The yacht’s owner, Ushijima and his wife seem frightened by the shoe, which bears the name of its owner in black marker across the sole: “Kazuhiro.” It falls to Ushijima’s guest, Enoyoshi to dispose of the shoe, setting it back on the water “like a little boat”. Enoyoshi is already displeased about being stuck on the boat with his old school friend and wife, realising that it was a ploy to get him to agree to a business proposal, the yacht being an “indispensable tool for a recruitment pitch without worrying about the victim escaping.” The yacht symbolises Ushijima’s material wealth, of what Enoyoshi can aspire to if he accepts the deal. But Enoyoshi is not bothered about money and when asked by Ushijima what he desires most in the world – before the propeller jams and they discover the shoe – Enoyoshi surprises everyone by saying he would like to have a child. With the yacht still stationary, Ushijima is forced to dive beneath the boat to see whether it is caught on the seabed and discovers a ghostly child clinging to the keel. Perhaps it is Enoyoshi’s longing for a child that awakened the dead Kazuhiro or considering Ushijima’s reaction to the shoe, maybe he and his wife were in someway responsible for the Kazuhiro’s death and the child had come back to haunt them. Either way, the undercurrent of this story seems to be about the price of moving forward, that the pursuit of wealth is often at a personal cost, and the choices we make follow us through the rest of our lives.

Compared to Enoyoshi, the protagonist of the next story, Kazuo would have undoubtedly fallen for the charms of the Ushijima’s yacht. In ‘Adrift’, Kazuo, the assistant engineer of a deep-sea fishing boat volunteers to board a deserted yacht they find floating aimlessly in the open ocean. Kazuo’s crewmates call the yacht a “ghost ship” and despite Kazuo’s misgivings amid references to the Marie Celeste, he agrees to man the yacht while it is towed back to harbour. Coming across the yacht’s logbook, Kazuo retraces the last few days of the Captain and his family, which details the same strange dream they had of pushing each other overboard, as well as the eerie presence the Captain’s daughter feels certain is accompanying them on their journey. This extra presence on board the ship put me in mind of the Klabautermann or Man on Board legends associated with the Baltic and North Sea, though this supernatural figure was often considered to be benevolent. The presence onboard the yacht is quite the opposite and Kazuo finds himself under a strange influence, untying the rope connecting the two vessels. Further reading of the logbook reveals that the Captain’s daughter unwittingly picked up a bottle floating in the ocean. Inside it contained a shell “about the size of a human hand and much larger than the neck of the bottle” its patterning resembling an eye. Kazuo becomes convinced that he needs to find the shell and cast in overboard but the Captain’s daughter has hidden it and despite his efforts he can feel the eye boring into him more and more, persuading him to cause himself harm. Like the prologue, the story reinforces the idea of leaving things where they lie, of objects having the capacity to transmit curses from owner to owner.

The final story in the collection, ‘Forest Under the Sea’ follows protagonist Sugiyama cave diving with his friend in a remote subterranean system. But a freak accident means that Sugiyama is trapped within the cave, his only escape is to swim through the submerged tunnels. Before embarking, he writes a message to his son sealing it in a film case, in the hope that if he should die, his final message might break the surface. This story brilliantly connects to the framing narrative, as Sugiyama’s film case finds itself washed up amid the debris of Cape Kannon, right in sight of Kayo on her morning stroll. Despite her own advice not to pick things up, she makes an exception and discovers herself plunged into Sugiyama’s story and suddenly the custodian of his last words. This idea of legacy and inheritance, of passing things on, whether good or bad is so important in the collection, especially considering that many of the stories explore the relationship between parents and children. Even the ones I haven’t had time to talk about in this column focus chiefly on unusual and damaging parental relationships. Suzuki’s collection is thought provoking and engaging and along with utilising horror staples, revenants, curses and ghost-ships, considers wider issues. Our capacity to discard and replace things so readily, that we continue to clog our oceans with the objects we no longer value, suggest that the pursuit of material wealth will only land us in deep water.


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