Book Review: Dark Water by Koji Suzuki

9/10 Character-driven horror from one of Japan’s best

In this collection of short stories, Koji Suzuki continues to haunt readers with a series of horror stories all centered around water, starting with a prologue that hints at the many strange things that wash ashore and the stories they tell.

Prologue

An old woman, Kayo, who lives by the sea is expecting her granddaughter, Yuko, to visit soon. Kayo enjoys taking her granddaughter out along the shore looking for strange things that have washed up and regaling her with tales.

This is a prologue in a true sense. Not much happens here, we’re only being treated to a tease about what’s to come. But we also glimpse some of Suzuki’s character work.

Floating Water

The first story, which was adapted to film (twice), is about a single mother, Yoshimi Matsubara, who has moved into a mostly empty apartment complex. When she discovers a discarded red bag on the roof, it begins a mystery that Yoshimi would rather not be a part of.

This is one of my favorites in the collection. The sense of mystery moves the story along, though I had seen the movie first, so I couldn’t join in the speculation or surprise. It’s the story most reminiscent of Suzuki’s famous novel, Ringu. And one of the things he does well is the sense of dread that comes from the environment, not just the “monster.”

Solitary Isle

Kensuke Suehiro is a teacher who gets a rare opportunity to visit a small forbidden island in Tokyo Bay for study. He has waited years to visit, hoping to glimpse a woman from his past that his friend, Aso, had briefly dated, a woman he believes has lived on this island all these years.

For me, this was one of the weaker stories. There’s some surprise to the ending, but most of the time, I was wondering where it was going. It seems to be made of two parts, Kensuke’s friend, Aso, and the island where the woman is supposedly living off the small forest there. One issue is that in both parts, Kensuke is little more than an observer. He doesn’t do much. And I think it might have worked better focusing on one side of the story than both. It wasn’t as cohesive as I think it could have been.

The Hold

The angry and brutish Hiroyuki Inagaki is a fisherman, just like his father and his father before him. He now takes care of his father who barely lives and a daughter who has stopped speaking. Soured by his place in life, it only gets worse when his wife goes missing.

This story certainly explores horror from two angles, the supernatural and the real. Sometimes, the monster isn’t a ghost or creature, just a human capable of terrible things. If you can handle some of the darker themes of this story, it’s one of the best in the collection.

Dream Cruise

Masayuki Enoyoshi has been conned into a yacht cruise around Tokyo Bay by a pair of shills trying to drag him into a pyramid scheme. All Enoyoshi wants is to leave, but suddenly, the yacht becomes stuck, and no one is going anywhere.

Dream Cruise feels like 3/4 of a story. The ending for me didn’t have the impact I was hoping for. It confirms what most readers have probably already guessed by that point, then ends without much of a conclusion. And like Solitary Isle, I’m not sure all of the elements clicked together as nicely as some of the other stories; we have details that don’t seem relevant or interesting.

Adrift

The tuna fishing vessel, Wakashio VII, is heading home and happens upon a yacht with no one aboard. They prepare to tow the boat to port authorities. Kazuo Shiraishi, one of the fishermen who has considered ending his career to find work on land, volunteers to go aboard and watch over the yacht. He soon discovers why no one is on board.

Though Adrift has been optioned as a movie (and my copy of the book from 2006 claims that it’s already in production), here we are in 2021 and no movie has surfaced (no pun intended). It certainly has potential as a movie, and like the previously adapted Floating Water, it’s an excellent story. There are plenty of parallels to common ghost-ship stories, and even summarizes the Marie Celeste for context, but it has Suzuki’s unique touch. He lures you in with warmth before dousing you with cold water. And the implied fate of some of the characters is disturbing.

Watercolors

A theatrical troupe, Kairin Maru, has set up in an old building that once served as a seedy disco years ago. When the performance they’ve spent months preparing is endangered by a leaking ceiling, it’s up to disgruntled Yuichi Kamiya to investigate the problem and fix it before it cuts the show short.

This was the one story I didn’t much enjoy. For one, there is far too much upfront exposition. It genuinely feels like half the story is exposition. When the story actually begins, it’s little more than one scene of a man trying to stop a leak. And the ending was, I think, more deflating than it was surprising. It seems like more of a self-aware parody than anything. Without a doubt the weakest of the book for me.

Forest Under the Sea

In the winter of 1975, amateur spelunker Fumihiko Sugiyama is on a hike in the mountains with Sakakibara, a friend from the local caving club. What was only meant as a hike to look for a possible cave becomes an exploration deep into a grotto no one has ever been in. Sugiyama knows even a slight error could get them both killed, yet he can’t stop himself.

Though not horror of the supernatural kind, this is still one of the best stories in the collection. It’s well-paced and gives us a good connection to the characters before things turn bad. Interestingly, while the story stands on its own, it pairs with the epilogue which fills in one of the gaps of the story. I’m honestly surprised this story hasn’t been optioned as a movie in combination with the prologue and epilogue added to fill it out.

Epilogue

We meet Kayo and learn where these sea-side walks came from. After a serious health condition forces her to become more active, Kayo begins her walks as a form of recovery. One day, she happens on a strange item that inspires her and spurs her into action.

Though it connects with the prologue, it’s chronologically a prologue to the prologue and instead acts as an epilogue of Forest Under the Sea. Between these last two stories, there’s enough emotional weight to fill a novel. Suzuki manages to do a lot in small spaces.

Conclusion

Suzuki presents a series of chilling tales, most of which feature supernatural elements, all well-crafted. But one of the things I appreciate about his work is that he puts effort into his characters. They have motivations, dreams, fears. Suzuki knows that horror is far more effective when we connect with the characters and care about them. Some writers sure could use some of that.

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