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

A screenshot from Ring. Image: Toho.

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.  

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.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.