Pulse (aka Kairo) – 回路
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa (黒沢 清)
Cast: Haruhiko Kato, Koyuki (加藤 小雪), Kumiko Aso (麻生久美子), Koji Yakusho (役所 広司)
Perhaps the scariest film I have ever seen, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse is a complex and involving film that raises a number of pertinent questions about society and its relationship to technology. This is not your typical J-Horror film. Gone are the ideas of vengeful spirits and the myriad of Sadako clones. They are instead replaced with ambiguity, zero closure, and a crushing atmosphere of isolation, loneliness, and depression. This is an oppressive film, and one that shows why Kiyoshi Kurosawa is perhaps the most intelligent and most skilled director Japan has to offer.
The narrative covers two different stories which ultimately end up merging, not because they are inherently connected somehow, but because of the events of the film. In the first story, Michi is shown with her friends and colleagues at a rooftop plant shop. Their other coworker, Taguchi, has been missing for several days – supposedly working on a computer program for work. When Michi goes to his apartment to seek him out, she finds him alive and seemingly okay, but incredibly aloof. As they’re talking, he casually grabs a piece of rope and walks into another room where he suddenly hangs himself. It isn’t long before Michi’s other friends begin acting the same way as Taguchi did before he died.
Elsewhere in Tokyo, Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) is getting with the times and joining the online community via dial-up (the film is from 2000, cut it some slack). After installing the software, he logs on to the Web when he is suddenly diverted to a disturbing website that asks if he would like to see a ghost. The website then shows him webcam-like footage of isolated and listless individuals in darkened interiors. Normally, the Internet is not supposed to do this unless you frequent some very disturbing sites, so Kawashima’s freak-out is natural – especially after his computer turns itself on to again go to the website. Being pretty computer-illiterate, Kawashima enlists the help of some computer experts at his university to help him get a URL for the site. One of those experts is the pretty Harue (played by The Last Samurai‘s Koyuki), and with Tom Cruise nowhere around, Kawashima makes his move. Not a romantic move, mind you, but a friendly one. Kurosawa does not sacrifice his scruples for demographics, and the two characters instead use each other for companionship amid the film’s disturbing events. This is not about romance, but about the need for and importance of human contact.
What the two stories have in common, aside from the creepy website, is the appearance of mysterious doors sealed around the edges by red tape. It seems that anyone who enters reemerges detached from all around them until their demise, either by suicide or simply by fading away until all that remains is a human-shaped stain. By the end of the film, Tokyo is virtually empty, planes are falling from the sky, and what humans are left are banding together. The city itself is an essential character, as it goes from a crowded and thriving metropolis to a wasteland, void of human existence save for what we created and left behind. Take a look:
So what does it all mean? What’s up with the red doors? What about the creepy ghost figures? What exactly is happening to make people disappear or commit suicide? Kurosawa is never one to provide answers, and many of the film’s more puzzling elements are less about plot practicality and more about subjective interpretation. At its core, the film is about our relationship with and reliance on technology (and keep in mind this was years before Twitter and Facebook). Pulse doesn’t go down the route of explicitly stating that technology will become self-aware and seek to destroy its creators, as in T2: Judgment Day (a fine film in its own right and proof that action films don’t have to be stupid), but instead warns that overreliance and misuse can lead to self-imposed social isolation and veritable disappearance. The use of ghostly figures is not, as the remake would have you believe, about ghosts literally invading our realm via technological devices. That’s just generic and goes against Kurosawa’s original intent. As with Kurosawa’s best films, including Cure (キュア) and Seance (降霊), he uses supernatural elements to uncover humanity’s faults, its darker side. Technological development is a conscious choice, as is technological adoption, but what are the consequences of doing so en masse? Will we fade away into nothing, essentially becoming ghosts? This is especially relevant given, again, the nature of Tokyo itself as well as the large number of self-isolationists, called hikikomori (individuals who shut themselves away from all social contact). Tokyo is a fantastic city, but a few trips on the train system and into the busier parts of the city will reveal that many of its citizens are basically sleepwalking through their days, hooked into their MP3 players or Nintendo DSi’s as they conform to the pressures of demanding jobs or a sometimes unforgiving education system. Perhaps no scene best represents this sense of hopelessness than when Michi, wandering near her home, witnesses a young girl commit suicide in shocking fashion. There are no cuts as the event quickly unfolds. It’s a truly shocking scene, both amazing from a technical standpoint yet narratively frightening.
What Kurosawa has done with Pulse is create an extremely intelligent horror film, and make no mistake about it – this is a horror film. There are no slashers or monsters, but there is the depiction of a crushingly real nightmare of humanity’s devastation. Masterfully staged and expertly framed, Pulse is a deliberately paced slow burn that builds to the exhausting final frame. If you get into the film as I do when I watch it, you may walk away feeling very alone and very afraid.