118 min., 2001
Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
My rating: ★★★★
It has often been said that there are more people alive than have ever been dead. But that’s not true, and that means there have been are a lot of dead people. Where’d they all go? Maybe they’re still hanging around. And maybe there’s no more room for them.
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Kairo (Pulse) is a apocalyptic ghost story, of sorts, along these lines. It opens on a boat, where we meet a young woman describing how it all begins…
…With the same young woman, Michi (Kumiko Aso), following up on a Taguchi, who had been missing for a few days. She goes to his apartment, in a large, faceless concrete housing block in Tokyo, and finds Taguchi behind a curtain; he tells her his project is done and that the work can be found on a floppy disk on his desk. After a quick search for the disk, Michi tries to find him again, still concerned about his well being. This time, she finds his body; he hung himself. Meanwhile, Ryosuke, an economics student at a university in Tokyo, installs the software from an Internet provider on his computer complete with entertainingly quaint graphics. The computer pages through a video clips of depressed-looking people and then asks if Ryosuke (Haruhito Kato) “would like to see a ghost;” later; it wakes up on its own, dials in, and another ghost clip appears.
From there it follows the two parallel stories, one about the Michi and her coworkers in a flower and plant shop on the top of a building in Tokyo; the other, Ryosuke student and Harue (Koyuki), a graduate student in an computing lab in a university who has agreed to the computer-illiterate Ryosuke understand the strange behaviors of his machine. After the inexplicable suicides both sets of people separately discover the dead are leaking into the world through technology. But not really communicate with then; they’re not very talkative. Mostly they ask to be saved. Phones, televisions, computers; about anything with a screen or a speaker. And later, the spirits appear with nothing other than an empty room and a splash of ash in the background.
As the leaking, depressed dead come into the real world, they begin to have an effect on those still alive. Depression is contagious; and communing with isolated, depressed souls will crush your own. Real people, like the ghosts, begin to disappear under mysterious circumstances, first falling into depression, then committing suicide. Most of the main characters are affected. They lose their spirit without actually losing their body; reappearing without motivation or will, going through the motions of life without actually living. When they give up, instead of death they simply fall to dust, leaving a grey/black stain on the wall behind them.
The resulting film is extraordinary in several ways. First, the film is very scary without jump scares and gore; instead, the horror is psychological, and the result is a confusing, creepy atmosphere where you, watching the film, are just as confused about the events as the characters. Second is the use of conventional horror tropes – “ghosts in the machine” and “apocalypse of the undead” – to criticize the isolation that technology is causing between people. Taguchi was able to spend a week working on a project, at home, surrounded by computers but without any contact; nobody even thought it was weird! Perhaps, Kurasawa asks, this was part of his depression? Was it the cause of his suicide? Even places that should be bustling are isolated. Harue works in an empty lab; almost everyone lives alone. Characters put up red tape – to keep the ghosts out, or to keep themselves protected from each other? Even when people try to communicate, they get nowhere. Leaving people be is a “courageous choice on its own,” one character says. Why worry about each other? Kurosawa asks. It just ends in pain.
In the film, however, as people leave each other behind, the end is an apocalypse, as all of the humans on earth join the spirits in depression, suicide skyrockets, and society breaks down. Streets are empty, planes crash, and what’s left of the cast flees the death and destruction. And the film circles back to where it started, Michi on a boat, searching for signs of civilization. Trying to find anyone left in the world.
Technically, the film does not exhibit much complexity; there are fairly few people, little background music, and few special effects. Sets are cold and claustrophobic yet empty; Tokyo, normally teaming with life, seems dead. Atonal, synthesized electronic music is used for what little background music there is. The actors are remarkable in their restraint. Characters are confused, but the situation is confusing. They don’t run and scream; they just do their best to deal with an increasingly scary and disturbing situation. And it is very easy to overact fear and isolation, but Michi and Ryosuke look legitimately terrified during the ending and Harue simply looks empty. Due to the spare acting, direction, and visual style, the film plays more like a documentary than conventional horror, a style perfect for the material.
Being a 2001 film, the technology portrayed is obviously a bit dated; both CRT screens and modem tones are prevalent, and the computers have a distinct retro feel, making for a somewhat comic side note in what was obviously originally intended to be a modern looking production. But even with the dated technology, the film still sees very present and relevant. If anything, technology has proceeded rapidly toward increasing the isolation Kurosawa is commenting on in Pulse. And I should find something alive and non-electronic to talk to.Have You Read...?