Japan (2001) Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
We can blame the internet for many things but bringing about the end of the world? Actually, the way things are going at the moment, with hostility on social media and corruptive information available at a click, that might not be such a daft notion. Back in 2001 however, Kiyoshi Kurosawa already pondered this, at least as it pertains to Japan.
The staff of a small Tokyo garden centre is waiting on Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi) for the work he has been doing, but he hasn’t been seen or is answering his calls. Michi (Kumiko Aso) volunteers to drop in on Taguchi, finding an empty apartment. As she retrieves the needed computer disk, Taguchi appears from the shadows then disappears to another room where he has hung himself.
Meanwhile at a nearby college, Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) is logging on to the internet for the first time getting a message asking “Do you want to see a ghost?” then a series of bizarre images including a man with a black bag over his head and the words “help me” scrawled on the wall behind him. Ryosuke enlists the help of computer whiz Hanue (Koyuki) but this is a problem that runs beyond pixels and modems.
Pulse is somewhat prescient in using computers and the internet in giving tormenting spirits a new avenue through they can wreak havoc on the living world. It is hard not to detect a loose influence of the classic Ringu in this tale but unlike other directors, Kurosawa maintains a healthy distance for this to be superficial and nothing more.
Kurosawa’s creepy tale deals with loneliness and the false impression of connection and friendship that this new fangled tool of communication propagates as a major selling point, beyond the porn and illegal music downloads. But this is a subtle plot strand that reveals itself tacitly beneath the more pressing issue of the disturbing happenings on people’s computers.
In true ghost story fashion, there is a gnarly mystery to unravel as to why computers across Tokyo are hosting images that are scaring the bejesus out of everyone, and more worryingly, making them disappear. But Kurosawa already has a reputation for making figuring things out difficult, as his 1997 film Cure testifies, and the plot doesn’t just thicken, it is firmly encrusted even by the halfway mark.
Split into two concurrent stories, Michi stands out as the central protagonist of the saga revolving around Taguchi’s horrific suicide, but her co-workers Junko (Kurume Arisaka), Yabe (Masatoshi Matsuo) and their boss (Shun Sugata) are soon dragged into this, with Yabe the first to experience a supernatural presence when he finds a note reading “the forbidden room” at Taguchi’s place, after a receiving a phone call saying “help me”.
Yabe begins exhibiting insular behaviour at work, locking himself in the storage room, and the boss also starts to miss work, leaving Michi and Junko to hold things together. Adding further mystery is a woman Michi sees taping up a door with red tape, later to witness her commit suicide by jumping from the top of a silo in a particularly disturbing scene.
Elsewhere Ryosuke and Hanue are baffled by how Ryosuke’s computer keeps switching on despite being unplugged and showing the same eerie images spooking Ryosuke, but instead Hanue starts to feel gloomy and laments how empty her life is and fear she’ll die alone. While trying to keep her spirits up, Ryosuke is convinced by another student that restless spirits are slipping into the living world and offering people immortality, and with the number of people disappearing, they seem to be succeeding.
Over time, the computer aspect becomes incidental to the plot but integral in Kurosawa’s mission to bring horror to the real world through everyday objects and making them the root of our nightmares. Like Sadako would claim her victims through a cursed video tape, the supernatural stalkers here are using PCs to get theirs but they are not directly haunting them this way, instead they are using them to spread their message of gloom to achieve their goal.
In 2001 it probably wouldn’t seem like anything for us to take seriously but as suggested earlier, times have changed and the internet is as much a breeding ground for hatred and negativity as it is for information and connecting people. In the context of Pulse, this presage really works in hindsight as Kurosawa is more concerned with using the internet as a means to frighten the audience not lecture them.
At times this is a very spooky film, shot in natural light with a muted colour palette so almost every scene is bathed in intrusive and ominous shadows that aren’t specifically constructed for the shot. A recurring trick used to confuse the cast is to have the people they think they can see become a black stain on the wall, as if their eyes were playing tricks on them, but later in the film as one character perishes we see how the stains are created.
What prevents this film from being a truly effective horror is its glacial pacing and sparse use of tension. The mood ranges from melancholic to miserable without respite so the occasional scares are a respite from this murkiness instead of a shocking punctuation point. Two hours is a long time to subject an audience to such bleakness and frankly, I found myself caring less about the surviving cast as the film dragged on, even though one of them is the enchanting Kumiko Aso.
I can’t say that I disliked Pulse as Kurosawa is able to make a watchable silk purse out of a sow’s ear of despair and psychological trauma, but this was just a tad out of my reach compared to his other films. A slight trim off the run time and a bit more pep in its step and it would rate higher for me, but this maudlin chiller certainly makes for a profound viewing experience.