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Pulse (Kairo)

An Apocalyptic Supernatural Horror Flick Where the Apocalypse Happens Offscreen

The "J-Horror" (Japanese horror) cycle may have come and gone (at least in the United States), but American audiences are still playing catch up with previously unreleased entries in the genre. Kiyoshi Kurosawa wrote, directed, and released Pulse (Kairo) in 2001. Miramax acquired remake rights, but the remake never made it out of development, leaving the Kurosawa’s film to linger in distribution limbo. After the dissolution of Miramax, Magnolia Pictures picked up the distribution rights to Pulse. Trumpeted as one of the scariest films ever made (at least in the press notes), Pulse falls short of being a terrifying viewing experience, offering few shocks or jolts and depending, like the better known Ring cycle, on sound effects and murky visuals to create sporadically dread-inducing scenes. Unfortunately, Kurosawa decided to make an art-horror hybrid, one where metaphors are turned on their head, and ambiguity imbues almost every frame of film and plot development. For most viewers, watching Pulse will prove to be a singularly frustrating experience.

Pulse follows Michi Kudo (Kumiko Aso), a twenty-something employee at a flower shop/greenhouse and Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato), an economics student at a local university. Michi and Ryosuke are the protagonists of two, distinct storylines, with the characters meeting face-to-face only in the third act when their respective storylines merge accidentally. Michi's friend, Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi), has all but disappeared, refusing to answer his phone or come into work. He also has a computer disk Michi and her friends want. Another friend and co-worker, Toshio Yabe (Masatoshi Matsuo), decides to visit Taguchi's apartment. Arriving in mid-day, he finds a dark, underlit apartment and a curiously detached Taguchi. Taguchi wanders off into another room, only to commit suicide moments later, leaving only an ashy smudge on a wall as a reminder that he was once alive and a part of the "real" world.

Michi and her friends are understandably distressed by Taguchi's seemingly inexplicable decision to end his life. Toshio begins to look into the websites Taguchi frequented before he died. One website links to video images of solitary figures sitting or standing alone in their dimly lit apartments. Are the figures in the video images real? Are they transmissions from another plane of existence? It's unclear, but eventually Toshio enters a room sealed with red tape, the Forbidden Room. What he finds there sends him into a near catatonic state. Michi's other co-worker and friend, Junko Sasano (Kurume Arisaka) hopes to help Toshio recover, but he might be beyond help, and whatever supernatural force has somehow infected him might spread to Junko and Michi today.

In the parallel storyline, Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato), a surprisingly computer phobic student at an unnamed university, uploads new connectivity software to his computer. The software automatically connects him to the same websites witnessed by Taguchi and Toshio in the other storyline. Spooked by the video images, Ryosuke seeks out the help of a computer lab instructor, Harue Karasawa (Koyuki). Harue becomes immediately fascinated by Ryosuke's story, and actively seeks out the websites for herself. Ryosuke and Harue seem to share an unspoken attraction to one another, although both characters are, at least in part, defined by their loneliness.

As Michi and Ryosuke continue their separate investigations, the suicides and disappearances increase. A minor character is introduced in a library, presumably to provide Ryosuke with much-needed exposition. He suggests the disappearances are, in fact, connected to ghosts, ghosts that have passed through electronic equipment into our world (their finite world, apparently, is full). Why or how they can influence events in the real world is never explained and neither is how contact with the websites or the ghosts leads to suicidal depression or the literal fading from existence that befalls some characters. For the characters in Pulse, the afterlife is neither heaven nor hell, but instead eternal isolation and loneliness (the same condition the central characters suffer in the real world, but compounded to the n-th degree).

Kurosawa apparently wanted Pulse to both frighten his audiences (Pulse does, but only fitfully) and to make a statement about contemporary Japanese society and its over-reliance on modern technology. As one character ruefully, sadly suggests, online communities are inadequate substitutes for communities in the real world. The characters in Pulse fail to heed that warning, and their over-dependence on modern technology apparently seals their doom.

Isolated in the real world from one another, incapable of interpersonal communicating except at a rudimentary level, whatever supernatural horror slips or leaks through the telephone wires unnoticed (and when it is noticed, only a handful of survivors remain). If anything, the supernatural horror switches imperceptibly (because it happens offscreen) into apocalyptic horror. The apocalypse comes and goes, and few people are even aware it's happening (or happened).

Themes aside, most viewers will understandably expect or hope for the kinds of chills, scares, and the occasional dollop of gore provided by the better entries in the "J-horror" cycle, but Kurosawa's fondness for oblique, elliptical storytelling, characterized by minimal exposition and a slow, deliberate pace, will likely lead to a frustrating, sporadically engaging experience. Pulse could have benefited from a tighter running time, but it also could have benefited from clearer, cleaner exposition. Still, Pulse contains several visually striking scenes thanks, in large part, to Kurosawa's cinematographer, Junichiro Hayashi. Hayashi uses a muted color palette (and, most likely, digitally processed film) and chiaroscuro lighting to create multiple tableaux of Pulse's isolated characters, seemingly lost to the world and to themselves.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars