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Halloween Review: Pulse (2001)

The first shot of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film Pulse (aka Kairo) involves a woman standing with her back to us. She is on a ferry, watching the grey horizon, her face obscured by her dark hair. She is isolated in a world with an unknowable, unforeseen future awaiting her. Pulse is certainly one of the most unique of Japanese horror films, though carries familiar tropes of haunted technology, unknown supernatural threats, and a hard look at Japanese culture. It is told with often unsettling dread, murky cinematography, and a setting dominated by a smothering sense of loneliness.

The basic premise about ghosts from the internet may sound silly, but more recent films such as Unfriended have tried it with moderate success. The horror genre is no stranger to using technology as a source of terror, such as Ring, One Missed Call, The Blair Witch Project, and Shutter. Pulse is about is perpetual loneliness in society, the isolation and sorrow caused by the inability or unwillingness to connect with others – be it personally or online. There is a heavy handed message about the dangers of the internet, but also focuses on the disconnected youth in Japan at the time. It can be surprisingly relatable in this decade of social isolation, reliance on technology, and worldwide lockdowns.

The film has two separate storylines that eventually cross paths in the third act. The first is about Michi Kudo (Kumiko Aso), who works at a plant nursery, along with her colleagues Junko (Kurume Arisaka) and Yabe (Masatoshi Matsuo). Their other colleague Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi) has been absent for a week, but is meant to provide crucial data via a good old floppy disk. Michi offers to go to Taguchi’s dingy flat to the disk up. Her journey is a lonely, eerily isolated one. For living in the world’s busiest city, it sure feels empty, often filmed in wide shots of deserted streets and buildings.

There is immediately something amiss when Michi enters Taguchi’s apartment, which is dark, messy, and dedicated mostly to computers. After a brief interaction, Michi searches for the disk, whilst the  Taguchi wanders out of view. Michi rounds a corner, discovering Taguchi has hung himself. The scene is long, drawn out, and made more unnerving by the intended visual camera distortions. There are unnatural, computerized noises surrounding Taguchi, who may have not even been alive when Michi spoke to him.

Though shaken, Michi and co. look at the floppy disk’s files, leading them to a strange website, depicting a still image of Taguchi’s apartment, where he stands off to the side, whilst his computer features an infinite print screen of the room. Yabe then receives a call from Taguchi’s number, hearing a robotic voice repeatedly asking for help.

In mirrored shots, Yabe goes to Taguchi’s apartment at night, finding a black stain on the wall where Taguchi died. He finds a piece of paper titled “The Forbidden Room”. When Yabe goes to leave, he turns the light back on and runs into Taguchi’s ghost.

Yabe flees the building, but spots a door covered in red tape – the forbidden room. Removing the tape, Yabe goes inside and is confronted by a woman’s ghost, a distorted figure in black who slowly approaches him. There is no maliciousness or desire for blood, just a shifting ghost who terrifies Yabe, reducing him to a similar state like Taguchi. He too soon grows depressed and disappears, Michi finding a black mark in his home. She further spots a neighbour taping up a door, and then witnesses her suicide the next day by leaping off a factory’s roof, in a scene shot straight from a Hitchcock film.

This haunting begins to affect the characters one-by-one, until it is revealed most simply disappear by disintegrating into a black smudge, consumed by their loneliness and despair. Why is this happening and who is responsible? Such explanations (or theories) are reserved for the other storyline.

Ryunosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) is a university student who does not understand computers, struggling to set up the internet in his flat. He soon is connected to the website, showing disturbing imagery, and turns Ryunosuke’s computer on in the middle of the night. He goes to the university’s computer faculty for help, meeting the peppy Harue Karasawa (Koyuki Kato), who tries to help him understand the technical side of his computer whilst they both bond.

Ryunosuke later meets Yoshizaki (Shinji Takeda), a grad student, who offers his own hypothesis on what is happening. In short, the afterlife ran out of room, the dead are truly alone, and they have used the internet to breach the real world. Not necessarily to haunt others, but to reach out for a connection. The revelation that death is just as lonely as life causes the characters to kill themselves or die, leaving black marks behind to symbolise their loneliness. Those taping up the doors are likely trying to prevent the ghosts from spreading, but are dying regardless.

Harue soon begins to act strangely after telling Ryunosuke of her belief that death is an isolating experience, which he dismisses uncomfortably. They try to run away together, but Harue returns home and disappears. This leads Michi and Ryunosuke to meet and search for answers, or a way to survive this rising threat.

Pulse’s themes draw from Japan’s socio-economic situation at the time. In the late 1980s, the country’s stock market crashed, leading to the “Lost Decade”, a period which weighed heavily on the youth. Being told to study hard to get good grades for a stable job, only to find your future in tatters would leave anyone despondent. This led to a rise in delinquency and suicide, which are both get thematic focus in Battle Royale and Suicide Club.

All of the characters are shown to live in cramped, dingy apartments, have low paying jobs, and live in increasing isolation. No one shares a house, or even lives with family. Michi has a scene with her mother, but disregards her offerings for help. Later, she tries calling her mother, but receives no answer, heading off to find her. The film is not only about loneliness, but the loss of everyday commodities and relationships, such as Michi’s case with her mother. Harue describes her family as “irrelevant”, whilst Michi is rather calm when she talks to Ryunosuke about her mother’s disappearance.

Loneliness hangs over the film in a harrowing, intrusive way, often framed through the use of dull lighting and wide shots showing empty streets, buses, and buildings. Each character is lonely in their own ways. We rarely see background characters, and those in bit parts soon vanish. By the third act, all of Tokyo, if not Japan, is being consumed by this very depressing haunting. It is a very unique take on a supernatural event, not to mention the apocalyptic fate that presumably awaits the world.

The film was, of course, remade into an American film starring Kristen Bell, but it was an incomprehensive mess that lacked everything that makes Pulse good. Relying entirely on jump scares does not make for an effective horror movie.

The Japanese film can sometimes be its own enemy, being a bit hard to follow, whilst its political commentary is both on-the-nose and complicated. Regardless, it is a very refreshing take on a ghost story, and has plenty of unnerving moments.

What are your thoughts on Pulse? Does using technology as a source of fear work in horror films? Leave a comment below, or on our Twitter feed.

About the author

Mark Russell