Pulse (2001) / Horror-Thriller
aka Kairo

MPAA Rated: R for some violent images
Running Time: 118 min.

Cast: Haruhiko Kato, Kumiko Aso, Koyuki, Kurume Arisaka, Masatoshi Matsuo, Shinji Takeda, Koji Yakusho
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenplay: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Review published August 19, 2006

Given that everyone reading this review is doing so through an internet connection, it's a safe bet that many of you know what it's like to lose a friend or family member to the cyber reality that the internet provides.  There was a time when I felt I lost my mother to it, and even as I type this, I feel like I've have friends that are lost to it.  Some of them never seem to have the time for me anymore since they would rather spend time with people they've never met, and may never meet, filling a void of loneliness that they haven't been able to fill in the "real world" through completely electronic means. 

There used to be a time when people would seek each other out in person out of loneliness, but electronic media like television, computers, and video games now provide virtual outlets of escape, allowing us all to pass the time feeling like we are connected to one another, when in fact, we are all in our own little rooms, lonely and melancholy. While we still exist in the real world, mostly because we have to go to work, we are, with increasing portions of our day, spending more time chatting, text messaging, conversing on our cell phones, or watching television than in actual human interaction. 

Most human voices we hear these days aren't even human at all; they are electronic facsimiles pumped through the speakers of our television, radio, mp3 players, or cell phones.  Many of us actually know people only in the digital form, and more and more people have more "friends" on the internet than they've actually met face to face.  When you actually try to do something with another real-life human being, you find they are always online, on the phone, or watching television, and when you ask them to do something, they claim to be busy.  They don't want human interaction, holing themselves up in their little rooms, completely pacified with the alternate reality that the internet and cell phones provide.  The saddest part comes when you, out of loneliness induced by losing all your friends to the cyber reality, are forced to do the same, just to have the semblance of human interaction.

Although it plays out like many of the rest of the J-horror films that have come out recently in Japan, Pulse is a bit more philosophical than most others, injecting social commentary underneath the creepy imagery and haunting scares.  Set in modern day Tokyo, the story begins with the apparent suicide of one member in a group of friends.  He wasn't alone in his suicide, as it appears that more are beginning to crop up around the city, all of them seemingly connected with disc that connects to a bizarre website that allows people to see and interact with ghosts.  All over town, people are sealing up rooms with red tape and killing themselves, although they still seem to exist among us in other forms.  It's up to the remaining survivors to try to stop the madness, or join them in death, where they might be lonely, but at least they won't be alone.

Kairo, released in the US and other countries as Pulse, is one of those kinds of films that will score a bull's-eye with some audiences out there, while completely missing others altogether.  I think that the more you've been exposed to the feeling of people dropping out around you to explore wholly electronic means of communications, the more you're going to relate to the metaphorical ghost story that writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Bright Future) richly provides.  Even if you don't connect with the main message, the film itself works in its own fashion, providing a great deal of haunting atmosphere, a few good scares, and a harrowing tale of trying to survive when the entire city, and perhaps the world, is rapidly being overtaken by the lonely ghosts.  It's weird, but the sooner you understand what the film is all about, the more you'll reap from the underlying themes.

I should caution viewers out there expecting a really scary, gory movie that Kairo is not a horror story in a slasher film sense.  It is filled with more slow and atmospheric scares, induced by a growing sense of unease, unpleasantness, and despair.   It never gives you a good jolt outright, but it does get under your skin so sufficiently, it may have you wishing it will just cut loose and release all of the built up tension.  That it's about a real-life problem with those that drop out of "real life" makes this even scarier.  No, you won't scream in your seat, but after it's over you'll have no end to the nights covered in cold sweat that the ghost world in Pulse is the nightmare we're actually living in today.

-- Remade in 2006 in the US as Pulse.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo