Arrow Video: Pulse (2001) - Reviewed

In the pantheon of modern Japanese horror directors of the new millennia dabbling in the now aptly named J-Horror subgenre dealing with superstition, the supernatural or the just plain violent slasher thriller, directors such as Hideo Nakata with Ringu, Takashi Shimizu with Ju-On and Takashi Miike with Audition carved out their niche in world cinema as formidable purveyors of the macabre with an emphasis on Kabuki and noh theater acting.  Often characterized by slow moving long haired ghostly entities slowly moving towards the camera, J-horror is decidedly less dependent on jump scares, instead evoking existential dread with notions of the uncanny slowly creeping into the viewer’s comfort zone. 

Most of these are sheer visceral thrills while others seem steeped in folklore.  They also have an obvious grip on Western horror audiences, as many of these films saw theatrical releases overseas as well as a bevy of vastly inferior English language remakes.  After already experiencing the likes of Onibaba, Jigoku and Kwaidan and recently seeing Three Extremes in a rare theatrical booking, it was only a matter of time before what is probably the single greatest Japanese horror film of our modern age would finally make it’s splash in US theaters: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse.  Though it only played for one week in 35mm at the Main Art Theater, the impression it’s corroded, grainy and desaturated images left on me seared themselves into my psyche for all time.

Originally titled Kairo (Circuit) in 2001 before spawning a forgettable 2006 English language remake, Kurosawa’s apocalyptic and disturbing tale of the spirit dimension spilling over into the real world via the internet and social media while threatening to eradicate mankind from the face of the Earth is a sustained waking nightmare of choking existential horror.  Pushing heavily beyond old fashioned thriller chiller scares into an abyss of loneliness and despair that only plunges further into Hell before you or the characters realize how far you’ve sunk, Kurosawa’s vision of an overcast, decaying and increasingly isolated Japan is that rare beast of Japanese horror with the capacity to make one’s hair stand on end just thinking about it.  

Divided into two disparate chapters which gradually converge over the course of the movie, Michi (Kumiko Aso) and Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) will inevitably cross paths as a mysterious internet virus akin to a hacker slowly creeps out of the confines of their network terminals before friends and family begin disappearing into shadows on the walls beside mysterious doors covered in red masking tape.  The logic of the story doesn’t always make complete sense but then again we only know as much as these poor souls trapped in a world slowly going to Hell.

Much like the Japanese director’s equally unnerving and apocalyptic Cure, the film portrays a Japan in ruin where people go about their lives one minute before dying a shocking and horrible death the next in the blink of an eye.  Thanks to Junichiro Hayashi’s bleak and moody cinematography, equally downbeat score by Takefumi Haketa, Pulse is a film that doesn’t aim for loud jump scares or screams but rather a slow, gradual burn into your soul which will only make you sink into your seat as you’re watching the horrors unfold. 

As a social critique, Pulse predicted the divisive and often destructive grip of social media communication more than a decade before programs such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter took hold of the world at large.  The idea of technology inadvertently opening a gateway into the underworld, ala science gone awry, is a timeless one, but I can’t think of another film that so accurately reflects the increasing loneliness exacerbated by social media than this one.  What’s more, Kurosawa’s film seems to suggest we aren’t headed towards our own demise so much as we’re already there without realizing the pit of our making we’ve trapped ourselves in. 

Even if you come away from Pulse feeling Kurosawa’s fable doesn’t always achieve logical clarity, there’s no denying the series of abstract visceral Kabuki-like images of ghostly figures slowly careening towards the camera in a demonic fashion will affect your ability to sleep at night.  Thematically however, what Pulse means to say about Japan’s social state in the wake of technological advancement is as plain as day.  As a horror film, Pulse doesn’t offer up the typical fun slumber party spooky chills but hard and uncompromising horrors concerning mankind’s own dependence on the world wide web and how that very labyrinthine alternate universe ultimately can and likely will only further alienation rather than unification.  There aren’t many Japanese horror films out there with the ability to scare the Hell out of you while leaving you with much to ponder well after the end credits have rolled.  What’s more, the moment you begin to reflect on Kurosawa’s film and what it means for our social media driven culture today is arguably when the real horror begins.

- Andrew Kotwicki