The impersonality of modern society can lead some people to feel absolutely alone even when they are in the midst of a crowd. Writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa infuses this idea into his super creepy and disturbing modern horror tale Pulse (Kairo) (2001). Visitors to a mysterious website find themselves haunted by shadowy figures and subsequently lose the will to live. Can a group of young people find out what is happening before they end up dead – or worse? Kurosawa and his cinematographer, Jun’ichirÃ´ Hayashi, use light and shadow masterfully, daring the audience to search the background for things they do not want to see. The filmmakers use long, slow takes that fill the film with creepiness and dread. While there are plenty of visceral thrills in the film, the most disturbing aspects come back to the story’s theme of loneliness and isolation. Pulse is a truly terrifying film that stays with its audience well after it is over.
Michi Kudo (Kumiko AsÃ´) and her friends/co-workers Junko (Kurume Arisaka) and Yabe (Masatoshi Matsuo) are worried that they have not heard from their friend Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi). He is looking into a mysterious computer disk, but he has been out of touch for several days. Michi goes by to check on him, and he seems a little distant. While she is looking for the disk on his desk, Taguchi calmly goes into the other room and hangs himself. On the disk, Michi and her friends find an odd photograph of Taguchi staring emptily at a mysterious website on his computer. Meanwhile, an economics student, Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko KatÃ´) signs up with an unusual Internet service provider. After logging in, he is greeted with the question “Do you want to see a ghost” and is presented with images similar to the one Michi and her friends found on the disk. Even worse, it seems the website is now connecting to his computer on its own. Ryosuke goes to the school’s computer lab and enlisted the aid of the lab assistant, Harue Karasawa (Koyuki). As the story progresses, both groups find themselves stumbling across a room sealed with red tape – the Forbidden Room from the mysterious website. Encounters with shadowy, ghost-like figures and mysterious, oily stains leave those affected with a sense of despair. Can they piece together what is going on before they all go insane, die, or simply withdraw to the point of vanishing from society?
The use of light, shadow, foreground, and background action in Pulse is nothing short of exquisite. Kurosawa and cinematographer Hayashi expertly direct the audience’s attention exactly where they want it. In numerous scenes, the main characters are in the foreground, but ominous events and elements are lurking in the background. There is one standout scene where one of the characters is walking down the street while, in the background, a figure calmly climbs an industrial silo preparing to jump to their doom. At that point, the focus shifts ever-so-slightly to draw the audience’s eye to the background action just as the foreground character also realizes something is going on behind them. Viewers find their eyes drawn to dark corners, looking for things that may or may not be there. The filmmakers often keep figures’ faces in shadows, making it hard for the other characters and the audience to discern if they are “real” or one of the shadowy ghosts until it is too late.
The mundane is where much of the horror hides in Pulse. Kurosawa takes simple elements – shadows, grease stains, modems, red tape – and uses them to craft some of the most horrifying scenes of the era. The ghosts of the film are shadowy figures that haunt the background. When they do approach, they do so slowly and are all the more terrifying for it. For example, when one of the characters enters the red-taped Forbidden Room, they run across one such figure. As it comes towards them, its gate is slow and steady. Kurosawa keeps the figures face hidden in the shadows except for one brief moment where it slowly dips down into the light before straightening up again. The face itself is not all that horrific, but it is extremely frightening in the context of the film. Kurosawa lets the camera linger on scenes, building the anticipation and sense of dread. He is in no rush to “get to the action.” Instead, he lets the fear build for the characters and the audience. This is not a film with jump scares – it is a film with slowly-building, soul-crushing terror. By the end of the story, the horror, while still feeling personal, evolves from one of the creeping fear of death to the existential dread of being eternally alone.
Pulse’s central theme is that of loneliness and isolation in the modern world. Kurosawa has the ghosts spread via the Internet to reinforce this idea that something that is meant to bring people together actually can isolate them from others. The characters begin as groups of friends, but they are drawn apart by the events of the film. Even when they make new connections, those relationships are threatened by outside forces. Kurosawa sets the action in the crowded city of Tokyo, but it feels sparsely populated, further making his point about the detached nature of modern society. Much of the action takes place in empty apartment buildings and abandoned factories. This ties into the theme of empty and abandoned people. As the film goes on, the city becomes increasingly devoid of residents. By the end, Tokyo feels as abandoned as Danny Boyle’s London in 28 Days Later (2002). The horror of being alone goes from being abstract to literal, making the audience truly feel the fear the characters are experiencing.
Writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is not related to famed director Akira Kurosawa, but Pulse shows that he is a powerful director in his own right. The use of light and shadow in the film is amazing, forcing the audience to look where they do not want to, for fear of seeing something they do not want to see. Jump scares are not needed, as the long, slow takes in Pulse prove to be truly terror-inducing. Viewers will quickly walk past dimly lit rooms well after watching the film. Even more horrifying than the slow, shadowy specters is the existential dread that the film generates as it asks the question “Can we ever truly connect with others, or are we doomed to be always alone?” Frightening, disturbing, and thought-provoking, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse is a classic horror tale that does not let go of its audience even after it is over.
Pulse (Kairo) (2001) (4.8 / 5)