Updated: Oct 6, 2020
Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.
Pulse (aka Kairo) (2001, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
With guest reviewers Gemma Files and Brian O'Connell
JONATHAN RAAB: I have an uneven history with this film—I recall watching it a couple of times over the last ten years and not thinking much of it. It wasn’t until last year that I think I “got” it. It’s definitely a mood film—that is, I have to be in the right mood to watch it. It’s got a distinct, slow, and either calming- or anxiety-inducing vibe, depending on your outlook. I find a lot of J-Horror films to be slow and meditative, the perfect kinds of movies to put on when the skies are grey and overcast and the whole world seems to be on the verge of something wondrous, terrifying, or both. Pulse certainly feels apocalyptic in that sense, both in terms of its depiction of technological paradigm shifts and in the arrival of its ghostly invaders.
BRIAN O’CONNELL: “Apocalyptic” is right. I first saw Kairo in the middle of a mini J-horror binge I was attempting a year or two ago, and even then it stuck out to me as a weirder, trickier beast than its peers. This film is just saturated with despair in a way that differentiates it from something like Ju-On or Ringu. Even when it’s scary—and it can be quite scary—there’s this overbearing atmosphere of loss and loneliness, of a general mourning for the state of the world and the omnipresence of mortality. It’s like a funeral for human connection. I can only watch it infrequently, not just because of the alienating meditative atmosphere that you so accurately describe, but also because its head-on confrontation with existential angst is much more uncompromising and distressing than a lot of other horror movies even attempt. (Not to mention that its vision of apocalyptic isolation has acquired an extra-eerie resonance in the current climate.) This is emotionally hardcore stuff.
GEMMA FILES: “Funeral for human connection” is a really good way to put it, since the further away I get from it—Kairo was released in 2001, as the prologue’s modem-screech reminds you (not to mention how male lead Ryosuke has thus far managed to get away with being an Economics student who apparently knows shit-point-nothing about computers)—the more the film seems like Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s lament for a generation of Japanese young people who seem to have become completely cut off from every communal/tribal impulse that ever bound their ancestors together. They have no faith in anything, religious or otherwise (I still remember having a conversation with one of my film students, a dude from Tokyo, in which I had to point out to him that even if he and everybody he knew back home was an atheist, there could still possibly be a point to understanding A) that some other people weren’t and B) that they might actually make decisions on the basis of a shared mythology—he found risible and ridiculous, which might be something to keep in mind when deciding whether or not their actions “made any sense”), and they sure do seem to think about suicide an awful lot, to the point that Yabe’s first reaction to Taguchi hanging himself in the few minutes between cheerfully telling Michi her disk is somewhere on her desk and her coming back to ask him which one is literally: “Maybe he just suddenly wanted to die. I feel like that sometimes.”
They’re at least two generations from any notions of Japanese superiority, of the cult of the Emperor and a Japan that’s completely self-isolating, yet the spectre of Hiroshima still hangs heavy overtop everything they do, say or see; the stains left behind when ghosts appear or people disappear are part of it, half burn-scar and half black mould, but so is the increasing feeling of isolation, the empty streets and hallways, the almost complete lack of crowds in a city globally known for being anthill-crowded. People blunder around trying to avoid each other yet colliding anyhow and vanishing so slowly they leave a trail behind, just like dots in Harue and Yamazaki’s program. “In fact, ghosts and people are just the same,” Harue concludes, “alone forever before and after death. There’s no difference.”
And the true horror of this particular apocalypse is that it isn’t so much that ghosts are swapping places with people, the way I originally interpreted it… it’s that the underworld/afterlife has leaked out in such a way that the WORLD, LIFE, is simply becoming more of the same. A dark, odd, empty place inhabited by ghost-people and people-ghosts who are apparently just as out of phase with each other, just as unable to connect on any level, and they’re just milling around for the rest of eternity muttering (in garbled computerized modem-squeak): “Help me. Help me. Help me.”
BOC: That’s so insightful, Gemma. I hadn’t considered approaching this through a lens of Japanese history (beyond the clear synchrony of the black stains with Hiroshima and Nagasaki), but what you’re saying makes perfect sense. The latter comment particularly, about death becoming interchangeable with life: I think about the scene in the library, where a silhouetted woman passes behind Ryosuke, accompanied by an ominous aural cue. The film doesn’t address whether this woman is a ghost or a human being, but the manner in which she and other figures are presented—the living figures in the background becoming just as anonymous and menacing as the dead—suggests the difference no longer matters.
Of course Kairo is addressing anxieties particular to the Internet age in the M.R. Jamesian manner that J-horror tends to do so well, focusing specifically on the increasing atomization of individuals (especially young people) through this mediated network. But beyond technological, generational, or even cultural specifics, I think Kairo’s core concern is something much older and more constant: the general crisis of meaning, of living in a world where everything will ultimately vanish, a world seemingly defined by death. In that key scene you mentioned, Harue summarizes the dot program thus: “If two dots get too close, they die, but if they get too far apart, they’re drawn closer.” There it is in a nutshell: the tug and pull between intimacy and loneliness, the terror of forming an emotional bond with a person knowing that it will eventually be broken by loss. It’s like Michi’s boss says: connection (“a courageous choice”) always involves the risk of getting hurt, but isolation is its own unbearable prison.
The only one who seems impervious to this preoccupation with mortality is the charmingly indefatigable Ryosuke, a young man so assured in his “aliveness” that he literally “refuses to acknowledge death” and hopes for a drug that will prevent it—and he’s subjected to the cruelest twist of all. Indeed, whatever attitude or approach they have, all of these characters ultimately seem to be screwed. That’s what defines Kairo’s peculiar bleakness for me: these characters’ anguished flailing for connection, even as their world collapses around them. And obviously that’s a crisis more potent for this new generation who, as you said, have been isolated by the advent of the Internet and lack the communal ties once thought of as essential to emotional well-being.
I just want to take a moment to appreciate the visual discipline of the film: the images have clearly been very carefully considered and they work remarkably well. I love how the characters are often boxed off into restrictive frames-within-frames: doorways, windows, the cagey greenhouse structure where Michi and Junco work, and so on. The confining red tape, aside from just being really cool, is a very clever literal manifestation of those isolating techniques. And the ghost scenes are just note-perfect in their construction. I particularly love the female ghost Yabe encounters in the forbidden room, who silently approaches through the shadows beneath a wonderfully atmospheric blocky stone arch or staircase. Spine-tingling. What are some of the specific scenes or moments that stuck with you?
GF: Most of the ghost appearances just knock me out—that female ghost Yabe hides behind the couch from, in particular, is David Lynch-levels of wrong. Three other scenes I always come back to, though, are Michi almost missing the woman she previously saw coming out of her boss’s red-tape door (hair hanging to blur her face, as if she’s a ghost already) put her hands over her eyes and jump off the water tower, followed of course by that awful shot of the stain she left behind and her voice whispering “Help me” over it; the moment that we see a plane falling out of the sky and have just enough time to try and picture what might be happening inside it; and the scene with Ryosuke and Harue on the train, trying to get out of the city. It’s the absolute culmination of her breakdown and the death, to some degree, of his hope… like when the current runs out and the train stops, the force of life is overturned forever.
BOC: For me, the grimmest gut-punch is probably Junco’s death, not just because of how unsettling is—those black stains will never not be skin-crawling—but because of the sense of overwhelming sadness the moment is suffused with. Michi’s bereaved cries of “Don’t go!” as her friend dissolves into space…yikes! I feel the loss every time. Similarly, her imploring an almost catatonic Yabe to tell her what’s wrong, while he remains blank-faced and uncommunicative, set to melancholy strings—these moments rub me the wrong way in almost the same way as the more overtly frightening moments do.
I think that speaks to another important quality of Kairo, something that stops it from being a purely nihilistic statement (which wouldn’t be as scary): Kurosawa’s empathy for his characters. This movie truly cares for its protagonists, feels what they feel, and identifies with their plight. That frail little heart, always throbbing beneath the horror, makes the whole situation so much more terrible and painful than a more icily pessimistic approach would have. I actually believe that, despite its abject hopelessness, this is a deeply humanist film. What sticks out to me especially in this regard are the small moments of connection between individuals that occur in the later half. It might be something as simple and unremarkable as Ryosuke sharing his soda with Michi, or the twice-repeated visual of people leaning their heads on each other’s shoulders, but the film imbues these moments with a deeply tragic poignance: that each other’s all we really have, even if we’re doomed; the immense value these moments have, in spite of the doom. And the ending: the fact that, as Michi says, the surviving characters “choose to keep going, into the future”. The benevolent captain of the ship at the end continues to sail, despite knowing that the world is ending, despite the fact that everyone will ultimately be consumed, as the movie’s grimly inevitable final twist affirms. There’s a real human core there, despite the pessimism.
GF: I agree. Kurosawa is in no way agreeing with Harue’s thesis… to him, ghosts and people are different in that people really do yearn for connection, even though they don’t understand why or believe they’re going to get much out of it, whereas ghosts—yurei—are people, dead or alive, who’ve just totally given up on that idea. They’ve moved to a place where they just can’t believe in it anymore. It’s not just fatalism; it’s something deeper than that. Not even nihilism, so much, as—anti-life? I don’t know. And it’s not like it makes them happy, obviously; there’s nothing numinous about their surrender to this awful impulse, like the final moments of The Witch or the scene in which Lavinia embraces her transition, her translation into a Lovecraftian signal at the climax of The Color Out Of Space. It’s something that can’t be undone, and yet it’s so unsatisfying. It reflects their inability to enjoy life while they’re alive, or to recognize how precious it is, if only by comparison. And then they shrink into first a stain, then an echo of themselves, walking back and forth on a monitor, a fuzzy, phasing, stuttering pixelgeist.
JR: I’m willing to admit that I couldn’t quite follow the mechanics or logic of what was happening—how the red tape was effective or not, what the ghosts really wanted, suicide-as-contagion, whether the theory on the afterlife spilling over was more than a hypothesis. I prefer to keep the how of the story muddled, because the film works better if the characters are struggling to project meaning onto circumstances that defy meaning and reason, and if those circumstances are simply death and despair with a supernatural-technological mask.
I love films that deal with old or outdated technology. Modem-screech, primitive screensavers, big, bulky monitors, low-res cell phone images (which were forward-thinking at the time this movie was made!), pixelated ghost/suicide imagery, a jungle of wires and computer towers in Harue’s lab… I know that at the time this was all cutting edge, with social media and digital communication beginning its slow crawl to consume our lives, but I can’t help but feel that the ghosts using what we now see as outdated tech has a certain resonance, to amplify the theme of the ghosts of the past reaching out to us with their despair.
The film’s unspoken message—that technology will drive us further apart, into true loneliness—is of course more powerful today than it was in 2001.
BOC: Absolutely. I’m still somewhat baffled by the exact nature of the “invasion” myself, what it has to do with computers specifically, whatever mechanisms trigger it, and so on. But it’s clear—as you said at the top of this piece—that Kurosawa’s concerns lie less with the plot and more with the mood. And in that sense I think it succeeds very well at capturing the texture of modern angst, clustered in that grungy atmosphere of early 2000s technoterror you evoke in your description. In that way, it’s almost a document of its time as much as a horror film—seeing the janky computers and the awkward discs was nostalgic for my father, utterly alien for me. (Makes me wonder what Kairo would look like today, in the age of the bot or the troll: real-life manifestations of its anonymous, terrorizing internet specters.)
GF: This is something I absolutely love about horror that’s based in another culture–the sense that there will always be an aspect (or several) of the narrative which defies comprehension/translation. It’s one of the reasons that Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s work epitomizes my own personal sense of the Weird in cinema, and if audiences pick up nothing else from viewing Kairo, I hope the experience manages to give them a momentary taste for that particular thrill. If (as so many people maintain) explanations are horror’s kryptonite, the fact that most Western viewers literally can’t read the writing on the wall in films like this one is a feature, not a bug. So immerse yourself in it, and see where it takes you.
Gemma Files has been an award-winning horror author since 1999, and is probably best known for her novel Experimental Film, which won both the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2016 Sunburst Award for Best Adult Novel. She is also a film critic, a screenwriter, a teacher and a mother.
Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.