“Ghosts and People Are the Same”: The Cyber-Limbo of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ‘Pulse’ (2001)

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Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (2001) is an important part of a wave of dark films that began appearing during the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, which collectively set Japanese Horror (or J-Horror) apart in world cinema. The trend began with Kurosawa’s earlier film Cure (1997), then continued with Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998), Sion Sono’s Suicide Club (2001), and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On (2002). J-Horror is distinct from the kind of shock films created during the same period by the likes of Kinji Fukusaka (Battle Royale, 2000) and Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer, 2001). Unlike the latter two films, which rely on extreme violence, J-Horror depends mostly on the paranormal for inspiration.

In one respect, Kurosawa’s Pulse (titled Kairo, “Chaos,” in Japan) is a modern example of the Japanese tradition of ghost stories or Kaidan-shū, which go all the way back to the earliest stages of the Edo Period (17th century). In terms of cinema, Pulse is preceded by such superlative films as Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953) and Kaneto Shindô’s Onibaba (1964). In another respect, Pulse is reflective of Japanese society at the end of the 20th century, which is affected less by westernized notions of the millennium and more by its own “Lost Decade” or Ushinawareta Jūnen. In the case of the parallel stories of “Michi Kudo” (Kumiko Asô) and “Ryosuke Kawashima” (Haruhiko Katô) they are confronted with a shadowy world of lonely spirits, who have found a portal into this world through the internet. Indeed, what appears at first to be isolated events turns into a global crisis.

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What is most startling about the world of the dead that is occupying various computer screens is that each case is the result of a suicide, whose ghostly aftermath leaves them in a “forbidden room” from which they plead for help. Most terrifying of all is the fact that the world of the dead is beginning to infect and transform the world of the living. Once exposed to the forces contained in the forbidden room, victims soon lose their will to live, either killing themselves or just as often turning into blackened silhouettes painted into the walls and floors where they were last seen alive. In spite of efforts to warn people away from the forbidden rooms by sealing the doors with red tape, the attractive force of that world continues to lure people into it, even causing one unnamed woman to plummet to her death in one of the more disturbing, not to mention memorable, scenes in cinematic history.

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The effectiveness of Kurosawa’s film is that it refrains from either becoming preachy about the ills of society  or explaining too much about what is happening. In fact, very little is explained at all beyond the speculation of some of the characters, all of whom are ultimately at a loss about what to do.  For Michi and Ryosuke, all they can do is worry about their friends, be they “Toshio Yabe” (Masatoshi Matsuo) and “Junko Sasano” (Kurume Arisaka) for Michi or “Harue Karasawa” (Koyuki) for Ryosuke, trying however they can to save them from a force that is overtaking all of existence—like a web of darkness.

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