Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Cast: Kumiko Aso (as Michi Kudo); Haruhiko Kato (as Ryosuke Kawashima); Koyuki (as Harue Karasawa); Kurume Arisaka (as Junko Sasano); Masatoshi Matsuo (as Toshio Yabe)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #36
After witnessing so many horror films with constant, badly done jump scares and bombastic music ruining the tension, there's what would be an absolutely breathtaking change for me to see Pulse again, and how meditative in mood it is in vast contrast to other horror films from the time, if it wasn't inherently more disturbing here for me. Where in having a ghost merely appear onscreen and wait patiently in the background, or a phone call where the words "Help me" is spoken in the politest way is heard has more fear to it because it represents a sense that the ghosts have no need to chase people, merely to haunt them. Neither is it a fake sense of time of the first Paranormal Activity (2007), which fast forwarded to the scare between shots of people sleeping, but a prolonged sense of time passing where you have to wait and feel the scenes completely. Quite soon into Pulse ghosts or supernatural sights constantly appear but the ethereal pace makes it acceptable, the hauntings unsettling more having to feel the length of scenes continue over longer than in other horror films.
Pulse's plot is quite an expressionist one as it goes along, adding to this nature, where the cause of the ghosts infecting the real world is clear (the internet) but the implications are wider and more difficult for us and the characters to understand. About the internet becoming possessed by the ghosts of the dead, causing people to commit suicide and others to simply disappears on mass, the events of Pulse are vague with a deliberate obscurity with two separate protagonists having rationalise a strange apocalyptic circumstance. Kudo Michi (Kumiko Aso), who is unfortunate to have discovered a friend's body after he's hung himself, who with her friends investigates a computer program he had only to be pulled into the increasingly paranormal occurrences taking place in Tokyo around them. Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato), a laidback economics student who naively invests into learning how to access the internet, only for his computer to become possessed, turning on and off through its own will and taking him to a site with a person with a black bag over their head and asking if he would like to meet a ghost. The resulting narrative leaves a great deal to be guessed, from titbits brought in as events become worse and the population starts to vanish leaving empty streets.
Mythology of rooms barricaded with red construction appear where, if entered, leads to the witnesses to be doomed, playing on the idea of temptation as these rooms start to appear in greater numbers, naturally in areas isolated that would normally never be of interest except for the visceral colour of red tape, a bold colour in a film with an exceptionally (and intentionally) dank palette. The notion of death is unsettling in this film in general where the victims eventually become a mere black stain where they vanish or killed themselves, whilst screens on computers show apparitions in their rooms flickering in and out of reality in utter isolation, a disturbing sense of despair felt throughout as these figures and victims connect by the internet but are stuck in their own hells asking for help. Pulse is even able to get away with a exposition dump in the middle of its running time as a result, from a character only seen a few times, who explains the afterlife has ran out of room for the dead and they've spilt into the living world, because its merely a potential reason for the seismic events happening, two characters eventually left to follow as they're stuck with witnessing the end taking place not with a bang but with a whimper. The result is more troubling and disturbing in what is not witnessed, and also in what is merely matter-of-fact. The most disturbing moment of the film is not a chase scene or blood being split, but a character witnessing a ghost the other side of a claustrophobic room appear in a vague form, like a memory fading, only for them to be able to be touched, and to be able to stare someone down with clearly defined eyes and rationally tell them of their reality.
The metaphors of computers alienating people is openly discussed, a character calling the connection between people online a fallacy. What's more clearer now the computer technology shown is vastly outdated is a greater sense of general ennui about post-post-modernism, the moment after the Millennium as digital technology advanced where a sense of great disconnect from other people would be felt more. Considering how the image of Japan as a technology hub is actually more complicated than Westerners may presume - cutting edge technological advances but barring mobile phones many people having never used a computer still - - there's a greater emotional register where modern life and how it drains people becomes literal, becoming black ash as they feel the only emotionally connection in their lives to the undead and their invisible eyes, cameras showing people on their own computer screens from behind that are entirely invisible to us the viewer when one such victim cradles it lovingly.
The aesthetic look is vital for this, great and naturally lit drab urban centres and places where, even in the open, the lifelessness before people vanish is suffocating. A once full amusement arcade, for example, when its empty is a place of machines, from a Street Fighter II cabinet to coin games, merely making noise and bright colours without need for human figures to play them, useless in context of no one being within the environment. As with another Japanese work from the same era, the animated series Serial Experiment Lain (1998) where computers are giant room consuming entities where people can literally enter the internet through, the basic metaphors can be amplified for a more profound notion of the anxieties people had for centuries of disconnect enforced even more now people can communicate through wireless tech without being in the same room. The sense of bleakness is felt through the atmosphere of the almost grey or white rooms and industrial warehouses of the world around the characters, adding a greater sense of a complete lack of connection between people which takes on apocalyptic implications.
The apocalyptic notion is briefly seen near the end, empty streets and a burn-out car minimalist examples, the mere snippets enough to affect the viewer. The only real flaw with Kurosawa's perfectly disturbing work is the early use of CGI, mainly for one single moment near the end of a burning airplane falling out of the sky, a little blemish on a film whose elusive nature is not necessarily obtuse but a lingering, palpable sense of dread matched by uncomfortable scares which drag out. The rest is more carefully put together - the ghost boy inexplicably found in a library who merely stands and looks from a corner of an aisle, a chair or two following a person in a computer room, a ghostly woman tripping and regaining her balance to go after someone slowly in mere strides - little details which become more terrifying as the ghosts are not interested in pursuing their victims or being frantic, but merely appearing anything and effecting a person in their mere prescience. Pulse as a result is a horror film of a great, terrible future as depict in a carefully controlled, quiet fright.