Movie Discussion: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse [Kairo] (2001)

  • Monthly Theme: Highbrow/LowbrowKairo_Japanese_film_poster
  • The Film: Pulse
  • Japanese title: Kairo
  • Country of origin: Japan
  • Date of Japanese release: February 10, 2001
  • Date of U.S. release: November 9, 2005
  • Studio: Daiei Eiga, Hakuhodo & Imagica
  • Distributer: Toho Company/Magnolia Pictures
  • Domestic Gross: $51,000
  • Budget: ?
  • Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
  • Producer: Yasuyoshi Tokuma, et al.
  • Screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematographer: Jun’ichirô Hayashi
  • Make-Up/FX: Shûji Asano & Masaru Tateishi
  • Music: Takefumi Haketa
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? Yes.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Genre character actor Kôji Yakusho (Cure, Doppelganger, etc.).
  • Other notables?: No.
  • Awards?: Best Actress [Kumiko Asô] at the 2002 Japanese Professional Movie Awards. José Luis Guarner Critics’ Award at the 2001 Sitges-Catalonian International Film Festival.
  • Tagline: “Do you want to meet a ghost?”
  • The Lowdown: Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) spent about 10 years making low-budget and direct-to-video pinkies and yakuza pictures in Japan before he won a scholarship to the Sundance Institute in the early 1990s. He then rose to prominence making a series of intellectually and aesthetically rich (if methodical) horror movies, starting with Cure in 1997. Kurosawa’s movies test the limits of what defines “horror,” as his films are highly meditative and richly visual in the manner of Kubrick, Ozu, Tarkovsky and Bergman. Pulse is a fine distillation of Kurosawa’s personal style – apocalyptic imagery, long takes, minimal dialogue and a philosophical approach to horror that is as existential as it is macabre. The movie concerns some young adults who begin to experience strange phenomena and ghostly apparitions connected to the Internet, and more specifically with a website known only as “The Forbidden Room.”

If you haven’t seen Pulse our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: Upon finishing this movie you had one comment and one comment only: “Well, now I’m depressed.”

Kristine: Yeah. I didn’t really get into Pulse, other than being made despondent and depressed by it.

The graffiti in the background reads: “Attention, the ’90s are over.”

Sean: My boyfriend has a hypothesis that when people are in a down or depressed time in their lives, it is easier to watch sad or depressing media because it reminds the viewer that things could be way worse. Like for him, watching Requiem for a Dream or Dancer in the Dark when he’s depressed makes him feel better because it matches his black mood and reminds him that life is full of infinite sadness, which is comforting. He says he would never want to watch anything joyful, fun or inspiring when he’s sad because it would just make him feel worse. Does this outlook hold any water with you?

Kristine: If have to say no. Sad-making things just make me feel sadder when I’ve all ready got the blues. I need infusions of joy and hope from my media at such moments.

Sean: I’m going to phrase this delicately: Was the movie’s sensibility just too Japanese and alien to our own experience? I’m just wondering if the “foreign-ness” of the movie exacerbated any problems you may have had with it. I know for me, some foreign films feel so culturally unfamiliar that it’s hard for me to find any way into them. I remember going to The Loft to see Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon back in the 1990s and just being overwhelmed and alienated by how every sight, sound and cadence of the movie felt unfamiliar and (to me at the time) alienating.

Kristine: I don’t know. I’m no stranger to watching foreign movies – or more specifically, Japanese movies. I would call myself just a fan of cinema across the board, but to put it in the context of the blog, we’ve watched around 20 different foreign language films for Girl Meets Freak and it’s never been an issue. My problem is with the movie itself, which I just didn’t feel a connection with, rather than the cultural sensibility that created it. I mean, there were a couple of things within the movie that struck a chord with me, but the rest just gave me the doldrums.

Sean: What were the couple of things?

So You Think You Can Haunt

Kristine: I found the image of the striding ghost woman in black that loses her balance as she walks to be unnerving and amazing. In fact, I think she is one of the scariest individual images I have seen in the history of horror movie club. The stilted, unnatural way she walks combined with that spookhouse music was super haunting. It reminded me a lot of classic David Lynch, like the Mystery Man from Lost Highway or the thing behind the dumpster in Mulholland Drive.

Sean: It is a very Lynchian movie, especially that sequence in particular. Figures appear out of nowhere with little explanation, and the everyday takes on the qualities of the surreal. But the music was crazy. Was it Inuit throat singing or something? Or some kind of spectral Noh performance?

Kristine: A lot of the music in the movie reminded me of old-timey melodrama.

Sean: And weird old foreign art movies.

Kristine: Yes. If you woke up in the middle of the night and that lady was walking towards you, what would you do?

Sean: Pull her skirt up over her head so everyone could see her chonies.

Kristine: Ugh, whatever. But I also found the visual motif of the doorways taped off in red to be very striking and scary. Thy reminded me of how doorways would be branded with yellow stars to denote Jewish households in Nazi Germany, and other forms of quarantine notification. It was smart because it was a simple detail that connected to a whole history of symbols… All the scenes of people taping off their doorways with the red tape really moved me.

Nobody puts Michi in the corner

Sean: Yeah, the movie plays around with all kinds of plague imagery and imagines this very deep form of ennui as a metaphysical contagion. The genre-bending the movie engages in – blending the conventions of the ghost story, the plague narrative, the post-apocalypse – is one of my favorite things about it.

Kristine: Lastly, some of the images of the “haunted” and depressed people on computer screens were scary and transfixing. But other than those things, I wasn’t affected much by this movie. I guess I found it very uneven.

Sean: Go on….

Kristine: I was just like, “I’m sorry you all have the sads.” That’s it. I didn’t connect with any individual characters and thus, I didn’t feel very invested in their fates. I had a vague feeling of pity for them, but not real emotions.

Sean: I mean, this movie came out in 2001, pre-Gawker, pre-Dlisted (two of your favorite sites). It was about how scary dial-up connections are. I wonder if your reaction to this movie would have been different in 2001 when the Internet was “new” and this kind of millennial anxiety over what it all meant wouldn’t seem so dated.  Looking at this movie in 2013, I think the film’s implicit critique of the Internet feels a little reactionary and silly. I wonder if Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the director, would consider himself a bit of a Luddite or not. Of course we’re still having ongoing debates over whether things like Facebook and Reddit and Twitter erode the social fabric, but those debates seem sillier with every year that goes by, no? Kurosawa’s vision of an Internet space full of lost, depressed saddies might just be too dated.

Pauley Perrette’s prom photo

Kristine: Perhaps. I did think the computer dialing up by itself was spooky. The idea of technology that begins to function or act “on its own” is a legitimately scary horror movie concept, I think. And I do respect the philosophical bent of this film. I think the movie does something clever in how it ties this brand new (in 2001) space of the Internet, which is a “space” but a theoretical one (or at least one we can’t touch or feel or interact with in immediate sensory ways) and the afterlife, which is another “space” that we theorize about and wish to engage with directly, but which we cannot. Equating the longing of people logging into chatrooms to make friends or meet lovers with the longing of the living yearning to understand death and what happens to people when they die is a cool idea. The movie’s basic conceit, that both those spaces are blurred together, is kind of great. But I don’t think the movie either articulates that dilemma well enough or explores it interestingly enough. Like I can conceptually grasp some of what the movie is about, but I guess I didn’t totally understand what the movie was really doing or trying to say about any of this stuff.

Sean: What do you mean?

Kristine: I get the alienated Internet users and how the movie is trying to make some kind of commentary about the effects of new technology on people’s lives. But by the end of the movie the world has fallen apart and it’s this post-apocalyptic environment. How exactly did the “contagion” spread? In 2001 the Internet was new enough that a significant part of the population wouldn’t be online yet. I don’t get how the ennui spreads from the saddie Internet users to, like, everyone in Japan and the rest of the world.

Sean: Well, remember when one character talks about how the land of the dead has filled to capacity, and now the souls of the dead have nowhere to go?

Movie to twentysomethings: You’re sad and it’s boring.

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: Well, my understanding is that encountering one of those lost souls puts “the sads” into people, that the existential weight of even witnessing them leads to dissolution. So there’s some epistemological horror at the root of the phenomenon. If you know of the spirits, then that knowledge begins to eat away at you. Or perhaps it’s phenomenological. Either way, it is experience with or knowing of the ghosts that eats away at you.

Kristine: And the Internet is the portal by which they enter our world?

Sean: That’s my understanding, though I think there’s also some causal relationship between the Internet and the ghosts. It seems like the existence of the Internet somehow begins the experience of dissolution and oblivion.

Kristine: Ugh. What did you think of Ryosuke, our James Iha lookalike, and his wardrobe of Americana T-shirts?

Sean: He was…. not cute. I think one thing the movie is envisioning is the Internet as a kind of metaphysical space in which different planes of reality come together.

Kristine: I don’t know what to say. This movie makes me feel empty and apathetic. Why don’t you tell me what you think and maybe it will spark my interest. Sorry…

Sean: Ok. I really love how lyrical and meditative the movie is. It has a very deliberate pacing and it takes a lot of time with its “scare” sequences. Obviously it feels a bit more avant garde than the average ghost story, which I dig. Though I agree that the movie does have flaws in terms of character and plot, it makes up for those deficiencies by having a really well-developed and pungent tone. For me, this movie is all about tone and feeling, a pervasive unease. As you pointed out, it’s very Lynchian (though I’d also argue that, for all of its flaws, it’s more narratively satisfying than some of Lynch’s stuff). I also really love the movie’s weird sense of ambition and scope. It starts out as this very focused and deliberate ghost story, but by the end it’s this vast and sweeping apocalypse? And suddenly jets are falling out of the sky? I love that. But I do think the movie has no significant interest in character-building. The characters seem interchangeable. I know when I first saw this I had a really hard time telling people apart, more than any other Japanese or Asian film I’ve ever seen.

Y2K Airlines

Kristine: Do you think the lack of character development is a deliberate choice? To show that these people are meant to be archetypal, and also stand-ins for the Everyman/woman?

Sean: I don’t know. I mean, I really could not fucking tell the two main girls (Michi and Junko) apart until one of them turned into fairy dust and blew away.

Kristine: I agree, I got the two of them confused a lot at the beginning. What did you think about the people basically willing themselves into non-existence, leaving nothing but soot marks on the wall? I thought that was pretty grim stuff.

Sean: When Michi is yelling “Junko!” and swatting at a cloud of primitive-CGI ashflakes I thought it was pretty absurd and dated and silly.

Kristine: Uh, yeah. Though I thought the actual “shadow” or “stain” that the dissolved person leaves behind was good.

Sean: Totally. It’s a great, arresting image. I mean, this is really just an existentialist movie right? I guess I like that about it. “The Forbidden Room” seems like something right out of Sartre (or, of course, Lynch). Did you go through a phase of reading “the Existentialists” when you were a teen?

Last week, that’s where the glory hole was. But now….

Kristine: Oh yes, absolutely. The Stranger. No Exit. But, don’t you think it’s strange how the movie ties an existential premise, of people living these lives of quiet desperation and loneliness, with an apocalyptic disaster movie? I think it’s that juxtaposition that doesn’t really work for me.

Sean: Huh. I mean, I don’t think the movie puts a terrible amount of emphasis on the post-apocalyptic part. It only comes in the during last 20 minutes, right? It also is the “frame story” – the coda at the beginning and the end of the movie. ( I also want to shout out the queer existential books I loved in my teens – The Immoralist and Giovanni’s Room).

Kristine: I guess. I did think that the way the movie depicted depression was devastatingly accurate. What did you think of the guy with the bag over his head?

Sean: Actually the thing I like least is how the movie plays around with the aesthetics of suicide – the bag over the head, the self-inflicted gunshots, the hanging, etc. I think the fading away into a black stain on the wall is far more elegant a metaphor than the gothy suicide stuff.

Kristine: I totally agree. Those scenes were weird and did not work for me. You might be getting at why I feel so disconnected from this movie… How come some of these Sads just give up on living (fading to black ash stains) and some of them commit suicide (Bag Head, Harue)? It makes no sense. Like I said, there are too many competing ideas in this movie. It just doesn’t all come together. I also didn’t really like the parts when they were trying to solve the “mystery” of what was going on, like when James Iha teamed up with his friend in the library…

A Very Alice in Chains Christmas

Sean: Really? Oh the scariest scene in the entire movie was that shadowy figure watching them from the library stacks. I loved that. Didn’t you think the library ghost was super scary?

Kristine: Yes, but not nearly as scary as the off-balance lady walking. I wanted to see more of Library Ghost. Its appearance was too brief to mean much to me.

Sean: Let me ask you this: Do you think basic premise of the movie – that the Internet leads to isolation and depression – has truth to it? Or is it all just a clumsy, post-Y2K bunch of nonsense?

Kristine: I don’t think it does in healthy people, no. Do you?

Sean: I don’t know. I do think the Internet is responsible for some sense of disconnection or dislocation in contemporary life. But I also see it as a tool that fosters and forges connectivity. I can see it both ways, though I mostly think its silly and counterproductive to make the Internet some gigantic scapegoat for human unhappiness.

Kristine: Like you said before, this feels like a very old argument, even though it might still be relevant. I am sort of rolling my eyes at the whole thing.

Sean: In 2001, I don’t think we fully understood the ways in which the Internet could build new communities online yet. That feature of the digital world was not as apparent back then, I think, to the extent that it is now. I do see this movie as being a bit technophobic and reactionary. It’s dated.

She just saw “Alex Cross”

Kristine: So this is a movie about the fear of what technology might lead to, not about observing and reporting what technology has done.

Sean: I think so.

Kristine: I agree. I think that a large feature of society has always been about… retreating and making the world smaller, not larger for oneself. Isn’t that the ironic thing about the “World Wide Web”?

Sean: True enough. So would Sartre and Gide love this movie?

Kristine: Yes, but they both would have the restraint not to turn a story about individual alienation into a gigantic disaster epic.

Sean: Why are you dissing the disaster elements?

Kristine: I don’t like it.

Sean: I’ll have you know that Camus, who wrote The Stranger, also wrote an apocalyptic plague novel called La Peste about the black plague re-emerging in 20th century North Africa.

Kristine: What would you do if me and your boyfriend and your sister all committed suicide? Plus both your dogs and all of your chickens. All within, like, five days of each other.

Sean: What the hell kind of question is that?

This shirt smells like ghost spunk

Kristine: I am placing you in the story of the movie.

Sean: Chickens don’t commit suicide.

Kristine: They might. You don’t know.

Sean: This movie is bringing out your inner Goth.

Kristine: I hate this movie.

Sean: Well, do you remember that article you emailed to me a million years ago from Slant Magazine? It was a list of the Top 25 Horror Movies of the Aughts?

Kristine: Maybe.

Sean: Well, you did.

Kristine: Was this on it?

Sean: Not only was it on the list, this was their pick for the #1 horror movie of the 2000s.

Kristine: No shit?

Sean: Yes.

Put on some pants

Kristine: Interesting. I could not get into it, other than a few moments of visual imagery I have already shared with you.

Sean: There was a huge wave of horror that came out of Japan starting in the later 1990s into the mid-2000s. Pulse is considered to be one of the best of that wave of J-Horror.

Kristine: Then I am in no rush to see more J-Horror, says I.

Sean: Is this movie better than Audition?

Kristine: Well, of course.

Sean: Is it as pretentious as Audition?

Kristine: No.

Sean: It is still pretentious though, right?

Kristine: Actually, that is not really one of my complaints. It easily could have been pretentious, but I found it more disjointed and unconvincing.

Sean: Do you at least admit that this movie has a strange and effective tone?

The year 2001 – when screen savers were scary

Kristine: Yes. I agree there is a strong and consistent sense of mood from beginning to end, even before we know what is amiss.

Sean: I also think it’s a beautifully made movie.

Kristine: I agree, except for the aforementioned CGI girl-ashes fluttering hither and thither.

Sean: Totally. That was a twee anime nightmare.

Kristine: Were you moved by the depiction of friendship in this movie? Do you think it was significant all the characters were in their early 20s, despite the implication that this was afflicting everyone regardless of age?

Sean: As far as the effectiveness of the friendships in the movie, I think it violates the “show, don’t tell” rule in a way that doesn’t work. The movie tells us that the different characters are friends (like Junko and Michi, for example) but it never really shows us. There is no character-building, even less than in a slasher movie.

Kristine: I agree.

Sean: I think the teens in Friday the 13th Part 2 are more distinctive than the characters in Pulse. I do admire the weird crazy trajectory of the movie and that weird sad ending on the boat. Poor Michi.

Kristine: But she is “finally happy.”

Sean: She doesn’t know what she is.

Scene from Natalie Portman’s honeymoon

Kristine: Didn’t this movie get an American remake?

Sean: Yes. When the American version of The Ring was a huge hit, Hollywood remade every Asian movie from here to Kingdom Come and they are all terrible. The American version of Pulse stars Ian Somerhumper and Kristen Bell (a.k.a. Veronica Mars). It has lots of ghost hands grabbing Kristen Bell all over her mouth like the oubliette in Labyrinth.

Kristine: Lies.

Sean: Truth.

Kristine: Do you think living in urban spaces leads to loneliness and isolation, like this movie suggests? I don’t.

Sean: No, I think living in suburbia is far more alienating.

Kristine: Agreed times 100,000. I think I’ve run out of things to say. I am interested in what others think of this movie, but I’m just… over it. Maybe my mood is coloring my reaction.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating:  This movie either has too many ideas or not enough. I don’t know which and I am too depressed to figure it out.

The Freak’s Rating: A worthy film, but won’t keep me up at night AND Deserves props for being groundbreaking and innovative.

Don't base jump off a 20 foot water tower, please.
Don’t base jump off a 20 foot water tower, please.

12 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse [Kairo] (2001)

  1. Some random thoughts –
    My favourite j-horror, along with Dark Water and The Grudge. The remakes are all bad, but The Pulse is woeful.
    I agree with the Lynch vibe/tone. It’s what attracted me to it, after seeing a trailer.
    Haven’t watched it since about 2003, so keen for a viewing after reading this. But, I’m worried about how it will stand up, with us being all ‘internet savvy’.
    Loved how it transitioned from ghost story to apocalypse – haven’t seen that before. Can’t remember if the remake attempted this?
    This DVD was my first online purchase!

  2. Totally agree that the transition from ghosts to apocalypse is pretty badass. I’ve never seen Dark Water, but will rush out to rent it now on your recommendation. 🙂
    Overall, I’ve never truly warmed up to Japanese horror films. I think, of all the ones I’ve seen, Pulse is my favorite. Korean horror movies are much more to my liking for whatever reason. A Tale of Two Sisters, The Host, I Saw the Devil, Bedevilled, etc. all blew my mind.

  3. While I’m here, can you guys please do Berberian Sound Studio? I keep hearing amazing things about it on Mark Kermode’s radio show, but I’m not sure whether I have the stomach to watch it or not. Turns out I’m much better at reading reviews of horror movies than I am at watching them (and sometimes reading spoiler-filled reviews actually makes me able to watch them), so you guys would be doing me a huge favor by scouting it out ahead of me. (‘:

    (PS: I’m a new but fervent fan of yours. Great, great stuff.)

  4. I should clarify that I mean CONTEMPORARY J-horror has never done much for me. I love classic (1950s/1960s) Japanese movies of all stripes, but especially the horror pictures. Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba and Kuroneko are both masterpieces in my opinion. Loved Kobayashi’s Kwaidan and Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu. Then there’s campier stuff like Goke: Body Snatcher from Hell, Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People and Horrors of Malformed Men, all of which are awesome….

  5. (By all accounts Berberian Sound Studio would fit perfectly into the highbrow/lowbrow theme of the month, too. Giallo meets art house meets nature documentaries meets men doing terrible things to watermelons.)

  6. I have been chomping at the bit to see Berberian…. CANNOT WAIT. We will absolutely cover it on the blog if its even half as good as I’ve heard. Just waiting for that stateside DVD release.

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