Veteran director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Sweet Home, Creepy) has built a career dipping in and out of the crime and horror genres. It would be easy to dismiss Pulse (2001) as another relic from the age of late-90s J-horror that coasted in on the success of Ring, replacing that film’s cursed VHS premise with a fear of the early internet age. Instead, Pulse is a different beast altogether, with a wildly different tone of creeping, quiet apocalypse and a totally different approach to its scares.
Initially built around two separate storylines, Pulse follows Michi Kudo (Kumiko Aso), a young woman working in a rooftop Tokyo greenhouse, and Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato), a young slacker with a sudden inclination to get online. In Kudo’s story, one of her coworkers goes missing and when she goes to investigate she finds that he hanged himself in his apartment. Digging into his suicide she discovers the file he was working on – saved on a floppy disc, no less – that opens up a creepy window into his apartment before his death. Kawashima (who, I must admit, I thought was another worker at the greenhouse until I realised the stories were totally separate) gets a sudden urge to connect to the internet – complete with a vintage online sign-up CD-ROM. Something strange happens when he connects, however, and he finds himself at a website asking, “Do you want to meet a ghost?” Closing the site, he discovers his computer dialling back in by itself. Freaked out, he heads to the local college and pesters the IT students, who initially float the idea of a hacker, until computer post-grad Harue (Koyuki, The Last Samurai) becomes interested in getting to the bottom of the peculier, self-dialling website.
Unlike Ring, Grudge, and similar J-horror, Pulse doesn’t rely on jump scares from long-haired Japanese girls. Indeed, there may not be anything that could be categorised as a jump scare at all; instead, there’s a sense of slow-burn horror that builds throughout the film. While it’s almost impossible not to draw comparisons with those other films – the cinematographer, Junichiro Hayashi, worked on Ring and Dark Water amongst others – an immediate point of separation is that the ghosts of Pulse are not twitchy monsters, like Sadako and her ilk, but typically much more human and slow-moving. Kurosawa does incredible work with something as simple as a ‘woman’ walking devastatingly slowly down a corridor towards a character, or the sight of fingers slowly curling over the edge of a chest of drawers.
The sound design is also excellent, leveraging otherworldy squeaks and moans to enhance the presence of the spirits, and a repeated cry of “助けて/tasukete” (“help me”) that reminds one of the similarly chilling cry from the ghost dubbed dolls in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. Also striking is the use of old school dial-up modem sounds – of course, much less old school circa 2001 – but it made me wonder what a younger, modern audience would make of it. To me the sound is more quaint than scary, but might someone else find the squeaks and pops baffling or creepy?
As the film progresses, various characters and sources start to propose theories on where the ghosts are coming from and what might be happening. Kawashima reads a book that suggests that since everything eventually dies, ghosts must have existed since prehistoric times. Another student builds on this, suggesting that if the realm ghosts exist in is finite, then eventually it will run out of space as it is filled with souls, in an echo of George A. Romero’s famous line: when there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.
It’s not clear, though, that this is intended to be an accurate analysis of the situation. The key theme of the film is loneliness. Early on, Harue explains an experiment being run by a post-grad; in it, digital dots swarm around a screen, which “die” if they collide with another dot, but are drawn together as if out of loneliness. When she asks Kawashima what made him want to go online, he shrugs and can’t really explain it, but she suggests that he was looking for some connection with other people through the internet. Later, she wonders whether in the afterlife she might live happily ever after with loved ones – or if her loneliness will follow her into the next world.
As the film slides into its second half, people begin to go missing. The effect is subtle at first, with oddly empty scenes just tugging at your attention, until it suddenly becomes clear that the world is falling apart. The TV repeats missing persons broadcasts ad infinatum. Empty trains grind to a halt, the driver missing. No one mans the checkout of a convenience store or restocks the vending machines. And that’s just the start. The utterly empty Tokyo streets late in the film are surreal, as unsettling and striking as the empty London at the start of 28 Days Later. One of my first exposures to the film was the Arrow Video Podcast (which any Japanese film fan should be keeping an eye on for their coverage of Arrow’s Japanese films), where Sam Ashurst and Dan Martin described Pulse as being like an alien invasion film – but with ghosts. However, it feels more like a traditional zombie film, and not just because of those Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days similarities. As people interact with the ghostly entities and themselves die or commit suicide, the situation spreads virally, sucking more and more people out of the world.
Despite the sometimes haunting visuals and incredible audio, however, it would be kind to call the film ‘meandering’. It takes some three quarters of the overlong runtime before the two protagonists meet. There’s little to no resolution, either; characters float interesting theories but the climax is more confusing than suspenseful. I didn’t feel like there were multiple interpretations so much as a canonical interpretation was missing. The closest I can come to an answer – and this is a spoiler, so read on with caution – is that the ghosts are escaping their lonely afterlife not because it is ‘full’, but because they want to absorb people into it and stop being ‘alone’. This seems supported by Kudo asking if they are doing the right thing by surviving – by not succumbing to the ghostly invasion. I’m far from certain that this was the intended takeaway, though, and the film left me feeling stymied.
Even taking the lack of resolution into account – and as a fan of Japanese cinema and storytelling, a lack of resolution is something I’m used to – Pulse is an unsettling trip. Fans of Japanese horror looking for something a little different from the usual Ring clones should definitely check it out.
Pulse / 回路 Kairo
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Japanese Release Date: 3rd February 2001
Version Watched: 119 min (Arrow Video)