Written & Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Japanese horror cinema didn’t come into existence in the late 1990s/early 2000s, but it certainly reached a peak in terms of its exposure to the global movie-going market. You likely know of the ones that got American adaptations, The Ring and The Grudge. Pulse also got a less well-received American version, but I have always heard positive things about the Japanese original. With this in mind, I decided to do a short dip into the J-horror of this period, focusing on the “classics” to get a sense of what was popular. These were movies I was aware of, some of which I actually saw, and seemed to have a significant impact at the time in American popular horror.
Pulse is told in two parallel narratives that converge in the third act, so we have two protagonists separately coming to the same world-changing discovery. Michi (Kumiko Aso) has recently moved to Tokyo and is working at a plant nursery. Her co-workers Junko and Yabe have become concerned about a third employee, Taguchi, who has been missing for days while working on a computer science project. Michi checks in on Taguchi but finds him seemingly fine though his apartment has seen better days. While excusing herself to make tea, she returns to find Taguchi has hung himself. The trio searches his place and finds a disk containing looping images of murky darkness, but a face stares out from the void. This appears to open a door between the world of the living and the dead, cursing the young people.
Meanwhile, across town, Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) is an econ student getting set up with a new ISP. He stumbles across a strange website of people alone in dark rooms behaving strangely. The site seems to possess his computer, and he seeks help at the university from post-grad comp sci student Harue. She implores Ryosuke to print the images from the site if he can find it, but the young man discovers whatever is coming through these connections has taken control. Ryosuke eventually learns that the afterlife is theorized to have become so full of souls that they overflow into the living world. They are full of loneliness, unable to make the emotional connections they once knew, and want to make those still living to suffer as they are.
For 2001, this is an incredibly on-point piece of horror cinema, using the internet’s explosion in popularity as a means to tell a genuinely bleak ghost story. Unlike American movies at the time, there is no interest in the filmmaker in buckets of blood and gore or even shallow jumpscares. Instead, Pulse is purely centered on building a mood, the most palpable creeping dread you could imagine. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa uses his settings to their fullest degree, evoking the painful depths of loneliness, particularly in the internet age, as promises of positive connectivity with people worldwide didn’t necessarily pan out. Thanks to the internet, some communities saw themselves grow in strength, thinking mainly about the LGBTQ forums and chat rooms. However, the internet also created a powerful feeling of distance for some, watching other people worldwide share their escapades while feeling more and more constrained in their small spaces.
The idea of overcrowding is vital to the themes Pulse is conveying. Tokyo is the most populous city on the planet, yet Kurosawa makes it feel utterly devoid of life as the plot goes on. Our two protagonists seem to be the only people left in the whole city by the end. As someone who came of age during the rise of the internet, that feeling of loneliness amid a sea of connected people is authentic. I look at the internet landscape now, and I think it has evolved to some extent, for better and worse. A sequel to Pulse today will have to tackle the bizarre cultish extremism created by this same internet, leading us to wonder if it wouldn’t have benefited society for some people to remain apart.
I could see some audiences not enjoying the ambiguity of this movie. It offers minimal answers and moves at an incredibly & deliberately slow pace. The tone of Pulse and many of these J-horror pictures is quite dreamlike; they shrug off standard narrative structures and let the viewer float through scenes understanding the feel of what is going on but not necessarily the details. The movie also leans into the unknowns of technology when it was becoming popular, so some people might see the fears placed on the internet as quaint and poorly thought out. I personally think the movie works best when you step away from the techno-horror aspects and see it as a story about contemporary urban horrors. This film is about the existential dreads fomented by capitalism’s tendrils digging into people, distracting and distancing them. From this point of view, it’s a movie about how quickly society crumbles with solidarity amongst people. It’s every person for themselves, which can only lead to oblivion.