CARKS AND SPARKS
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenplay: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring: Haruhiko Katô, Kumiko Asô, Koyuki
Review: David Stephens
If you mention the term “J-Horror” to anyone with even the merest knowledge of cinema, chances are that “Ringu”/”Ring” (1998) and “Ju-On: The Grudge” (2002) will be the first films that pop into their heads. Of course this classification for Japanese genre movies is far, far more eclectic and wide-reaching than just those two classics (and their imitators, sequels, and remakes). Many of them tackle important cultural and global issues, and not all of them have creepy child or female spooks as the antagonists. “Pulse” (2001) is one such Japanese offering than definitely resides in the upper echelon on the quality scale of J-Horror. Directed by award-winning filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa, it’s also known as “Kairo” (the Japanese word for an electrical "circuit") and has achieved a cult status over the years. Inevitably it also had a lowly-regarded US remake in 2006, which starred Kristen Bell and actually has a co-writing credit for Wes Craven. Arrow Video has re-released the original “Pulse” on a special dual-format edition, containing a high-definition digital transfer and the usual wealth of extras. So YGROY take the opportunity to go back to the early days of the Internet, and finds something (almost) worse than keyboard-warriors and hateful trolls…
It starts with a worried-looking woman gazing out to sea on a large ferry boat and just about to have a “where it all began” flashback. Cue Tokyo at the turn of the millennium and we meet Kudo Michi (Kumiko Aso) who works in a rooftop greenhouse in the city. She’s concerned at the absence of a fellow worker (Kenji Mizuhashi as Taguchi), so she goes to his apartment to check on him and retrieve a required computer disk. She finds him detached and behaving strangely, and is shocked when he suddenly hangs himself with no warning. On checking the disk, she sees some strange images and blurred figures. Meanwhile, technophobe Ryosuke (Haruhiko Katô) is taking his first tentative steps into the world of the Internet, but is disconcerted to find that his PC is being continually hacked and a rogue website opens with the words “Would you like to meet a ghost?” He visits a computer student (Koyuki as Harue Karasawa) to try and figure out what’s going on, but finds only more questions. Bizarrely the city seems to be becoming a literal “Ghost Town” as people start to disappear, but what has this got to do with a “Forbidden Room” and the areas sealed off with red tape?
“Pulse” isn’t an easy film to watch in some respects. At nearly 2 hours, it’s slow-moving, ambiguous, and often very depressing. And unlike other J-horrors of that time, it’s pretty much devoid of obvious jump-scares and is in no way graphic or bloody. However it’s also a fascinating mesh of disturbing ideas and unsettling images that will stay with you long after the end credits have rolled.
The plot is partially obvious J-horror with some of the expected tropes, but it’s also just as much a serious rumination on the human condition as well, especially the debilitating effects of isolation and a non-standard depiction of crippling depression. The whole film is skilfully shot with muted colours and a subtle greyness. And even with the hi-def transfer, there’s still an intentional graininess present for most of the film. It’s also quite admirable in the way that Tokyo is shot, with no evidence of the usual crowds and intense populace, especially in the later sequences. Even in early scenes characters are seen walking streets alone and riding public transport in solitude.
It all fits into the central theme that humanity is basically isolating itself to the point of extinction (albeit with a ghostly helping hand), with the supposed communication abilities on the Internet merely exacerbating that. All characters have become separated from their friends and family, and it only takes a supernatural nudge to finish things off, where they are literally erased from existence.
Whilst there are no slam-bang scares as such, there’s plenty of skin-crawling creepiness; the awkwardly moving female phantom with glittering eyes, the smudged “stains” that mark the demise of many victims, the blurred low-res figures on the PCs, and a shadow that oddly “dances” to the sound of jingles from arcade machines. There’s a touch of melancholy that runs throughout the plot, and some pretty big ideas that are thrown into the mix. The notion of the “afterlife” being a kind of holding area with a finite storage space is something pretty hard to shake off, especially if it can “bleed” into reality somehow. As is the thought of people either “willing” themselves out of living, or committing suicide in scenes far more chilling than those in “The Happening” or suchlike.
The tech might seem quaint these days (huge screens, lens glare, screechy modems, and cables aplenty) but the central concepts are all as valid now as there were back then
It’s an uncomfortable portrayal of “The End of Times”, and by means that we don’t really understand. Instead of mankind possibly going out with an explosive bang, it could just be with a literal whimper.
Tellingly the narrative is wholly character-specific, and the only whiff we get of the authorities and the police, are a couple of rolling TV broadcasts and some off-screen sirens. It veers (impressively) towards the apocalyptic near the end, but the only other country mentioned in passing is South America.
It’s possible that newcomers coming to the experience fresh may be baffled by some of the ambiguity and the lack of obvious boogeymen, especially given its reputation. But for most people, this is still a startlingly imaginative and personal view of a quiet-Armageddon that hasn’t really lost any of its power to disturb and stay with you. As ever from Arrow, the brand-new extras detailed below greatly add to the viewing as well. All in all, it’s a great film and package that will remind J-horror aficionados how good this is, and for newbies to experience it anew. This Pulse still shows life…
Blu-Ray extras: Arrow knocks it out of the park once again – A New interview with Kurosawa + A new interview with cinematographer Junichiro Hayashi + A new video appreciation of the film by US filmmakers Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett + An archived making-of feature + Footage from the 2001 Cannes film festival + Footage from the Tokyo screenings + Trailers + Some (weird) TV spots - Also: This edition also comes with a reversible cover and a collectors booklet written by critic Chuck Stephens.