“People don’t really connect, you know. We all live totally separate lives.”
The wave of internationally successful Japanese horror films released in the late 1990s to early 2000s (often referred to as J-Horror) gave life to a new global vocabulary of horror, one of ghostly women in white dresses, unresolved grudges, deadly curses, and supernatural revenge. While these tropes existed in Japanese culture and cinema for hundreds of years, it was only with such works as Hideo Nakata‘s Ringu, Takashi Shimizu‘s Ju-On: The Grudge, and Takashi Miike‘s Audition that these long-standing motifs were able to finally penetrate the collective fears of moviegoers in the west. Renowned director Kiyoshi Kurosawa made several contributions to this brief window of films, most notably in Cure – a maddening crime thriller in the vein of Memories of Murder and Zodiac that follows a string of seemingly unprovoked murders – and Pulse – a bizarre, apocalyptic landscape of ghostly shadows, technological uncertainty, and overwhelming hopelessness.
Pulse is many things – a self-professed knockoff of Ringu, a prophetic meditation on the emerging alienation brought about in the transformative wake of the internet, and one of the all-time scariest films made since the turn of the millennium. At a glance, the film bears quite a bit of resemblance to its above-mentioned peers, emphasizing similar images of ghostly apparitions and haunted technology, as well as expressing anxieties that are at once ancient and eerily attuned to the uniquely digital challenges of the zeitgeist. And yet, Pulse is also nothing like its peers, a film that – while absolutely terrifying – appears more concerned with fusing its supernatural horror with the gloomy implications of present and future life. The result is one of the most thoroughly unique and refreshingly resonant works of horror in modern memory, one that probably plays better today than it did in 2001.
The plot of Pulse is at once straightforward and totally incomprehensible, but it essentially boils down to this: people are disappearing in Tokyo, and it has something to do with computers and ghosts. It all seems to start with the suicide of Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi), a plant shop employee who suddenly hangs himself after having been missing for days working on some kind of computer disk. His coworkers – Michi (Kumiko Aso), Junko (Kurume Arisaka), and Toshio (Masatoshi Matsuo) – are baffled, and decide to investigate his apartment. On his disk, they find hazy, disturbing images of screens and faces that seem to extend on into infinity. One by one, they begin witnessing strange, unexplainable paranormal incidents, moments that apparently shock them so much to their core that they simply disappear into a shadowy silhouette on the wall. Another plotline follows Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato), an economics student that becomes infatuated with an attractive computer science major named Harue (Koyuki) after stumbling upon a mysterious (and quite possibly haunted) website. These two storylines play out in parallel as more people disappear across Japan to form an interweaving mural of quiet horror and apocalyptic hopelessness.
Describing this plot feels counterproductive, both because it sounds rather silly on paper and also because attempting to articulate its confounding narrative details is inherently difficult due to the film’s patent resistance to rationality. There is an explanation to what is occurring in the film and why it is occurring – something about the ghost world spilling over into our world through the internet is vaguely touched upon a handful of times – but this interpretation is confusing and inconsistent, and almost certainly isn’t the point.
What is important to the film and its message is what these characters are experiencing, how they are reacting to it (not well, as it turns out), and how the mere presence of the internet appears to be a driving factor in their ultimate annihilation. Today it is widely understood that social media, as just one branch of the online revolution, plays a significant role in the mental health crisis rapidly spreading across the world. Yet Pulse was released in 2001, two years before the launch of MySpace, and as such its creators were not making a statement about social media but the deceitful promise of human connection in this new and uncertain cyberspace itself. At one point, Harue asks Ryosuke why he got started on the internet, as he had previously expressed hostility towards the complexity of computers. “Hoping to connect with people?”, she asks; after he sheepishly nods she replies, “People don’t really connect, you know. We all live totally separate lives”. Again, it is worth emphasizing that this was released two whole years before the existence of even the most early of popular social media networks. When asked about this almost eerie prescience that the film holds, Kurosawa stated that at the time he and his fellow crew simply thought that people who looked for human connection on computers and telephones were obviously very lonely.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these already prevalent feelings of alienation and society’s communication collapse are compounded to disastrous effects within the film by the concurrent arrival of a ghostly invasion and a new technology that isolates and violates its users’ emotional vulnerabilities. Kurosawa presents the dire effects of these phenomena with the cinematic language of a disaster movie, painting frames of gloomy skies and empty streets that vaguely recall the abstract urban landscapes on the cover of a Radiohead album. Yet this isn’t an apocalypse that announces itself suddenly and with grand alarm – much like our current crisis, this is a catastrophe that insidiously and quietly travels through the film’s population until it’s already too late to respond. Indeed, the feelings evoked by watching Pulse are unnervingly resonant in the age of COVID-19, with the movie’s plague of disturbing disappearances unfolding not unlike the quiet, invisible rampage of a virus. The film begins with its characters moving through relatively populated areas, only to later revisit these same (now deserted areas) to highlight the vast difference in texture and mood caused by everyone disappearing. And yet, even from the first frame, before anyone has even disappeared or killed themselves, it already feels too late to stop it.
It’s worth noting that all of this subtext only works as well as it does because the film is able to maintain such an immersive, dreamlike atmosphere, one that oscillates between variations of overwhelming dread and overwhelming despair. Unlike many of his western (and even Japanese) contemporaries, Kurosawa’s approach to scares and fear is rooted in a nightmarish but altogether mundane feeling that something is terribly wrong. Rather than relying on jump scares or overtly ghastly imagery, Pulse’s scares play out almost in slow motion, submerging its audience in an inescapable sensation of total horror for minutes at a time. The images Kurosawa conjures in these scenes is the stuff of nightmares – so authentically accustomed to the texture and psychology of a bad dream that the first time I watched it I wasn’t sure if I had fallen asleep myself. The delicacy and absurd level of control demonstrated by his mise-en-scene often finds characters situated at opposite ends of the frame, drenched in the uncanny absence of almost all light. Speaking in a purely visual context, Pulse is perhaps one of the darkest films I’ve ever seen, draped in shadows and sickly, washed-out yellows and blues. The imagery of a character disappearing into a black smudge on the wall is particularly striking especially in the context of Japanese history, evoking the sobering photographs of civilians that were instantly vaporized into shadows of ash during the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kurosawa also brilliantly employs CGI in several scenes to great effect – while apparently the director only used the then quite crude and unconvincing technology because he could afford to, the artificiality of its presence only adds to the film’s dreamlike feeling, almost recalling the way in which German Expressionists used flamboyantly artificial lighting and color to imbue their films with uncanny imagination.
I have now said quite a bit about Pulse, but I nevertheless feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what this film has to offer. Even after three viewings, I’m still struggling to parse its almost incomprehensible levels of meaning and commentary. Half of me is unsure if even Kurosawa knew the extent to which his film spoke to the uniquely modern issue of loneliness in the face of so much superficial connection. I am convinced, however, that Pulse is an honest-to-god masterpiece, one that will continue to shock, terrify, and ultimately confound audiences with its prescient anxieties about our civilization’s growing social sickness long into the future. All horror films touch upon some deep-seated human fear, but only the best ones ask us to also consider why we are so afraid in the first place. In that sense, Pulse is the authoritative horror film about loneliness in the 21st century, and one that pessimistically annihilates the illusion that greater connectivity brings any semblance of deeper emotional fulfillment. We may be more connected, but we’ve never been more alone.