Haruhiko Kato as Kawashima and Koyuki as Harue in Pulse, a horror film about technological anxiety and loneliness by Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Ghosts in the Machine
Suicide, strange deaths, and at the end a ray of hope
By STEVE ERICKSON
From the late 80s through the mid-90s, Miramax did a terrific job exposing American audiences to European filmmakers, including Peter Greenaway, Pedro Almodovar, and Krzysztof Kieslowski. This interest died around the time Kieslowski retired and Pulp Fiction became a huge hit.
The company bungled its chance to introduce Americans to Abbas Kiarostami, Wong Kar-wai, and Takeshi Kitano. Ten years after the two-week New York run of Kiarostamis Through the Olive Trees, Miramax has yet to release it on VHS or DVD. Now that Harvey and Bob Weinstein have ceded control of Miramax entirely to Disney and moved on to their own new company, we may reap the benefits of their extensive back catalogue of unreleased films.
The Weinsteins acquired the rights to Kioyoshi Kurosawas Pulse, made in 2001, several years ago in order to make an American remake. That film is slated to come out next year; in the meantime, theyve made the wise move of licensing the original version to another distributor.
After a puzzling first scene on a boat, featuring Kurosawas favorite actor, Koji Yakusho, who doesnt reappear until the end, Pulse centers on a group of friends, all in their early 20s. Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi) stops showing up for work. A coworker visits him, finding him behaving strangely, before Taguchi hangs himself in her presence. Soon after, Taguchis friends computers start showing ghostly images of him. Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) turns to Harue (Koyuki) for advice after his computer starts dialing itself on the Internet automatically and asking him, Do you want to meet a ghost? One by one, the group gets picked off as ghosts start taking over Tokyo.
Recent Japanese films suggest not all Japanese share the happy-go-lucky attitude towards technology often associated with that nation. The Ring series pivots around a cursed videotape. Sion Sonos Suicide Club posits a pop group promoting a wave of teen suicides through seemingly innocuous songs about e-mail. Pulse reflects some of these anxieties, but its not primarily concerned with social commentary. The loneliness it describes long predated computers, even if the film suggests that they further it along.
Like the films of David Cronenberg and George Romero, Pulse investigates what it means to be human. What differentiates us from computers or ghosts? In an overly blunt scene, a character explains the films view of human interaction via a screen saverif two dots get too close, they die, yet if they get too far apart, theyre drawn towards each other. From the start, Pulse offers a vision of isolation. When Taguchis friends head out to his apartment, Kurosawa shows two characters on separate trips sitting in the middle of the same empty bus.
Love is missing from these characters lives. No one has a boyfriend or girlfriend. Their relationships with their parents are minimal; one describes them as irrelevant. Friendship is the only thing keeping them afloat. Ultimately, its what marks them as humanghosts say that the afterlife is an endless circle of loneliness. However, the characters are passive even before exposure to the ghosts and become zombie-like quickly after interacting with them. The final protagonist turns out to be a character introduced only in the films last third. The films scariest moments dont involve ghosts, but instead Tokyos desolate streets. Even the three on-screen suicides are relatively bloodless.
Kurosawa uses computer-generated imagery creatively. Rather than trying to make it look seamless, he brings out the creepy artificiality of his world and creates effects that couldnt be achieved otherwise. Pulse is full of blurred images, and visual and audio glitches. Losing ones grip on life means going out of focus. Deploying relatively few close-ups, he makes rich use of the backgroundat one point, a woman stands close to the camera while someone in a tower far above her prepares to jump. Takeshi Haketas score adds to the queasiness. Alternating between loud, sweeping strings and subterranean bass rumbles, it suggests a distorted take on Bernard Herrmanns music for Psycho.
While Pulse was made before 9/11, some of its imagesa plane flying into a building, TV shots of missing peoplenow look like a premonition of the attack. The suicide victims turn into charcoal outlines, recalling the shadows burnt into concrete after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kurosawas films tend to be enigmatic; none of the mysteries of Pulse are clearly explained, even if theories are offered. The director has frequently said that he sees something positive in the apocalyptic endings of several of his films. They offer the chance for a new beginning. These endings are best read metaphorically; if taken literally, they might seem like justifications for violence.
In Pulse, the boundary between life and death dissolves, but one woman learns the value of friendship and transcends her loneliness. Haunted by the past and scared by the present, the film nevertheless offers a faint ray of hope.