Every Friday, we’re recommending an older movie available to stream or download and worth seeing again through the lens of our current moment. We’re calling the series “Revisiting Hours“— consider this Rolling Stone’s unofficial film club. This week’s last-column-of-2018 edition: David Fear on Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s J-horror cyber-nightmare Pulse.
“Would you like to meet a ghost?”
They are stains. Not “there are stains” — though that’s accurate enough. “They,” as in people. Young men and women that once stood in claustrophobic rooms and spent hours in front of screens are suddenly, inexplicably reduced to ashy outlines on walls and floors. Just, poof. Gone. Some of them have stumbled across an odd phenomena that’s been slowly overtaking Tokyo, because they’d been checking on friends and loved ones who’d been acting … weird. Others merely logged on to the Internet, where malevolent spirits have found a way to get into our world. In early 21st-century cyberspace, no one can hear you scream. But it didn’t mean a 56.6K modem couldn’t sound like a spectral shriek.
Made post-Y2K and pre-9/11, hitting audiences squarely between the age of AOL America Online and the invention of Twitter, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse came cloaked in the hype of post-Ringu J-horror and the cultish embrace of psychotronic works blanket-termed as “Asia Extreme.” The wave started by the former had mostly receded by the time the film reached our shores; IRL horror-movie monster Harvey Weinstein had seen it at Cannes in the spring of 2001 and bought the rights, only to shelve it immediately. (All the better to eventually belch out an Americanized remake without the original being in circulation. Thankfully, Magnolia ended up taking Pulse 1.0 off Miramax/Dimension’s hands and giving it a small domestic release in 2005.) As for the latter, Kurosawa’s slow-burner was the opposite of outré tales involving scarfaced yakuza and sympathetic vengeance-seekers. You could describe its pace as either “deliberate” or “the drying of paint,” depending on your mood.
If you stumbled across this movie via a before-BitTorrent bootleg back in the day or happened to go in blind during its brief theatrical run, however, you could tell it was different from the usual horror imports. There was something genuinely disturbing about the way it used post-millennial paranoia to suggest that something wicked this way was downloading its way into our cultural bloodstream. Even the silences and syrup-slow sections brim with a sickly sense of infection — it is the most appropriately viral J-horror entry of the early aughts. The software and hardware in this ghost story couldn’t be more dated, from the bulky P.C. set-ups to the fact that the plot is set into motion by a CD-ROM disk. Yet the dread, the center-can’t hold vibe? That felt timeless back then. In 2018, it feels completely like an otherworldly transmission from our here and now.
It starts with an innocent inquiry: A young woman named Michi (Kumiko Aso) wonders where her fellow employee at a flower shop has been; he’d been working on a computer program before going A.W.O.L. She goes to visit him, and notices he seems ok, if a little out of it. Then he goes into the other room and promptly hangs himself. Upon viewing the disk, Michi and her coworkers discover an image of their friend staring blankly into the wall. Beside him is a monitor, displaying what appears to be a webcam shot of the room he’s in. Upon further inspection, they notice the monitor in the shot also has the same image of the room, and so does the computer in that picture, and so on to infinity. They’re so bewildered they almost don’t notice someone else reflected back on a different TV, off to the side ….
Across town, Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) a college student, slips an ISP start-up disk into his drive. Everything seems hunky dory, until his screen goes black (and so does the frame we’re watching — a disorienting and disquieting touch). A series of twitchy, glitchy images appear, mainly of dark apartments and lost souls. A man sits in shadows, his legs barely visible in the gloom. A chat room-like message pops up: “Do you want to meet a ghost?” Freaked out, Ryosuke asks a young woman in the computer-sciences department, Harue (an actor named Koyuki), if this is the new online normal: “Can the Internet dial you up itself?” Upon further investigation, they come to the logical (?) conclusion that the netherworld has become too crowded. Restless spirits are taking it upon themselves to come here now, one log-in at a time.
Atmosphere takes precedence over jump scares here, which means there are long stretches of stillness, silence and the foreboding sense that something is simply watching these characters stumble around in literal darkness. Those bits are broken up by sudden left turns: a newscast gets static-y and freezes on an image of a man missing half his head; phone calls in which voices robo-croak “Help”; a woman in the background of a scene throwing herself off a silo. (Its climactic sequence, in which a flaming jet airliner crashes into a deserted metropolis, felt especially raw in 2001.) Kurosawa has admitted that, having seen that J-horror was becoming the next big thing, he wanted to make something that rode the wave; in an interview on the movie’s recent DVD re-release, he remembers thinking, “In The Ring, a ghost crawls out of a TV screen. So what else has a screen?” His exploitation-cinema eureka moment: Computers! Such Cormanesque opportunism also precipitated a sequence in which a lank-haired specter stutter-creeps across a room toward a victim cowering behind a couch.
But Kurosawa was a filmmaker who preferred to let viewers marinate in enigmatic unease, which is why Pulse‘s recycled money shot involves a person simply being there one moment, and morphing into an eerie, vaguely stain without fanfare when the camera turns back to them the next. It’s the horror of absence over presence, minus one skin-crawling scene in which, in the flick of a light switch, the process is reversed. And like his breakthrough serial-killer procedural Cure (1997), which suggested the homicidal impulse could passed person-to-person like porcine flu, this is a horror movie that turns an unexplained epidemic into ground zero for existential horror. The most spine-tingling bit of dialogue doesn’t involve the rash of missing persons, the mass suicides, the suggest that this is happening globally or even the bit about stumbling across an Instagram of the damned. It’s Harue musing about how, “You might be all alone after death, too … nothing changes, [death is] just right now, forever … is that what becoming a ghost is about?” Later, she suggests that everyone trying to connect while in their pods, their cubicles, their bubbles — they’re already ghosts. They just have shuffled off the mortal coil yet.
Basking in the cathode-ray afterglow of such dour sentiments made Pulse the most chin-stroking of the era’s J-horror entries, whether you saw it while the subgenre was hot or long after it had become a Wiki footnote. But go back to it now, if you haven’t in a while. And while Kurosawa tells his supernatural 3.0 tale on doomy drip-drop at a time, think about the idea of the Internet as a source of contagion, introducing sicknesses and diseases into the body politic.
Think about how ideas fester, like rot, then can become mobile, transmutable, clickable. Think about how often you’re online, and what works into way into your mind without even knowing it. Think about the madness that lurks there. Think about the ability to slowly lose yourself, until you disappear altogether. “Would you like to meet a ghost?” In the dying light of 2018, the fear of it all remains. Only the software and the stains have changed.
Previously: Walk Hard