Pulse (2001)

Pulse first published by EyeForFilm (03/02/2006)

“It all began one day, without warning, like this”.

These are the opening words of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (Kairo), delivered in voice-over by Michi (Kumiko Aso), as she stands alone on a ship’s deck with her back to the camera, staring out (much like the viewer) at the menacing clouds and brooding waters ahead. The rest of the film, apart from a chilling coda, comprises an extended flashback, revealing just how the young single woman from Tokyo has come to be on an ocean-going vessel heading into a storm; but it is this initial image, wherein a modern, urbanised individual (just like you and me) is faced with the overwhelming chaos of eternity, that will haunt the labyrinthine fabric of Pulse, as its different characters must all, one by one, confront their own isolation, insignificance and deepest, darkest despair.

After her computer geek friend Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi) hangs himself without warning, everyone around Michi begins either to disappear or to commit suicide under mysterious circumstances. Meanwhile, a shy young student named Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato), a newcomer to the internet, stumbles upon a website showing jittery webcam footage of people alone in rooms, accompanied by the message, “Would you like to meet a ghost?” When his device starts switching on to the site by itself, Kawashima turns to computer teacher Harue (Koyuki) for advice, and soon she too is being drawn to the Forbidden Room, a location which, no matter whether it is real or imagined, whether in this world or the next, leaves its visitors with no hope of recovery. Eventually a series of bizarre and disturbing occurrences bring Michi and Kawashima together – but everyone, it seems, is destined to face the apocalypse alone.

With its long-haired spectres, eerie phone messages and technology-based terror, Pulse clearly belongs to the current run of J-horror that began with Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) – and like Ringu, Ju-on: The Grudge and Dark Water, it has been snatched up for an American remake (due for release later in 2006). It will certainly be interesting to see the reductive havoc that Hollywood will inevitably play with a plot that is so bewilderingly outlandish and overdetermined.

Pulse is all at once a terrifying modern ghost story, an update of the Book of Revelations and a parable of urban alienation, brimming with characters who (necessarily) never quite connect with one another, and episodic subplots that seem as compartmentalised and free-floating as the flickering webcam images that punctuate the film. When Kawashima declares, “So many things happened at once, it’s impossible to sort them out,” viewers will find themselves (like Michi) nodding along in agreement. Indeed, by restricting the point-of-view to a set of confused characters (and a few strategically placed webcams), Kurosawa cleverly pulls a fast one on the viewer, ushering in the end of the world (at least as we know it) so quietly that we too barely notice it happening until it is far too late.

This combination of subtlety and indeterminacy makes for an uncanny treat, full of phantom ideas and unanswered questions – none of which is likely to survive the grinding, crunching gears of the Hollywood machine. So see Pulse now, in its original Japanese version, before time well and truly runs out.

© Anton Bitel