Thursday, December 20, 2012

Movie Appraisal: Pulse (Kairo) (回路) (2001)

Pulse (or Kairo) is an incredibly melancholic Japanese horror movie released in the early 2000s. While it is not much of a technical majesty by any means, it relies on mood, atmosphere, and characters and situations that an average person can easily relate with. I cannot say that this is that scariest or most horrific film of all time, nor can I say that this film really scared me all that much at all. What I can say is that the entire film is unsettling, and that's really all one needs in a great horror movie.

And you know what? This movie, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, delivers on every front. It is a great horror movie, not precisely because it's scary or it made me urinate myself from fear... but because it is both unsettling and unforgettable. See, I've watched a great many horror films over the course of my life. (I have to point that out here to make my ultimate point.) I've watched horror films from all over the world, from any decade you could name. I've watched monster movies, slashers, gore films, psychological horror, drive-in horror, B-movies, space horror, and all other kinds of films besides. Very few stick out in my mind, and very few stay in my mind for years after I've forgotten even the name of the movie. But Pulse stuck in my mind. It stayed there like some kind of mental brick. I had seen this movie years ago, probably while I was still in high school, but possibly before even that. And I remembered certain scenes in it, but the ending specifically stood out... the ending and the final scenes in the abandoned factory. And for years those scenes stuck in my head without a name to attach to them. I had forgotten what this movie was called, but the story, the scenes, and the scares stayed behind. Very few movies have done that.

For instance I can look through all the movies I've reviewed over the course of two-and-some-odd-years, and I might remember a scene or two here and there. Hell, maybe I could even name them simply because I wrote about them, but before this blog existed, I was just a dude who liked horror movies. Invariably I would forget some of them. Hell, I've forgotten many more horror movies than most people have even watched. But Pulse stood in my mind. Sure, the title of the film was entirely forgotten, but the content certainly wasn't. And so now I'm revisiting this film years later, ready to talk about it, review it, and tell my impressions to any that would read them.While this movie is not perfect or wonderful or even good looking, it works as exactly what it is, and it remains memorable because of that.

I have to mention that I searched for the name of this film for years, simply wanting to see it again, but never remembering what it was called. I, completely accidentally, watched a "scariest horror movie clips" kind of video on YouTube a little while ago and recognized a scene from this film, saw the title, and whooped with joy. Then I proceeded to track this movie down by any means necessary. I still have a few movies like that, movies stuck in my head without names to them, and maybe someday I'll find them too... until then though, this is a success story for the past.

Pulse is a fine movie by the way. Its parts are better than the whole of it, and taken alone some of the scenes could be quite terrifying. But as a whole the movie kind of loses its terror. All I could see while watching it was a social commentary rather than a horror movie, and that was an absolute shame. If I could take my head out of why this movie was made and look at it on the merits of the plot and characters alone I could really see this as an effective horror movie. Try as I might though, all I could see was social commentary using ghosts. A heavy hammer seemed to pound thoughts into my head... thoughts like: "The Internet isolates and makes people lonely and terrified, ghosts within their own houses," "The culture of Japan seems to be so focused on work, school, and things that aren't people, and that relationships, friendships, and love in general are lacking to an extreme degree," and mostly ""If the world keeps moving in this direction, the world will be as good as empty, each person committing a social suicide, being stuck to a computer forever rather than with people, caring and helping and even dying as they ought to." Those are the comments I kept seeing with every scene. There were comparisons between the living and the dead, but it was saying that both the living and the dead are both dead... dead, cold, and lonely... so what does life even matter if there are no relationships, no meaningful meetings, nothing but strangers and websites without names?

While I think it's an incredibly astute commentary, it hits like a steel beam. There is no real subtlety there, and also no real point but to stick a middle finger at the technological world. It makes an interesting tech-ghost story into something with meaning, yes, but it kind of takes the fun out of the whole thing, which is a bit of a negative. The characters don't matter.... and neither do their struggles... since the commentary is first and foremost what can be, and is, seen. I find that disappointing even if it doesn't take anything away from the movie. Most people watching it probably just watch a kind of creepy apocalyptic ghost story, and good for them. I'm glad that they can enjoy the film without seeing too far into it. As for me, the film was more mediocre. It didn't really do anything I haven't seen before. The ghosts were sometimes creepy, but never scary. The music was sometimes out of place. The sounds and voices never quite worked for me. And the characters never truly felt real. I couldn't imagine most of them outside of this movie, hanging out with friends or going to a movie, playing a video game or just screwing around on scooters or something. They were too self-contained within this movie, and that is the biggest negative about this film. I wanted to see some life in the characters or the story or something... but I never felt anything. I never cared about the characters or the story. The only thing I truly cared about, thought about, was the social commentary, which, while interesting, does not a great movie make.

So, I'm contradicting myself, saying that this is a great movie and not a great movie at the same time. And that kind of sums up my thoughts of this film. I loved the creepy aspects of this film. I loved how technology (and a creepy ghost within that technology) was shown as this evil and malignant force that could easily overpower any person. I loved the ghosts and the people fading into a dark stain upon the walls. The suicides were incredibly well done, specifically the woman who jumps off of the side of a building. That looked amazing. And I loved a lot of the idea of ghosts being just as real as the living. That concept and execution worked so well it made the entire movie worth watching for that alone. The story itself was complex in its own right as well, but not precisely as confusing as many comments seem to think of it as. The whole story is there, but some things are simply not told to the audience. I think the movie not showing its entire hand is not a bad thing. In fact, I liked that about the movie as well... the fact that there were still mysteries within this universe.

This movie was made when the internet was still not quite the monster and behemoth it is today. It was still big and used for many things, but it wasn't as practical, nor was it quite as easy to find all the information you could ever want. Chat rooms were the standard for talking to people online, forums were getting off of the ground, but the internet as a whole was still this undiscovered country. Very little social media existed, and certainly nothing like Twitter or Facebook or Reddit or Tumblr. Nothing that could so easily encompass all of your social and practical needs all in one website. Isolation was what computers were for. They were for putting you further from society, not linking you up... but that's not true, is it? The internet is used to connect us all together... but not together at the same time. We are always separated by a great curtain of space, and those who frequent the internet are nothing more than the norm now. Looking at that student, the main male character, Ryosuke, who had his first experience with the internet ever... so much so that he didn't know what "bookmarks" were, well, that just doesn't happen in society today. We're born knowing more than we could ever effectively use about technology... and yet more frequently we find ourselves not understanding each other, becoming more and more isolated from the very people we think we are getting closer to by using the internet. Okay, I should stop my diatribe on today's culture. Let me just finish this paragraph by saying that if that were my first experience with the internet like it was Ryosuke's, seeing creepy people on the internet and a dude with a bag over his head before I even had my entire internet hooked up correctly, I'd need a smoke too.

Ultimately the movie succeeds at doing something. I don't know if I'll ever be able to say what. Maybe I simply love the ideas presented in the movie and that's it. But maybe it's something more. The movie looks creepy, not crisp and sharp, but muddy and always dark. The sounds are off. The music doesn't fit. Unsettling is the word of the day for this flick. The use of sound (or lack thereof) is also very well done. It both unsettles and startles without the movie itself having to do much at all but exist in the background.

This is a hard movie to review and a hard movie to rate. I have no idea if I should recommend it or not. I enjoyed watching it even though some major parts of the film are incredibly flawed. I think it is one of the creepier Japanese horror movies even though I was never scared. And I think it is incredibly effective even though it is overlong. If you like social commentary in your horror movies, this is a good one to watch. If you like a creepy ghost movie without any social commentary, you might like this film too though. Just turn your brain off. As for Japanese horror, this is one of the best I've seen, easily up there with Noroi. So, I guess check it out if you find all this 3-5AM ramble-writing-dissecting-reviewing interesting. Or not. I liked the movie well enough. It still is a great movie even if it isn't perfect.


  1. Great post!!! Kairo is one of my favorite j-horror films ever, and one of the most unsettling films I have ever seen. When people ask me what is my favorite horror movie, I always say "Kairo, hands down." when they ask me why I just tell them to watch the film with the year it was made in mind. Like you said, the internet was a very barren place in it's origin, somewhat mysterious and spooky. I for one, loved the social commentary in the film although I didn't really pick up on it during my first viewing, but over the years it became obvious, especially since it seems the world is going further in the direction of social suicide. The only problems with the film IMO, as you pointed out, are that the characters aren't fleshed out enough for us to really care for them, it was never truly horrifying- just extremely unsettling (at least for me), and it made me want to stay away from my computer for a week after seeing it.

    All in all, great, unbiased review of a great film. I'm also glad that you listed it next to Noroi: The Curse, probably my second favorite Asian horror film I have ever seen.

    1. Hey, thanks! For whatever reason this was one of the most memorable horror films I had ever seen. What it doesn't have in pure horror it makes up with seriously unforgettable pieces of everything else. I really enjoyed this film a ton, especially in retrospect, compared to many completely drab and frankly dumb movies that come out all the time. If I had to give any one J-Horror movie to watch for somebody who knows nothing about them, I'd recommend this one as well. It's seriously just that good and well done a movie.

      Yeah, I love Noroi as well. I don't think that one is quite as accessible as Kairo, though I do think it is much more horrific on the whole. Honestly, while I do watch a ton of Asian horror films, those two would probably be in my top five of those kinds of films. Which is saying a lot. They're really fantastic.

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