I’m gonna start this review with a little literary diversion. Sometime fantasist John Crowley wrote a book a few years back entitled Aegypt. The title was a deliberate displacement, taking an archaic spelling of Egypt and infusing that name with a mythic, alternate reality. By the same token the film Pulse is also known as Kairo.
Now this is not a deliberate thing, of course, Kairo being Japanese for ‘circuit’ — bear with me here — but it works on a similar level. Kairo is a film that deals in displaced realities, an alternate and vaguely exotic world where the gaps between the spiritual and technical are dissolving. And so I like to think that maybe, just maybe, the title might deliberately be invoking Cairo, a city steeped in its own mythic history where the boundaries between the living and the dead are, in the popular imagination, blurred.
Whether this is the case or not Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s movie plays on visual puns. The first characters of the film are workers in a rooftop nursery — an isolated, lush environment far removed from the technological landscape that litters the streets below. It is a nice ploy that the initial run of cyber-ghosts into the real world starts here. In a matter of moments we are taken from the nurturing if artificial natural world of the nursery into a place where the artificial is techno bound and omni present — all insidious and malevolent.
One of the nursery co-workers, Taguchi, has not arrived for work with an all important floppy disk. Michi (Kumiko Aso) goes to his apartment — dimly lit and claustrophobic after the airy rooftop greenery — only to find him non-communicative. Tagachi disappears for a moment and silently hangs himself. To top things off, and to really take this film out of any kind of normality, his body later appears to blur into the wall, leaving a dark burnt stain.
Elsewhere, college student, luddite and our eventual hero Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) is discovering the joys on the Internet for the first time. Kurosawa’s concern with the Net as a controlled and limited gateway to the world are here first expressed as Kawashima’s computer acts with a mind of it’s own, taking him to a site that asks “Would you like to meet ghosts?” The computer eventually starts turning on by itself and Kawashima, baffled and more than a little concerned, visits computer lecturer Harue (Koyuki) for help.
It soon becomes apparent that people all over Tokyo are experiencing the same thing on their computers. The Net appears to have become a means for the Restless Dead to cross over and infect the living who, in turn, suicide and cross over themselves, thus creating a ‘circuit’ between life and death.
It is not a stretch to suggest that Kurosawa’s film owes much to the Ring cycle with its concerns of a technological society becoming dehumanised and isolated. So, yeah, sure it sits as part of a slew of films that deal with the same things — if it’s not the Net, it’s a video, a phone, a lift — but Kairo/Pulse has a strong and unique visual presence. I was reminded of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, where the skies are the “colour of television, tuned to a dead channel”.
It’s an apt quote, in many ways, for this film in which the circuit remains unbroken and the world spirals to an apocalypse as inevitable and unstoppable as that in the conclusion of The Return of the Living Dead. But Kurosawa’s film turns that American notion of zombies hungry for the brains of the living on its head: here the ghosts are the living and the dead long for life.
It’s a strange, simple conceit but Kairo/Pulse remains a fine, unsettling film.