Just when you thought the tidal wave of Japanese horror films had finally ebbed, along comes a local theatrical run (coinciding with the stateside DVD release) of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s seriously creepy Pulse from 2001. By now the genre’s aesthetic flourishes — jerky camera cuts, eerie atmosphere, and pale, long-haired apparitions — have become clichés. But unlike the scare tactics of Ringu, Ju-On and Honogurai Mizu No Soko Kara (remade respectively as The Ring, The Grudge and Dark Water), Pulse offers something a bit more ambitious.

Kurosawa’s tale of specters invading our world through the Internet comments on the alienating effects of technology. With haunting imagery, the director captures the loneliness and despair that plague disaffected youth and posits a depressingly apocalyptic outcome.

Young botanist Michi (Kumiko Aso) becomes concerned when her friend, Taguchi, mysteriously misses a week of work. Checking up on him, she witnesses his sudden and inexplicable suicide. When she reviews a computer disk Taguchi was working on for the nursery, she uncovers a series of disturbing images. This sets in motion a bizarre chain of events involving Web-based spirits and her co-workers’ increasingly odd behavior.

Meanwhile, in a parallel story line, university student Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) enlists the aid of a computer lab tech (the one-named Koyuki) after an unsettling Web site called “The Forbidden Room” starts loading itself onto his computer.

As people go missing (or take their lives), leaving behind eerie smudges on floors and walls, Michi and Ryosuke struggle to figure out what’s going on. Fleeing from one blighted Tokyo setting to the next, they find a city engulfed by suicide and mass disappearances.

Pulse relies on mood and a dawning sense of terror to draw us into its allegorical plotline. The story doesn’t always make sense — the explanations are barely coherent — but the characters’ sense of helplessness is acute. There are no jump-scares or terror-filled moments, but rather a constant sense of dread that creeps under the skin and chills you to the bone. The overall effect is impressively eerie.

Dark interiors, distorted shadows and strange shifts in focus add to the film’s pervasive sense of foreboding. Kurosawa punctuates the unnerving silence with malevolent hums, blips and buzzes. It’s an industrial sound track that recalls David Lynch’s Eraserhead.

Kurosawa presents tormented ghosts, murky computer images and doorways marked by red masking tape as both harbingers of doom and symbols of disaffection and isolation. His extended takes and wide camera angles drive home the impersonal and empty nature of modern living.

This nightmarish approach to filmmaking will rivet some and bore others. Audiences who embrace Kurosawa’s soul-draining vision may find themselves giving up hope that humanity will be able to stem the tide of physical, emotional and psychological estrangement that’s slowly consuming us.


In Japanese with English subtitles. Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-21117).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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