Movie: Pulse (2001)

J-horror is a genre that hasn’t clicked with me yet.  The only such movie I have really liked so far is Ringu (remade to great success in the US as The Ring).  That movie and its sequels have way too many shots of women looking out on the sea.  When this one opened on a similar image, I thought I accidentally started watching one of those films again.

There’s the sound of a dial-up modem over the opening credits, which made me smile.  I was reminded of Perfect Blue, another Japanese movie partly concerned with the technology of the nascent internet.  Similar to that movie, I was surprised to see people asking for help logging on.  I just always consider that nation as being so technologically superior to the rest of the world that they have always known intrinsically how to do anything with computers.  And yet, here we have somebody actually grabbing a printed user’s manual to access a service named “UR@NUS”.  I am not making that up.

Two parallel storylines run through the length of the movie, only converging near the end.  I found this a bit confusing, as I couldn’t figure out for the longest time how the characters from the separate threads were associated with each other.  Then I gave up trying to determine that, only to realize upon the merger of the storylines that these two groups didn’t know of each other before that point.

Haruhiko Kato plays the guy reading the manual and trying to access UR@NUS (*snicker*).  I like this character, who is just some shlub struggling to get online.  When he does, the browser opens a site that asks him if he would like to see a ghost.  His reaction to this is great and deeply human: he furiously unplugs everything from the computer.  I also like a later reaction he has to a potential love interest who will not stop talking about depressing matters: “Can we stop talking about this?”  You have no idea how long I have wanted somebody in a movie to deliver a line like this.

The other thread concerns a group of three college-aged adults (one man and two women) who will also stumble onto the same website, with varying results.  There are two things about this group that baffled me.  First, I wasn’t sure if they were horticultural students or a greenhouse’s employees, but they spend a lot of time at a plant nursery.  Not sure why I couldn’t stop thinking about that.  Second, they are all obsessed with getting a 3 ¾” floppy disc from their friend Taguchi, though I’m not sure what they thought they were getting.

We won’t see the computer geek Taguchi long, because it still be discovered, when Kumiko Aso finally goes to get the floppy disc, that he has hung himself.  I’ll get something out of the way now: every time a character said his name, my brain substituted “Tamagotchi” for it.  Y’know, that “digital pet” toy from the 1990’s. So my brain now can’t stop wondering why horticultural students need something a Tamagotchi brought from UR@NUS.

Anywho, Aso and her friends/co-workers/whatever will find the floppy contains an endless regression image of Tamagotchi’s computer setup, with the image we’re seeing on the computer screen, and the monitor in that image-within-the-image showing the same, yada yada yada.  Shortly after Ako sees the image, the image on her TV gets weird and glitchy for a bit.  I didn’t find any of this unnerving, but I suspect it makes the hair stand on the back of the necks of many viewers.

Like Ringu, this is yet another work about the evils of technology.  To put a finer point on it, it seems to be more so about how we change with the technology.  In the case of the internet, I’m guessing director Kiyoshi Kurosawa saw people staring dumbly at monitors and wondered if that is really living.  I assume he’s putting his thoughts in the mouth of one character who describes such people are being no different from ghosts.

With that explicit observation, I’m not sure if Pulse is truly a ghost story.  Admittedly, there is a ghost element to it, with people who presumably went to the cursed website later putting squares of red tape around doorways and on walls, making what appear to be gateways for spirits to enter our world.  Honestly, I was a little fuzzy on this concept and how it served the movie, particularly in a scene with a twitchy ghost woman who is photographed in a way that, combined with her movements, tells me Kurosawa has a big hard-on for the films of David Lynch.

The same character who equates computer users with ghosts is affiliated with a university computer program.  On one of these computers, an AI displays dots that are drawn to each other but will be destroyed if they come in contact.  There is an occasional streak of light displayed which she believes are ghosts in the AI, so there’s that.  She also muses the afterlife is filled to capacity, forcing some spirits back into the physical world.

If that’s the case, then I don’t understand why these ghosts would want people to commit suicide.  After all, wouldn’t that be a further drain on real estate in the afterlife? 

And yet, people keep offing themselves, most memorably a woman who takes a fatal dive from a few stories up in one unbroken shot.  There was a bonus feature on the blu-ray showing how this was done, and I highly recommend checking out this brief clip.

Pulse has many interesting ideas, but it didn’t gel as a cohesive experience for me.  Also, I just didn’t find it very creepy or scary, which I am going to chalk up to cultural differences.  I will concede, however, it makes a trenchant point about how our interaction with others in the real world has changed with our ever-growing obsession with our screens.  And I write that fully aware I am writing on a laptop and you, reader of some point in the future, are reading it on a similar device, too.  I would love to hear Kurosawa’s thoughts on what society is like today, more than 25 years after this film’s release.

Dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Starring Haruhiko Katô, Kumiko Asô, Koyuki

Watched on Arrow Video blu-ray