Thursday, October 8, 2015

Riske Business: Why You Should Watch Pulse (Kairo) This Month

by Adam Riske
Pulse (Kairo) cast a spell on me like few horror movies ever have. Have you seen it?*

One of my favorite things about the horror genre is that it can be used to express singular points of view about societal issues and still entertain at the same time. Few horror movies do that better, in my eyes, than writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo (also known as Pulse) from 2001. This dude is way afraid of the internet and he’s not afraid to tell you about it. There is nothing subtle about Pulse, but it’s more powerful and complex as a result. It’s like a graduate school class on the internet’s effect on society masquerading as a standard issue J-Horror movie.
The complex themes and interesting moral questions Pulse raises – which come one after the other, particularly in the first two acts – are fascinating. The great thing about Pulse is that the narrative is just as compelling as all of the subtext. But before diving into its themes, let me tell you the plot in brief. Pulse tells the story of a group of Japanese university students and young professionals who investigate a series of suicides linked to an internet web cam site that promises visitors the chance to meet a ghost. As a narrative, the movie is super creepy – there’s no room left in the ether for ghosts (who all seem very unsettled) so they begin to spill over into our world – and the story explores how citizens of Japan react to this occurrence. In most cases it makes them sad and withdrawn at best and suicidal at worst. What Kurosawa does so well is conveying this constant sense of dread so much so that the movie sticks to you well after the credits roll.

From the ghostly and eerie score to the anemic looking photography (this movie feels like it was shot in Depressed-O-Vision) to the performances that are almost uniformly drained of all energy, hope and life, Kurosawa expertly plunges the viewer into a desolate and moody experience. He also peppers the movie with a number of mysterious, cryptic and shocking images, none more so than a shot where you don’t notice (until it’s too late) that a woman is about to jump to her death from a tower in the background of the frame. It’s a movie that understands that what’s scary is not what we see but when we can’t rationalize or understand what we just saw.
And yet, the movie is not without humor. I’m not saying Pulse is a funny movie; however, it was made in the early stages of the internet so some of it feels quaint as a result. It provides welcome relief from what is otherwise a nightmarish and dreamlike experience. Also, a relief for me, in a weird way, is the end credits song by Cocco called “Lay Down My Arms,” which is just sort of nice and pleasant sounding coming after the harrowing experience that is the feature film. It’s a prime example of a song I love from movies that I probably shouldn’t. Honestly, this song sounds like something you would listen to at a high school graduation more than at the end of one of the most depressing horror movies of all time. You can listen to the song here:

But as I alluded to earlier, the movie sticks with me primarily because of its themes. There are too many to cover at length so I’m just going to list all of the ones I could keep track of.

• The real and very scary “death fantasy” – i.e. how would people react to my death?

• Who is the “real” you? Your online personality or who you are among your real-life friends and family?

• The internet’s effect on interpersonal communication and the withdrawal/social isolation it can cause.

• Suicide leaves a stain – it affects everyone and makes us all feel isolated and depressed.
• There are things on the internet that are so upsetting that they should be “taped up” in a “Forbidden Room” so that no one can ever be touched by them.

• The concept of Death is scary because you can’t take anything with you in death. Death is eternal loneliness. And yet we are all drawn towards death, we have to poke at it with a stick (one reason why I can say, personally, I love the horror genre).

Pulse is a masterpiece of apocalyptic, existential dread that I strongly recommend you check out this Scary Movie Month. It can be found on DVD or streaming services such as Shudder and Amazon Instant Video.
*The first time I saw Pulse was at the Music Box Theatre immediately followed by a midnight screening of Pink Floyd: The Wall. Two super depressing movies back-to-back. They should have sold Prozac at the concession stand that night.

P.S. There’s an American remake of Pulse starring Kristin Bell. It’s garbage. Skip it and see the original instead.


  1. There are really only a handful of J-Horror films that separate themselves from the rest and I agree that Pulse is one of them. Kiyoshi Kurosawa knows how to create suspense and attack you with creepy, atmosphere and visuals. His 1997 film Cure although not technically a Horror film is another of his that kept me feeling uneasy throughout.

    As you stated, the American remake is trash. Just another watered down, bastardization a la The Uninvited which was a remake of the South Korean masterpiece, A Tale of Two Sisters.

  2. Pulse is incredible. Engaging, complex, enigmatic but above all just fucking terrifying. I agree witch Chaybee about Cure and also recommend Retribution, a spiritual sequel of sorts to Pulse. Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) has had a crazily prolific career and far too little of his work is available on DVD. He has made some fantastic and fascinating horror movies, but all of his movies mash genres and he has many masterpieces outside of the horror genre, many of which incorporate horror themes and ideas. I recommend Doppelganger, Bright Future and Seance to anyone who likes Pulse. He's one of the great Japanese directors.

    Great write up about Pulse, Adam. I'll definitely revisit it this month.

    1. I'm a big fan of Tokyo Sonata. Have you seen that one?

  3. I've seen the American remake - it didn't buzz me. This, on the other hand, sounds J-Horroriffic - I'm in!

    1. Cool. If you see it, let me know what you think yo!