cast: Kumiko Aso, Harujiko Katô, Kurume Arisaka, Masatoshi Matsuo, and Koyuki

writer and director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

119 minutes (15) 2001 widescreen ratio 16:9
Optimum Asia DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Christopher Geary

“Would you like to meet a ghost?” Take note of the wording of that question from this movie. In marked contrast to The Sixth Sense, this extraordinary Japanese chiller is not concerned with seeing dead people, ‘all the time’; it’s about meeting them. Furthermore, like John Carpenter’s underrated Prince Of Darkness, this harks back to Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass TV serials for its thematic inspiration and varied genre references. Viewers requiring easily digestible rationalisations from screen fiction are advised to look elsewhere for their home entertainment. Publicity for this British DVD release makes a major play of the fact that Pulse (aka: Kairo) predates acclaimed shockers, The Grudge and The Ring; but that’s only true of the US remakes, not their Asian originals Ju-on (TV movie, 2000) and Ringu. None of that matters, however, because Pulse is actually superior to any of those pictures.

The initial phase of this film’s scenario is somewhat reminiscent of something out of British cult-TV series Sapphire And Steel (1979-82), but without, of course, the prompt appearance of detectives from a nameless paranormal ‘agency’ capable of solving the mystery – and fixing whatever’s gone tragically wrong. With unhurried pacing, moments of scary delirium, and an instantly likeable young cast, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) ensures Pulse intrigues and fascinates like all the best sci-fi horror. A solitary IT man, Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi), overdue with the delivery of a computer disc, quickly (and very quietly!) hangs himself – in the next room – when he’s visited at home by worried co-worker, Michi (Kumiko Aso). The CD-ROM rapidly spreads a bizarre ‘virus’ that causes a spate of suicides. Shadowy figures lurk in public buildings or private residences. Normal TV programmes are suddenly on the blink, mobile phones fail to work or only receive calls from dead people, and haunted ‘forbidden rooms’ sealed with red tape (that serves multiple symbolic functions throughout the narrative) are now found on every back street. As the most hi-tech gadget-conscious, consumer culture on Earth, perhaps it’s no big surprise that Pulse’s digital apocalypse starts in Japan, where the ‘permanent’ shadows of Hiroshima suggest a powerful resonance for this supernatural movie’s uncanny images.

Despite the plot’s focus on technology, it’s female intuition that leads some of the main characters into shocking discoveries and mortal danger. Taguchi’s colleague Yabe (Masatoshi Matsuo) is next in line for a confrontation with an eerie spectre. He soon becomes withdrawn and lethargic, and the increasingly familiar pattern of death wishful thinking dominates his limited future. Avoiding computers offers no protection from the blitz of elemental chaos. Economics student Kawashima (Haruhiko Katô, Another Heaven) hardly knows enough to connect a home PC to the Internet, safely, but his desktop link has no immunity to the invasive psychic entropy. College undergraduate and IT-tutor Harue (former model, Koyuki, from Zwick’s The Last Samurai) investigates the origins of creepy web-cam footage showing brooding spectres in tireless-as-rust action replays, and reflects on the lack of genuine social contact in an urban civilisation where TV lays claim to ‘reality’ (and elsewhere, a gardener comments sagaciously on the insincerity of friendships in modern life). But, in spite of her philosophical insights, Harue still ends up lonely and utterly distraught, reluctantly acknowledging that “nothing changes… after death.” She is cruelly overwhelmed by something inexplicable that’s “no longer a faint presence” in the everyday human world, and she’s not comforted by Kawashima’s pragmatic optimism. It’s particularly sad to see the cheerful Junko (pretty Kurume Arisaka, making her film debut) succumb to the prevailing sickness of ‘zombified’ wraith-dom, in one of this evocative drama’s most distressing scenes. Following the frightening disappearance of Junko, the despairing Michi phones home. Her mother answers, but there’s nobody there…

Kawashima finds the missing Harue’s science lab abandoned and wrecked. In the sparkling rainbow lights of a games’ arcade, the virtually formless apparition of a wandering spirit is truly unnerving but, adding to desperate survivors’ continuing misery, sinister forces come oozing from another realm into corporeality. Are you getting this message… or is it just a trick of the light? The film’s low-key CGI work is startlingly effective. There are only a few ‘spectaculars’ (a burning city, a plane crash in the urban wasteland) during the narrative’s gripping climax, yet all such moments are always entirely relevant to the story, never gratuitous special effects shots that undermine the plot’s carefully wrought tension. The occasionally shrill music and unearthly sound effects of early scares gives way to melancholy strings, and the closing score is neatly wrapped by a westernised rock theme song (Hane by Cocco) that’s actually rather good.

Putting most Hollywood genre thrillers to shame, Pulse delivers a brilliant vision of the end of the world that ingeniously avoids the usual pitfalls of cliché. As such, it is highly recommended to fans of thought-provoking, fantastic cinema. DVD extras: just a featurette and trailer.