Pulse (2001) Post-Factum Review | An Equivocal Techno-Paranoia That Deconstructs The Meaning of Watching Horror
We are currently living in a Pulse-like digital era, but the film also says something about our relationship with cinema
Post-Factum review is our series of retrospective reviews of classic cinema or more recent films from some years ago that we have not reviewed yet. This series will look at films from a “post” perspective, by looking at the film from the lens of the present; dismantling historical context in favour of current interpretation. It is also a writing exercise that stretches criticism beyond our normal reviews.
Seeing Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 J-Horror essential Pulse in an era where technology and the internet have completely and utterly swallowed humanity and coldly digest it in its belly is a terrifying experience. It is the simplest, surface-level observation one could make about the film—that technology has made us lonely creatures in our world that we might as well be ghosts. But at our current age where parasocial relationships with online deities and the discontinuity of the modern relationship and friendship, one could be forgiven if they should arrive at such an ‘easy’ interpretation of the film—so did I at first.
You could not help interpreting the film that way now. Any form of more profound, much more intelligent discussion on the film gets thrown out of the window when presented with the existential dread of the online world as what is essentially our afterlife, a purgatory that would consume every second of our already short life. It is a laughably easy interpretation that would be remiss in a more scholarly interpretation of this film. But the zeitgeist of each era oftentimes influences the interpretation of art, where emotions overpower historical context on first impression.
Pulse (2001) stars an uncanny cast of characters. From carefree college student Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato), computer science student Harue (Koyuki) and plant shop employee Michi (Kumiko Aso) and her co-workers. These cast form distinct groups that we follow throughout the film in parallel storylines in their search for the truth. Kickstarted with the mysterious suicide of one of their co-workers, the plant shop employees would discover the existence of ghosts that move through devices and the internet, which might have been the reason why their friend had died. Despite the story and characters’ insistence that these people are friends and care enough about each other to go out of their way to intervene in one another’s personal circumstances, they all speak to each other like strangers; utilizing simple speech which holds as much affection as one would feel towards their neighbour’s kid. They are entirely devoid of any form of genuine connection, a detachment that one could feel to be allegorical to the ghosts and their eternal damnation to loneliness in the afterlife i.e. the internet.
As horrifying as the sophisticated scares and creepiness of the film are; and while the incongruity of the acting and behaviour of the characters were in service of the themes, I felt an eerie unemphatic gaze towards the demise of the characters and the other humans in the film, perhaps more so than the typical horror fare (that I admittedly don’t partake too often). It is hard to decide whether this made me like the film more or less, there was hardly anything in the way of a lasting impression of the characters. But like how the hypnosis in Kurosawa’s Cure (1997) and the death in this film was portrayed as a spreading infection—a virus that catalysed a pandemic—the aloofness of the characters to their surroundings and other humans perhaps affected the audience as well.
An Incongruous Picture
But this could be interpreted by how the film might be a message on our relationship with entertainment, cinema and horror. Pulse‘s ghosts and phantoms are seemingly inconsistent in their tangibility and presence in the material world. They could be dots on a screen, a shadow of a man, or a fully-formed entity with visible traits like a face. There is very little way of a coherent canon of what a ghost is, or what their intentions are. The audience might hurriedly accept the explanation that one of the characters in the film makes of ghosts running out of space in the afterlife and have come to the material plane through ways of technological devices, but did they? Just as the audience—and this review—would seek to interpret meanings and messages from the film, the humans in Pulse‘s world would quickly attempt to reason why all of this was happening to them. The ghosts themselves ask the humans on the computer screen, “Would you like to see a ghost?”, as was the promise of this film and many horror films in general. Why do we want to see a ghost? perhaps it is due to fear of the unknown beyond death and our feeble mortality. In horror films, we want to see someone dying in a bleak manner—yet none of the characters were ever physically harmed by a ghost, they all committed suicide in this film. This film offers an incongruous image that defies a critical audience, it is an act of madness that we continuously subject ourselves to by consuming entertainment and peeling every layer that a film could offer.
The computer screens in the film are often blurred to fill the entire frame of the camera’s gaze. Sometimes, the camera’s gaze itself is the spirit. In one scene, the camera—the ghost—is looking at a character, while we cut to a computer screen showing that same point of view. If the audience is the ghosts, then we are the ghosts invading the human realm of the film’s world in our attempt to swallow a singular piece of entertainment, that being the film. I realise that this is all an entirely wild conjecture that might be seen as a cop-out for a more concrete read of the film, but I posit that an indistinct, ever-shifting analysis of the film is in service to Kurosawa’s ambivalent filmmaking. I began this review by stating my initial impression of the film as being about fears of technological purgatory and our present detachment from other humans through static avatars on a phone screen, and I am now left in doubt and feel a discontinuity on the nature of life, death and the afterlife that Pulse is portraying, just like the ghosts seen in the film.
A Creeping Descent
Kurosawa’s stylistic meditation is something that is not expected of a horror film. In a sense, the film feels like something akin to sleepwalking, where the audience and the characters travel from one scene to the next, one location to the next for seemingly no reason. In the middle of what one would think to be a heightened crisis in a horror scenario, one character absent-mindedly travels to an empty arcade before realising their current circumstance again. The characters are hypnotised in the same way as in Kurosawa’s Cure, but instead of hypnosis, their disconnection from the material world leads them to impulsive actions even when they know it will lead to their demise. The characters experience a sort of paradoxical undressing, a phenomenon where individuals with hypothermia experience extreme heat and remove their articles of clothing, which leads to further coldness before death. They walk into the ‘Forbidden Rooms’ from this compulsion and are quickly swallowed by grief towards their mortal coil.
And while I am in great admiration of Kurosawa’s filmmaking and his equivocal depiction of ghosts and human relationships in Pulse, as a film, my enjoyment did falter and subside as we near the end of the film, where the film takes an apocalyptic turn. While the initial realisation and creepiness of the liminal environment that is empty yet now teeming with ghosts hiding before ‘Forbidden Rooms’ with red tape is unsettling and fantastic, the film lingers slightly too long and shows a tad bit too much. It is in weird contrast to the slow-cooked and subdued Mise-en-scène that Kurosawa has built for the first one hour and thirty minutes. It is enough to greatly lower my critical rating of the film, even though I still think that Pulse is an influential milestone in horror cinema.