回路 (Pulse) — 2001, Japan, dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
I’ve long been convinced that Japanese society of the late 20th and 21st centuries has acted as a sort of prophecy for Western society. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Japanese art. One can see predictions of inter-gender crises of trust in Mishima’s works such as Forbidden Colours, and uncomfortable consequences of interactive storytelling represented in Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 2. The reasons seem clear — a nation on the forefront of both consumer technologies and corporate social management (see Kaizen, a term you may have heard a manager use before) moving at an accelerated pace also produces insight into the emergent properties and dangers of these advancements.
It should be no surprise, then, that the first horror film to truly understand the internet as a medium, and potentially the best film to date with the internet as the primary subject, is Kairo, or Pulse in English. A slow-paced, meditative and quietly emotional kind of horror film, this isn’t a feature to look to if one is in the mood for adrenaline pounding scares or a screaming session. What it does provide is a look at the horror genre that uses the tropes and features of genre to provide poetic perspective on the societal shifts created by the rapid emergence of a new technology.
The film is a ghost story — but the aesthetics will be familiar to any child of early 2000’s internet culture. Haunted chatrooms which display disturbing images are prescient of both image board culture and randomized webcam platforms such as Chatroulette and Omegle. The computer, when connected to a world-wide web, becomes a magic mirror, transmitting reflections to others — creating the artifice of connection. This medium is a place where the private horrors of life can become public, behind the safe veils of silicon and anonymity.
The ghosts themselves have not returned to punish the living for crimes done against them in life, or to relive past traumas. They are instead representatives of a change in environment that new technologies engender, a peering through to worlds of lost possibility and potential that manifest in the online ecosystem. In the memorable climactic scene, Ryosuke, the young isolated student who has recently been introduced to the online world is cornered in an abandoned factory by the ghost of an old man. The spirit, rendered in harsh black and white, seems to emerge out of the background, as if it lived as part of the disused machinery of a neglected past. Most haunting is his continued plea;
“Death was…eternal loneliness…help me…”
“What’s that got to do with me?!”
Here the central theme of the narrative is shown most clearly. The internet shows us disparate, disturbing and uncanny snapshots of the lives of all who it perceives; when Facebook advertised it’s virtual reality functionality by offering users the chance to visit hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, for example, we could hear within ourselves Ryosuke’s desperate plea. Rather than empowering us to use this connection to help others, this technology often only makes us painfully aware of how powerless we are to help salve misery that we would otherwise blissfully ignore.
When the scope is reduced to the localized, this ghost remains resonant. With daily stories of elder abuse in retirement homes, the Old confronting the Young reaffirms this central message; that the online world materializes our conscience, and makes it impossible to ignore the sins that we feel guilty of, and the people we neglect daily.
Guy Debord writes in his masterwork ‘The Society of the Spectacle’;
“All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”
A statement that can be followed implicitly through Kurosawa’s film. As the ghosts emerge into the human world, it slowly becomes abandoned, until there are only a few people wandering the empty Earth. Ryosuke witnesses the visual of a suicide through a haunted chatroom, but is robbed of this experience when his time comes; instead, after having his will sapped by contact with the elderly ghost, he collapses and in the final scene of the film simply blows away as dust.
The ghosts are representations of real lives and experiences that we cannot fully comprehend or process as they happen but haunt us through their online remnants. At the half-way point of the film, the female protagonist, Michi, witnesses the suicide of a woman by jumping from a grain silo. This character has little direct contact with the plot, and the event is not mentioned again in the film, but the sudden psychic scar of violence in a film which otherwise has precious little reminds the viewer of the world behind representations, a world that has disturbing characteristics that chase us into the world of representation — this is the world of the Real.
Pulse has an unusually restrained style of visual framing and characterization for a modern Japanese film; this is no mistake. By visualizing the distinction between the symbolic, representational realm of the Online as a place of monsters and hauntings and the Real as a quiet, soft and banal place, Kurosawa demonstrates truth– that the Real is simultaneously capable of suddenly horrifying us more authentically than the consistent faux-horrors of the online but also capable of holding reserved, humble beauty. It is when the Online begins to rear its head in the Real, much as the ghosts make their unwelcome appearances in the world of the living, that we begin to feel a distinct sense of unease, as if there were an invasion from a dark reflection of our own world.
Pulse is my favourite film of the 2000’s because of this; it is a film that visualizes gorgeously the uncanny ghostliness that the presence of the Online paints our daily realities with. As the elderly ghost says to Ryosuke at the end of the film, though our online interactions may make us feel as though we are surrounded by fictions;
I am not an illusion.
Call to action!
By H.E. Donist.
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