Pulse (Kairo) Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
A group of young people in Tokyo begin to experience strange phenomena involving missing coworkers and friends, technological breakdown, and a mysterious website which asks the compelling question, "Do you want to meet a ghost?" After the unexpected suicides of several friends, three strangers set out to explore a city which is growing more empty by the day and to solve the mystery of what lies within a forbidden room in an abandoned construction site, mysteriously sealed shut with red packing tape. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (Japanese: Kairo), released several months before 9/11 in 2001, was a particular high point in the post-Ring J-Horror cycle. This particular haunting vision acknowledges most of the subgenre’s key elements, but, unlike films that were produced specifically to cash-in on the popularity of Nakata’s film, Pulse brought thematic intelligence and a deeper meaning to its Twilight Zone-esque plot devices. Kurosawa had been instrumental in the establishment of popular J-Horror mythos & style well before Nakata cemented the clichés. His horror career began in kind with the release of Sweet Home (Japanese: Suwīto hōmu) in 1989; a semi-comedic video game tie-in that bears little resemblance to what most Western audiences would consider ‘Japanese horror’ (outside of its influence on the Resident Evil games). He continued his arc into The Guard from Underground (Japanese: Jigoku no Keibiin, 1992). Eventually he developed a distinctive style of psychological thriller with Cure (Japanese: Kyua) in 1997. This led to a series of smart, critically-acclaimed psychodramas, including Charisma (Japanese: Karisuma, 1999), Seance (Japanese: Kôrei, 2001, STV – a pseudo-remake of Bryan Forbes’ 1964 thriller Séance on a Wet Afternoon), and Retribution (Japanese: Sakebi, 2006), along with more fashionable, mainstream-friendly J-Horror staples, like Loft (2005) and Pulse (2001).
Pulse’s story is split into two intersecting plotlines. In the first, a new transplant to the Tokyo area named Michi (Kumiko Aso) pays a home visit to an absent co-worker, Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi), who promptly and casually hangs himself to death right in front of her. Understandably traumatized, Michi is compelled to investigate the suicide and discovers a mysterious floppy disk that contains footage of Taguchi reflected into infinity on his computer screen, alongside the faint shape of a pale human face. Meanwhile, an economics student named Ryosuke (Haruhiko Katô) finds that his computer may be haunted by his new internet service provider. Unprompted, he is shown grainy digital footage of strangers casually killing themselves. Michi and Ryosuke then launch separate investigations and are both visited by ghostly figures asking them for help, via phone calls, printed correspondence, video images, and phantasmal whispers. Following more suicides, Michi and Ryosuke’s friends literally begin to disintegrate into thin air, leaving Tokyo an empty, apocalyptic cityscape.
Kurosawa wasn’t trailblazing when he made Pulse – he even admits that it is a conceptual extension of the Ringu tradition with internet technology standing in for the soon-to-be-obsolete VHS market (William Malone’s Feardotcom tried and failed to do the same for Western audiences in 2002). He even hired Nakata’s cinematographer Junichiro Hayashi to recreate Ringu’s gloomy look. The largely handheld camerawork is tight and intimate, allowing the compositions hide the true breadth of the horror until Kurosawa is ready to spring angst on the viewer in an eerily aloof fashion that extends to the film’s character-based drama. He largely avoids, as well, instead opting to prepare the audience for startling moments before the on-screen characters and favoring an abstract sense of dread and inevitability. Pulse’s version of the established J-horror formula/style is clever and disturbing in its emotionally relatable, but its prescience is its its most deeply disturbing trait. Even detached from the supernatural elements and apocalyptic finale, Kurosawa somehow manages to capture the existential misery, zombie-like behavior, and abject loneliness of social media obsession a full decade before Facebook or Twitter became everyday cultural touchstones.
Also, unlike other Ringu cash-ins, which tended to look back on Heian and Edo period traditions, Pulse forcefully reminds its audience of the post-WWII anxieties that are usually reserved for nuclear-powered monster movies. During the climax, the whole of Tokyo begins to break down (including a mostly incidental plane crash that wasn’t meant to evoke 9/11, given that the film was written and produced at least a year before the event) as humanity is “absorbed” into the internet. When asked the about meaning behind this apocalyptic finale, Kurosawa described a common theme:
...Cities are full of artificial stuff, so you feel that they might end up destroyed someday. I probably feel this way, because I’m Japanese. Cities in Japan, such as Tokyo, are destroyed roughly every 50 years. Most destruction happens typically through earthquakes, then war comes next. Tokyo’s been sustained for the last 70 years, but it’s constantly said that it’s in danger and about to collapse. In the West, they build their cities with buildings that would last 100 to 200 years or more. But, in Japan, cities may collapse...within your lifetime. That’s our preconceived idea. It’s imprinted on Japanese minds.
Pulse was released on DVD across the world and was pretty easily obtained in most territories. However, I’m not exaggerating when I saw that Magnolia’s US DVD and subsequent Netflix standard-definition streams were among the worst transfers I’ve ever seen from an official release (at least for a post-millennial, non-indie movie). This isn’t unusual, as the image quality of most Japanese films from the early days of DVD are almost always subpar. Despite hoping against hope that the delay in Pulse’s BD release was due to Arrow finding a new source for their transfer, this HD master was supplied directly to them by Kadokawa Pictures and it appears to be derived from the old DVD scan. It’s an upgrade over the previous blobby, muddy, grainy-filled mess and not a simple upconvert, but it is still very disappointing. The fuzzy details and weak contrast are probably the result of faulty scanning and being mastered at PC levels, rather than video levels, as has been the case with similar releases. The graininess is harder to judge objectively, because this particular film was designed to appear gritty. These questions extend to Hayashi’s desaturated colours, especially where the dingy, brown and grey coating is concerned. What I can assume is that the grain wasn’t meant to be so blocky or ‘artefacty,’ specifically in terms of sharpening enhancement effects.
Pulse is presented in its original Japanese stereo/surround and LPCM 2.0 audio. This is an intentionally ‘dirty’ mix, where the dialogue is understandable, but rarely differentiated from ambient incidental noises. The slightly fuzzy, documentary quality sound acts as a base canvas for the stereo-enhanced ‘digital ghost’ effects, as well as Takefumi Haketa’s melancholic and lyrical music. In comparison, these effect and musical tracks are crisp and clean, even at high volume, thanks to the uncompressed qualities of the LPCM track. The dynamic range is also important, because Kurosawa and his aural designers often pull the sound floor out from under the audience with shocking silence.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Broken Circuits (43:53, HD) – The director discusses his early career, from his straight-to-video (or Japanese V-cinema) thrillers/cop dramas to Pulse in this extensive new interview. Actor Show Aikawa also makes a brief appearance to describe his long working relationship with Kurosawa.
Junichiro Hayashi: Creepy Images (25:03, HD) – The cinematographer talks about his contributions to Japanese horror and work with Kurosawa in the second exclusive interview.
The Horror of Isolation (17:11, HD) – The writing/directing team behind Blair Witch (2016), The Guest (2014), and You’re Next (2011), Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett, breakdown the themes and styles of Pulse and the other Japanese horror of its generation in this new appreciation featurette.
Archival EPK documentary (41:03, SD) – This is mostly made up of raw behind-the-scenes footage and cast & crew interviews.
Footage from the Tokyo premiere introduction (7:04, SD)
Footage from the Cannes Film Festival premiere (2:57, SD)
Special effects breakdowns: The suicide jump (6:22, SD), Harue’s death scene (5:02, SD), Junko’s death scene (4:31, SD), Dark room scenes (10:18, SD)
TV spots and NHK station ID spots
The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.