connor’s review published on Letterboxd:
Kurosawa’s Pulse operates on so many levels it’s tough to keep track of. That being said, it is essential to note that this is not a film about the sociological dangers of the internet, or what have you. Rather, it is a film about the degradation of human systems—especially those regarding not only communication but representation—and the means through which loneliness and alienation may proliferate as a virus in the wake of such breakdown. The fact that the internet is the system breaking down here is, as the film itself overtly makes clear, arbitrary. I’m only making a point to clarify this because I think it’s essential to the film’s thematic concerns to understand that the central hauntings here do not revolve around computers or the internet so much as they revolve around how those tools have enabled us direct, immediate and live access to images themselves. Pulse is about many things, but above all it centers itself around the issue of what it means to recreate a ghost within a film when the art of photography already creates phantoms of everything captured.
Around the midsection of the film, Kurosawa introduces Harue’s grad student friend and the project he’s made—a sort of model of humanity, tiny dots circulating around a void that would be destroyed if they were to ever come in contact with one another. Sometimes, it appears as though the “dead” dots come back, flickering in and out of existence, or perhaps have left traces of themselves among the others. Here, Kurosawa establishes the notion of ghosts as simulacra, the model a simulation of a reality wherein false representations of the living come back from the dead, all seeking nothing more than “help” from those still on earth. What’s fascinating then is the fact that the ghosts don’t seem to kill people (though people do kill themselves) but merely cause them to fade away. Seeing them drives people into fits of depression, a sense of unbearable, complete dejection and seclusion, so powerful that it eventually makes them disappear, leaving nothing behind but figures of ash on the walls behind them, on the floors beneath them. They become traces of people left behind, lost among their surroundings.
Just as the physical manifestations of their sorrow return to make traces of others, the camera itself makes traces of everything. If every film is a ghost story, where does that leave a film itself about ghosts? Metz posits that cinema serves to realize the unreal, and yet Kurosawa manages to unrealize it once more, as is the consistent true horror of his work. The film is full of absences and inconsistencies, made instantly clear by the appearance of Kōji Yakusho, the standard lead for Kurosawa’s films at the time, being relegated to the beginning and end only, which also sets the film in a very depressing sort of loop. Tokyo is never populated by more than a dozen people at a time (and even though these are young college students, Michi is the only character who seems to even have parents, but even they might as well be ghosts themselves in how absent their role in the film is); the sound design vacillates between knowingly cliched and disarmingly spare, seeming as though it is breaking down into eerily bare, deteriorating component parts in the process of moving between the two; and Kurosawa, preeminent contemporary master of composition, knows exactly when and how to break his shots into sudden, jarring movement. This is something that eternally fascinates me about Kurosawa’s work, his ability to establish parameters for how to watch his films and how they operate within and without genre conventions, only to break his own rules, to subvert those he’s already set in place. It’s a horror of upended expectations, in which his form destabilizes itself to the point of the unreal. There is a fear in the unknown, in that which we cannot understand, and fiction often amplifies such fear by actualizing the impossible. Kurosawa takes this actualization a step further, not only literalizing the impossible, but presenting it in a manner that feels impossible within the context of his overarching style. This is where the horror of the image comes in.
What struck me in this third viewing more than anything was the way that Kurosawa’s images gradually become subject more and more to digital manipulation as the film goes on, the degradation of the picture matching the degradation of those systems within society. Building upon the issue of making a film about ghosts, where does that leave a film about ghosts rendered digitally among analog pictures, intrinsic aberrances to the image? There’s a dissonance to the sight of CGI effects plastered onto celluloid that Kurosawa exploits here to maximum effect, a nightmarish subduction of one medium unto another. In her piece “From A World Beyond Control” for La Furia Umana, Erika Balsom argues that “the extensive integration of CGI and postproduction manipulation into otherwise live-action allows for a diminishment of primacy of raw capture that is unprecedented in the history of cinema.” In the context of Pulse, the “diminishment of primacy” she speaks of is made up for by the cumulative hallucination of the film’s new constructivism, eventually culminating into an abstract collage of stylistic distortion in its final minutes. Each image effectively disrupts the next, compositions shattered as the film self-destructs. It’s a form of spectacle unparalleled among both Kurosawa’s filmography as well as just about all of contemporary cinema. And in a sense, it’s just as, if not more disconcerting than the spectral terror of the film itself, which is a perfect example of what sets this film so vastly above the rest.
There are probably films out there with scarier specific moments than those here, but none are so consistently frightening as this. It is the only film I’ve ever seen in which every single shot feels genuinely haunted. Shots replete with blank walls charred by the forms of those left behind, an abject refutation of space; light recoils among these shadows. I understand it not doing much for others, but there is something extremely off-putting in the idea of ghosts within images then transposed onto our computer screens. Part of this stems from the fact that it means that the unreal, now realized, has been displaced from the physical realm into the digital, somehow even closer than if it were to materialize before us. It evinces a rupture within the system, a vision of the world collapsing in on itself.
This is not only one of the most masterfully designed films of the 21st century, but of all time. It recognizes the camera’s fundamental power of evocation-as-conjuration and mines from that capability the greatest horror within it. A photograph is not a vessel for immortalization, but a mortuary of histories and memories already fading away. In the world of images, we are all alone.
SPOILERS for specific moments/elements of note that I think merit inclusion:
1. The ghost tripping mid-walk and the sound design dropping out during this scene.
2. Harue in her bedroom, seeing herself on her computer, embracing the ghost-camera, declaring herself no longer alone while a second camera looks down upon her, hovering disquietingly above. This is by far one of the scariest things in the film, and there's no more to it than a floating alternate camera. It is also perhaps THE scene of the film, perfectly indicative of everything Kurosawa's getting while being incredibly frightening as well.
3. The last five minutes or so, in which the film practically falls apart. There’s a very quick sequence of edits following the plane crash which creates one of the most enthrallingly & excitingly disorienting sets of images I’ve ever seen.
4. The heartbreak of seeing Michi reach out for Junko as the wind tears about the room.
5. Ryosuke’s encounter with the phantom in the warehouse, and the terrifying interplay between the CGI and film in that scene, in which the featurelessness of the former becomes the clarity of the latter.
6. The sound design during the scene in which Michi sees Toshio vanish before her eyes, “Help me” repeated over and over. Chills straight to the goddamn bone marrow.
7. The ghost in the arcade, shifting along with the music to almost appear as though dancing, its fabricated movement in terrifying contrast to the hazy stillness of the surroundings.
8. “Do you want to meet a ghost?” eventually leading to an apparently pre-recorded suicide video.
9. Any time we see the ghosts in the computers. It’s immensely discomfiting every single time.
10. Harue’s realization that perhaps there is no difference between ghosts and the living.