Kairo : Japan 2001 : Kiyoshi Kurosawa : 118 mins

Pulse confirms Kiyoshi Kurosawa as the true heir to Dario Argento – with all the good and bad things such a comparison implies. Both are prodigiously talented directors who bring to cinema a remarkable understanding of image and, no less crucially, sound (Argento employs deafening prog-metal; Kurosawa judiciously deploys silence for maximum effect). Their work is often overlooked by critics because they operate largely within the horror/thriller genre (at different ends of the spectrum), but both directors are able to transform potentially routine shocker/chiller material into entirely distinctive new kinds of celluloid experience.

But despite their many gifts, recurring limitations on the script front make it frustratingly rare to come across a fully satisfying film by either director: Argento’s Suspiria is his one miraculous instance of everything coming together in a way which never quite happens in his other movies, despite their many touches of brilliance. With Kurosawa, the masterwork (so far) is probably Cure (1997) – a dazzlingly metaphysical twist on the post-Se7en serial-killer genre. But 1999’s Charisma was a major let-down, Kurosawa losing himself (and his audience) in a clumsily metaphorical, leaden-paced anti-thriller about the fate of a wizened but potentially lethal tree.

Pulse, in which student Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato)’s search for his vanished friends leads him to a mysterious website known as The Forbidden Room, represents only a partial return to form. Kurosawa’s directorial flair is present in abundance – but is almost fatally hamstrung by his frustratingly slow, confusing and disappointingly derivative script. You don’t have to dig very deep beneath the surface to realise that this is, surprisingly, yet another rip-off of Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998), the film which energised the far-eastern horror tsunami whose ripples have now engulfed Hollywood with the success of Gore Verbinski’s remake, The Ring (2002).

Whereas Ring featured characters threatened by evil forces lurking within video-tape technology, Pulse‘s protagonists find themselves imperilled by phantoms using the internet to access the world of the living. perhaps it’s no accident that the original Japanese title, Kairo, literally translates as ‘Circuit’. Charitable viewers may interpret this as a signal that Kurosawa is paying explicit tribute to, or executing a sly parody of, Ring itself (‘Circuit’ could easily be one of that film’s ‘unofficial’ sequels, alongside Spiral and Loop)

– just as some commentators identify Charisma as a deadpan piss-take of another recent seminal Japanese box-office hit, Hayao Miyazaki’s animated Princess Mononoke.

But even if Kurosawa is deliberately setting out to have fun with Nakata’s ‘original’, the results are a very queasy, grim kind of satire, likely to leave even hardcore Ring fans somewhat bemused. Kurosawa’s development of plot and character is stilted and over-enigmatic, and the late sections’ apocalyptic escalation of events seems as forced and desperate as the very similar occurrence at a similar stage in Charisma. The basic equation is almost stereotypically ‘Japanese’ in its concerns: alienated, anomie-haunted youth +nefarious, inherently evil technology = The End Of The World. And if there is some philosophical or psychological angle to Kurosawa’s speculations, it’s of a very half-baked, high-school-ish variety.

Despite all of these thematic and structural reservations, however, Pulse must nevertheless be seen by anyone interested in seeing how a supremely talented cinematic artist can express himself through his chosen medium. Every now and again Kurosawa comes up with something genuinely astounding: the intermittent appearances of the film’s “phantom” presences are all, in their way, amazing: a female spectre walks through a darkened room, seemingly flickering on the verge of insubstantiality as her whole body buckles and warps before she straightens herself to resume her spooky progress. A shadowy male spectre looms out of the darkness, insubstantial until his onyx eyes come into horrifyingly sharp focus… Best of all is a haunting in an empty amusement arcade – a ghost that looks like a column of black smoke undulates on the spot to a deliciously incongruous soundtrack of tinny electronic bleeps and jingles.

But Kurosawa never manages to sustain such moments of genius or tie them together to support the weight of his thesis that modern society as a bleak zone of floating, discrete individuals, represented at one point in a computer simulation showing dozens of lonely little dots of light traversing a dark void. It’s an unfortunately apt image of the film itself: a series of blindingly bright, isolated set-pieces, in desperate but vain search of a narrative.

31st December, 2002
(seen on DVD, 27th December)

by Neil Young
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