During a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, one sits in anticipation of the horrors lingering just outside the frame, and there's a profound sense of unease in those moments of stillness and indecision. Existential dread is an easy catchphrase to toss around, and has become the label for many a psychological terror tale dabbling in the fragility of the human condition. Kurosawa's movies have a genuinely unnerving effect on the viewer because they deal with the kind of loneliness that exists in an overcrowded world. The characters are alone not because they're isolated shut-ins, but because they interact too closely within a world where all of our neuroses crash into each other. Pulse is his strongest elucidation of this theme, treating the World Wide Web as a literal snare forging sinewy connections between strangers where the ultimate destination is chaos. Imagine anyone who's grown too close to you for comfort multiplied to apocalyptic degrees and you can see the logic of Kurosawa's brand of horror.
When the Internet made its first appearance, e-mails and chat rooms seemed to me a deadening force. Sitting in front of a computer screen that long cannot be good for you, and the so-called friendships made over an electronic field seemed to be mostly imaginary, where you and your correspondent had the possibility of saying and being anything within the realm of the mind's eye. Kurosawa takes those fears and broadens them: a group of young computer programmers are disturbed by the suicide of one of their colleagues. Their search leads them to a floppy disk and a website known as the "Forbidden Room" offering transmissions of sad looking, isolated figures sitting in their rooms, staring into nothingness or making grim eye-contact with their web camera. It's like a distress signal from human beings who have discovered just how alone they are within the universe, trapped in a limbo of a daily repetitive life without change.
We learn that these figures are ghosts, yet their impact on the human characters is the gnawing realization that urban life is a series of grim repetitions and routines, and to be a ghost is to truly live inside one's own skin. By distilling life beyond the grave to solitary activities in one's own apartment, Kurosawa taps into a fear greater than death: the nightmare of a life not being lived. Perhaps to save the film from being completely grim and esoteric, Kurosawa does an excellent job portraying his human computer geek characters in as sympathetic and compassionate a light as possible. The characterizations are simple but deft, and more is revealed about these college kids through their cluttered rooms, ultra-sleek computers, nerdy passion for the technical, and casual intellectual slacker clothing and backpacks.
But the character that stands out most prominently is an economics major named Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato), a longhaired and sleepy-eyed Luddite who drinks endless cans of Coca-Cola and lives in a state of casual messiness. He's first seen in a state of maximum frustration installing the Internet for the first time, talking to himself through a series of "OK" clicks and scrolling down endless "I Agree" licensing agreements until he sighs, "What is all this crap?" Kurosawa's a master at lingering on moments of indecision or passive frustration to the point of comical absurdity. When Kawashima stumbles across the "Forbidden Room" and his computer is hacked into by the dispossessed, he goes to the computer lab for help and in his befuddled helplessness falls for Harue (Koyuki), a model-perfect nerd girl. Their relationship is played out exclusively against the backdrop of creeping horror, and is less Boy Meets Girl than that old X-Files dilemma of Kawashima's unwavering belief in the physical versus Harue's increasing dread of the meta.
If their attraction brims from Kawashima's interest in arguing that the act of holding hands means we are both here, present, and existing together, Pulse finds a distressing and all-too-human wall in Harue's belief that, ghosts or no ghosts, people cannot ever truly get close to one another. If she doesn't allow herself the possibility of feeling, she will be able to resist the consequences of getting hurt. Kurosawa's able to interweave a complex give-and-take within a supernatural horror film without having the characters reduce themselves to conceptual ideas—perhaps because the subject they're talking about is life, and what it means to live, which is connected to what it means to love.
Pulse is told slowly, mostly through atmosphere. The turning on of a computer becomes a pinprick of fear, and as the characters struggle to retain their survival and individuality while ghosts infiltrate their thoughts and will to exist, a series of disappearances and suicides slowly pervade their way through Tokyo. Unlike George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, there's no panic; just a slow rational realization that doomsday is approaching. Without histrionics, Pulse interprets the end of the world as a gradual decrease in people until one day the streets are desolate and empty. Death is represented not through a sea of corpses but a Hiroshima smudge of black on the wall where an increasingly troubled human being once stood. And when the apocalypse finally does happen, it happens not through an atomic blast but a vast emptiness. When Kurosawa finally does cut loose with overt, explosive, fiery violence and carnage, the effect is shocking and devastating.
In his previous film Charisma, which Kurosawa described as an Indiana Jones story if Indy were a regular guy, the action revolved around a mysterious evil tree and was mostly about Darwinian uncertainty within one's environment. After nearly two hours of contemplation, when Kurosawa cuts away to a city burning into cinders and billows of sinister black smoke rising into a poisoned sky, the filmmaker insists he's dealing with end-of-the-world scenarios that begin with the individual in society, not society imposed upon the individual. That makes his hell exceedingly private. Through his use of long takes, often in very wide master shots, and his disturbing sound design that makes the squeak of a chair or the rustling of leaves a rattling of deep silence, he captures that internal, infernal state of terrorized spectatorship.
But Kurosawa's nightmare scenarios are not nihilistic. In fact, they are resoundingly empathetic in that he cares about the world and the people who live on this fragile planet. His frequent casting of Koji Yakusho (the hapless businessman hero of the original Shall We Dance) as his protagonist puts a man at the center whose face is lined with experience, his eyes brimming with thoughtfulness. In Kurosawa's Cure and Charisma he was a police investigator whose very humanity made him not quick to make snap decisions about the nature of evil. If those protagonists were ultimately doomed (or changed, depending on your point of view), Kurosawa elicits his most hopeful casting of Yakusho in Pulse. He only appears in the opening and closing scene, in a fleeting but vital cameo. He's a ship captain traveling with survivors of the apocalyptic incident, en route to a foreign land, and he goes about his business tending to the ship and encouraging his few passengers. He doesn't have much dialogue, but when his earnest, hard-lined face looks into the eyes of one of the main characters we've been following throughout, saying, "Be strong. Don't give up. We have to keep trying." It's a Sisyphus moment, a human moment, and one that implies that we are all perhaps doomed to the same fate, but true courage and conviction comes through the very act of being. That's not the statement of a nihilist. In fact, Kurosawa's follow-up film, springing off of the end of the world in Pulse, is reassuringly entitled Bright Future. Of course, that one's about a character's caring relationship vis-à-vis a poisonous jellyfish…so you can be the judge.