Souls at Zero: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse

Souls at Zero
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse

The death of the horror movie is so habitually lamented that its future is often limited to meta-irony and nostalgia. The climax of The Blair Witch Project (1999), in which its doomed documentarians were isolated in the spaces defined by their cameras, had the air of something groundbreaking until physical reality was restored. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse is a terrifying aesthetic object constructed from the spatial parsing to which Blair Witch accidentally alluded. It kills the horror movie in order to resurrect it.

Whereas Kurosawa’s Cure (1998) featured a series of motiveless murders committed by unrelated people, Pulse concerns a suicide epidemic that begins with a core group of teenagers and soon goes global. Normally this phenomenon would be traceable to possession or a murderous demon (as in A Nightmare on Elm Street), but Pulse dispenses with such blame. Its ghosts are just as bored and passive as its living.

The central conceit of Pulse is that the afterlife, spatially finite, has reached capacity, a concept that informs Kurosawa’s visual approach. The baseline of Pulse’s existential creepiness is derived from the terror of spatial limitation—not literal claustrophobia, but the entrapment of individual perception. Kurosawa’s characteristic master shots are in full force, and there’s nary a wide-angle lens in view. He keeps his characters confined to discrete planes; foreground and background occupants never enter one another’s territory and ambient sounds often are used to isolate them even further. Two-dimensionality is also a narrative motif: ghostly Internet computer screens invade the movie and claim new tenants, while ennui-ridden characters retreat from reality by flattening permanently into walls, reminiscent of the young protagonist from Barren Illusion (1999), and his tendency to disappear accidentally (“I knew it. I’m not here at all.”)

In all this flat despair, there’s one exception: the warm relationship between Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato), a charmingly naive Internet novice, and Harue (Koyuki), the computer-science student who tries to help him exorcise the spectres from his screen. The nature of their interaction is conveyed through long pans in which they occupy the same plane, laterally entering and exiting their shared screen in a manner that echoes the movements of her computer lab’s phantasmal screen saver, roving dots that are drawn to each other only to die on contact. Pulse suggests that human connection is impossible, and that death effectively strips away the things that, in life, distract us from this fact. But the relationship between Harue and Kawashima provides a tenuous hope. They’re bound by the same laws as everyone else but find new ways to navigate within them.

The visual and narrative ties between this angst and the Internet, depicted as a vacuum sucking up the world’s souls, suggests Pulse can be interpreted as the work of a technophobe. But, according to Kurosawa, his idea for the movie existed before the Internet. As one character describes a triangle made of red tape that acts as a connected portal: “No matter how simple the device, once the system’s complete, it’ll function on its own.” Pulse itself is such a self-sufficient system, and any attempts to read it as a social critique are negated by its reversal of logic. It’s only by a series of coincidences that red rectangles and the World Wide Web become spiritual conduits; the Internet in Pulse is not the root of anything, but simply the best expression of human loneliness.

As in Cure and Charisma (1999), Pulse inverts mystery and exposition; the more we learn, the less sense the film’s universe makes, and the less likely effect will follow cause. Unseen forces move objects and the process by which Kurosawa’s netherworld absorbs victims—through walls, suicide, the Internet—is never the same. But the director denies our wish for the supernatural to be explained. Whether these inconsistencies and arbitrary strokes reveal either his intent or the film’s narrative deficiencies is irrelevant. All familiar clichés are freed from mystical and iconographic associations, and Pulse both recombines them into a troubling vision of eternal angst and tunnels down to a new ground zero where their potential is again wide open.