In order to work effectively the architecture of a ghost story is fundamental; this is not to say the structure of the story, the slow dreadful build of the haunting and its consequences, the unveiling of the secret histories which caused a spirit to become trapped between worlds, though obviously that is also essential. No, rather it is that a haunting needs a house, a place which traps the characters within its walls as helplessly as the ghost is trapped.
Consider Hugh Crain, whose wife never lived to see the house he built for her on the hill which ninety years later played host to parapsychological researchers, or the summer home in Milburn which Eva Gallli rented in 1929 and to which she drew her suitors back one winter fifty years after they had murdered her, or the endless corridors of the Overlook Hotel echoed in the frozen hedge maze outside, a Möbius in space and time looping back on itself.
Released in 2001 and now re-released by Arrow, Pulse (Kairo) does not have the benefit of a long history in which to build a mystery, old bricks which have recorded the past in the manner of The Stone Tape; written and directed by Creepy‘s Kiyoshi Kurosawa, he reflects in the accompanying interview that Japanese cities have a lifespan of no more than fifty years, constantly renewing themselves, looking to the future and hiding the past.
Like Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water (Honogurai Mizu no soko kara) and The Complex (Kuroyuri danchi), Pulse takes place largely in the stacked apartment blocks of the crowded urban sprawl wrapped around with corkscrewing stairwells, soulless concrete facades where personality is extinguished, oases of half-lived lives existing between deserted industrial spaces crumbling into anonymity.
Kurosawa fully acknowledging the debt of inspiration owed to Nakata’s Ring (Ringu) and by extension Kôji Suzuki’s novel upon which it is based, the story of a cursed videotape which causes the death of all who view it, Pulse is very much a techno-horror of its time, the early days of the Internet, and as such has dated as badly as the dial-up modem sounds which feature heavily.
Following the suicide of her co-worker Taguchi, Michi (Ring 0: Birthday‘s Kumiko Aso) and her friends investigate the computer files he had been obsessively working on and discover images recorded of him working at his desk, captured on his monitor screen and echoing into infinity, while in another nearby monitor a shape they realise is a face stares back out.
Receiving a picture message on his phone of Taguchi’s room along with a distored voice repeating “help me,” Yabe (Masatoshi Matsuo) goes to the apartment where he finds a black mark staining the wall where Taguchi died and a doorway sealed up with red tape which he believes is the “forbidden room” they have found references to. Michi has also seen a woman sealing up her front door with similar red tape, a woman who later killed herself by leaping from the top of a silo, and as Yabe becomes withdrawn from the world she fears he will be next.
“When there’s no more room in Hell the dead will walk the Earth” proclaimed the poster for George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and Yabe believes the afterlife is flowing into our realm via the medium of the Internet, a digital connection the dead are using for their own undefined purposes but which has a devastating effect on the living who witness their intrusion.
There are a few creepy moments, the shadows on the walls akin to the ash remnants of those who died in a nuclear blast, a spectre which always hangs over Japan like stormy skies, the vocals on Takefumi Haketa’s soundtrack resembling Lynda Richardson’s contributions to Children of the Stones and Into the Labyrinth, and like David Lynch the use of sound and the sudden absence of it triggers a discontinuity which alarms the viewer while, but that is insufficient to support almost two hours of minimal narrative progress.
Released three years after the Wachowskis unleashed The Matrix, Pulse somehow exhibits a painful clumsiness with whole scenes devoted to the process of getting online which are incongruous in a culture as in love with gadgets as the Japanese and with stilted dialogue and awkward performances from the outset there is no baseline to establish the characters as themselves before their experiences change them, drawing them towards the limbo which has already taken their friends.
Almost like a new religion, Michi and technophobe economics student Ryosuke (Haruhiko Katô) form their understanding of what is happening based of what they want to believe, what would bring them comfort rather than anything remotely rational, but while Kurosawa cites the work of David Cronenberg and chooses to see Pulse as lying somewhere between a genre film and an art film it is actually more like an unfinished art project, the potential of the underlying ideas never breaking through the gloom.
The accompanying features also including an equally frank interview with director of photography Junchiri Hayashi, an appreciation of the film by Blair Witch‘s Adam Wingard and V/H/S/2‘s Simon Barrett entitled The Horror of Isolation, archive behind the scenes footage, special effects breakdowns of four scenes and snippets from the Tokyo world premiere and the Cannes screening, as often with Arrow the package is more impressive and satisfying than the work itself.