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20 Years Later, PULSE Is Still a Terrifying J-Horror Shocker

By Chad Collins

Synopsis: Ghosts invade the world of the living using the internet.

Communication theory includes a paradigm known as CASA: Computers Are Social Actors. The innate suggestion is that humans interact with computers just as they would interact with other people. They apply social interactions and anthropomorphic conceptual frameworks to the machines and algorithms with which they interact. Historically, humans have only faced matching levels of consciousness and intelligence from other humans. When machine awareness emulates human-like features and intelligence, individuals respond as if the computer is a social, living thing.

This evolutionary perspective on technology and our abiding relationship with it is the foundation for Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 cult shocker Pulse (Kairo) and its 2006 remake of the same name. Kurosawa’s now two-decade-old classic envisions a world where the digital realm is a finite space for our collective consciousnesses. Grief, loneliness, pain, and angst are spiritually uploaded, in a sense, to the point that the souls of the dead, similarly trapped in this digital realm, spill over. Spirits besiege the Kanto region. The ghosts of the dead trap humans in their own loneliness and disconnect rather than simply kill them.

Released on February 3rd, 2001, Pulse was a prescient ghost story, digitizing the tropes of the haunted house and J-horror haunter into something revelatory and synchronic with the ails and anxieties of the time. Home technology in 2001 was capable of little more than sending emails, generating spreadsheets, and obliging the occasional round of Doom. In the twenty years since, digital technology is even more pervasive, encroaching on all realms of life, even those ostensibly immune to its influence. Work, school, and even healthcare are accessible remotely. Prohibitively expensive home hardware, once advertised in postmarked catalogs and flaxen ads, now sometimes dip into the double digits. The fiberoptic lines that bring internet access to rural communities, while still inequitable, are expanding each day. Slowly yet assuredly more people– and more communities– have high-speed access to the web.

The protagonists in Pulse’s dual storylines are early augurs for this disconnect with the physical world and cultural migration toward the digital. Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) is an economics student whose evenings invariably involve long hours in the oppressive glow of his monitor’s blue light. Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi), besieged by digital images of the dead, grows increasingly divorced from the world of the living around him. Out of nowhere one evening, he hangs himself in his apartment. Coeds are trapped in the forbidden room. Phantom phone calls with endless recitations of “help” come from numbers that don’t exist. Red tape keeps the dead at bay.

It would be for naught– Pulse’s legacy might be little more than a curious J-horror eccentricity– were it not for the sensational scares baked in. In its standout sequence, Toshio (Masatoshi Matsuo) breaches a sealed apartment. He descends the stairs like something out of Escher’s “Relativity” into the hall below. The concrete corridor is empty beyond a single couch at the end in an alcove. When he turns around, he meets the blurred visage of a woman, stumbling and moving with the fluidity of an image buffering. Toshio flees behind the sofa, but the ghost ambles forward. Soon, she slowly slides over the end of the couch, her eyes meeting his. The movement and staging are slow, like the characters are suspended underwater, and the creeping dread is altogether horrifying. It’s enigmatic, frightening, and both more confounding and more haunting than most J-horror specters.

A common refrain is that the internet brings people together, and in some cases, that’s certainly true. Grandparents can meet their grandchildren and old friends and lovers can connect in an instant. 2020 dissolved the already gauzy veneer, however. With more access than ever, lockdowns and quarantine nonetheless exacerbated feelings of loneliness, ennui, and self-harm. The ghosts of Kurosawa’s Pulse don’t need to kill–loneliness will do that for them. Loneliness is linked with morbidity, including the acceleration of chronic illnesses, depression, anxiety, suicide, and heart disease. What was scary in 2001 is positively terrifying two decades later.

Like the best apocalyptic horror, Pulse has grown steadily as an augur of our time, an almost prophetic fictionalization of our disconnect and loneliness. Alienation and rapidly shifting technology cultivate a paranormal blitz and, in its dour final moments, a genuine apocalypse. Without deep, empathetic human interactions, Kurosawa’s troupe are slowly and icily dragged into the pit of despair alongside the dead. Junko (Kurume Arisaka), nearly catatonic from the existential dread, erupts into a pile of ash, leaving nothing behind but a black stain on the wall.

Kurosawa asks what might happen when we turn our computers and our technology into social actors. Like the frightening axiom “If you see them, they see you,” the ghosts of loneliness and lassitude harrow the living– they are looking back. Twenty years later, Pulse remains Kurosawa’s finest output and one of the century’s most frightening ghost stories. Its scares have been amplified and its poignancy rendered more distressing, like the best horror, in the time since release. When Harue Karasawa (Koyuki) deduces what must be happening, he remarks, “Ghosts won’t kill people… because that would just make more ghosts. Isn’t that right? Instead, they’ll try to make people immortal by quietly trapping them in their own loneliness.” Technology has trapped some people with the ghosts of their own unhappiness. Pulse is a resounding and urgent reminder to connect with those around us, however and whenever possible, lest it be too late. I can’t think of a more terrifying warning than that.