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Kairo - Pulse (Kurosawa Kiyoshi 2001)



Genre: Apocalyptic Ghost Story

review in one breath

Kairo (2001) has been out in the mainstream for quite some time and is already rather well-known in Western circles predominantly due to its being a film by Kurosawa Kiyoshi, a director with a number of films appearing on many j-horror fans' list of favorites. (Kurosawa films which are reviewed on this site include: Cure (1997), Charisma (1999), Kourei (2000), Akarui Mirai (2003), and Doppelganger (2003). ) A characteristic motif of his films is the fluidity of individuality and his narratives almost always consist of a character's inner transformation through extreme situations. For Kurosawa, this transformation is not simply one toward greater maturity or conventional notions of self-knowledge. It often entails what he understands to be a consistent trajectory with the harsh, often cruel realities of the natural world, and so his characters often transform from a state the audience can at least identify with into one which lies outside the bounds of our expectations.

Kairo is consistent with this theme in that its characters are pushed by natural and supernatural forces into an extreme state of existence which Kurosawa argues is the ultimate, logical extension of our current reality. The loneliness and sense of isolation Kurosawa suggests permeates our daily experience gives way to the eternal and perpetual darkness of a real isolation through the overflowing of the realm of the undead onto the world of the living. As in most of his films, he suggests little or no moral lesson through the narrative, only an observation of an aspect of individuality and the potentially horrifying implications of its extreme amplification.

I have had to watch Kairo now three times before feeling I understood it adequately to comment on it, and even now there are a few elements I am at a loss to explain. Much of the initial confusion stemmed from the "internet/technology" subtheme permeating the film. Kurosawa uses the internet phenomena, with individuals seeking dialogue with others while seated in their own small, lonely rooms, as a metaphor for the general state of human loneliness and sense of isolation. This in itself would not be confusing if it were not for the fact that he tries to use this metaphor as a real explanation for the horror appearing in the storyline. Thus we have rather complicated, if not convoluted dialogue between characters regarding the internet somehow serving as a conduit for the spiritual realm as it spills out in the world of the living. (Kurosawa goes so far as to name this film "Kairo" ("Circuit" - despite the wide proliferation of the erroneous English title "Pulse") to suggest this technological centrality to the film's narrative.) But in the end, Kurosawa ultimately abandons this attempt or is unable to carry it through, opting instead to consistently depict "forbidden rooms" covered in red construction tape as the real conduit of the spiritual haunting. The lack of any connection between these "forbidden rooms" and the internet, as well as an utter lack of explanation as to why these rooms are always covered in red tape, accounts for the confusion this film generates. On the one hand it is saying through nearly all of the dialogue that the internet is the primary conduit, while the narrative itself revolves solely around haunted forbidden rooms which, once entered, will certainly bring about your demise.

But please understand that this prior critique is solely regarding a confusion generated (in me) by what I see as two competing subthemes. In all three viewings and despite such confusion, Kairo proves to be a completely eery apocalyptic tale of vivid images both visually and audibly. As an apocalyptic tale dealing with the end of the civilized world (or a stage thereof) Kurosawa provides a convincing depiction of the gradually barren and smoldering Tokyo amidst appearances of an increasing number of truly frightening shadowy figures. Thus what I take to be an inadequacy with the relation amongst subplots will not necessarily prohibit you from thoroughly enjoying the spooky aura of this rather complex tale.


Before they can realize the scope of the phenomena, Michi (Aso Kumiko) and Ryosuke (Katou Haruhiko) find that one by one their friends are disappearing through mysterious, sometimes grisly means. In her investigations into the matter Michi discovers that each of the disappearing friends had entered a strange room with doors and windows covered in red construction tape. Once inside that forbidden room each friend witnesses such a terrifying sight that he/she is plunged into a deep terrifying depression followed by sudden disappearance. What remains of them is only a dark stain where they last stood and their coarse, ghostly whispers crying "Help me!".

Elsewhere Ryosuke is trying to uncover the strange things he has seen on a web site which seems to have possessed his computer. Seeking help at the university's computer lab he encounters Harue (Koyuki) who reveals a pet theory amongst the graduate students there regarding the physical bounds and limitations of the underworld. According to the theory, the underworld has a finite capacity which once reached will necessarily overflow and occupy the next available space. This overflow, he is told, can occur through even the simplest medium. The fact that Ryosuke seems to see haunted images on the internet is used to corroborate the suggestion that the internet has become such a medium and has allowed the underworld to spill out into the world of the living.

An encounter with one of these shadowy ghosts results in the individual being immortalized in an eternal state of utter isolation here in this world. Though they themselves disappear in mysterious fashion, they are not ghosts but rather constitute a new terrifying hybrid of living and dead. As this state spreads throughout the globe like a rampant virus, with the number of phantoms exponentially increasing and overrunning the living, Michi and Ryosuke attempt to find shelter from this apparent end of the world.


As I said above, this is a thoroughly creepy tale evoking convincing images of the demise of humanity. The cinematics and sound score work well together and the narrative itself packs some shocking moments. It also, unfortunately, packs a few incredulously coincidental moments which undermine certain scenes by jarring the viewer into skeptical mode. But these are limited in number (though unfortunately used at the film's most critical moments) and do not overwhelm the overall momentum of the film's aura which is indeed memorable and haunting.

I guess in the end I am saying this is worth watching and may prove entertaining despite some noticeable flaws in narrative shortcuts and competing, often inexplicable subthemes.

Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD (includes English subtitles)

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Nothing really cultural here other than being a film by Kurosawa Kiyoshi. One very stretched neck via hanging. One rather convincing plunge and thud from a great height to the pavement below. Two self-inflicted albeit bloodless gunshot wounds to the head(s). A few charred corpses and plenty of grimy, mysterious stains on the wall. This is about eternal isolation, get it? A rather creepy and unique apocalyptic scenario.


This is definitely a masterpiece from horror maestro Kurosawa. This film has some taste of metaphisical horror, and it may be telling us that "lonliness" is the new monster in the XXI century.

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