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With: Kumiko Aso, Kurume Arisaka, Masatoshi Matsuo, Kenji Mizuhashi, Haruhiko Kato, Koyuki, Shinji Takeda, Koji Yakusho
Written by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Directed by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 119
Date: 02/10/2001

Pulse (2001)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Feeling the 'Pulse'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the most interesting Japanese filmmakers working today, Kiyoshi Kurosawa -- no relation to Akira -- is also one of the worst distributed in this country. His masterpiece Cure, which established Kurosawa as one of the leading horror/thriller craftsmen, was made in 1997 and did not open in U.S. theaters until 2001.

By an odd coincidence, the stunning Pulse (a.k.a. Kairo), which opens this week in Bay Area theaters, is also four years old. Perhaps not coincidentally, next year promises the inevitable American remake, starring Kristen Bell (TV's "Veronica Mars"). No matter, Kurosawa's Pulse is still one of the creepiest and most entertaining movies out there.

In Kurosawa's world, terrible things happen. They happen without explanation, and they happen in such an isolated way that they seem to be happening everywhere at once. In Cure a serial killer strikes, using the bodies of innocent bystanders as puppets. In Charisma, a bizarre tree obsesses several people living in the woods. In Séance, a botched kidnapping and a spiritual medium collide with horrific results. In Doppelganger, a man meets his evil double. And Bright Future has something to do with a fresh-water jellyfish and a mass murder.

Far more sinister than all of these, Pulse begins with three young employees at a small company that sells plants. One of them, Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi), has in his possession an important disc, but hasn't turned up to work in a few days. Kudo Michi (Kumiko Aso) volunteers to visit his apartment.

She finds him there and speaks to him. But after collecting the disc from his cluttered desk, she turns around and finds that he has killed himself. Was she talking to a ghost? Later, she and her co-workers look at the disc and discover Taguchi's computer screen, showing a picture of itself, telescoped into infinity, but with vague shadows of otherworldly visitors.

Across town, an amateur computer user, Kawashima Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) tries to connect to the internet for the first time. He winds up on a mysterious website that asks, "Do you want to see a ghost?" Fearing intruding hackers, Kawashima visits a computer lab to ask about the website, and meets Karasawa Harue (played by Koyuki). She is likewise confused.

People begin sealing up their doors with red tape. More and more people begin seeing ghosts and disappearing. Late in the film, Kurosawa's regular leading man Koji Yakusho (currently in Memoirs of a Geisha) turns up in a small role, but to talk about his character would give too much away.

Like Wes Craven, Kurosawa has perfected his own fright method, involving not jumps and shocks but long, steady, deeply-focused shots. He understands that something simply moving through a well-defined space can create chills; it all depends on placement and timing. An object starting at the back of the frame and growing bigger as it moves toward us is one of his most effective devices.

In one scene, a character approaches a couch that has been placed a few inches away from the wall. Something -- anything -- could be lurking behind that couch. Kurosawa doesn't stoop to the usual "jumping-out-and-yelling-boo" shot, but he does scare the bejeezus out of us.

Even so, Kurosawa isn't interested in gimmicks. Rather than bringing things to a head with a chase or a showdown, Kurosawa lets his motifs sink deeper. He understands that explanations and payoffs can sometimes ruin a great work of imagination. He does provide an "ending" and an "explanation," but they're vague enough that the spell remains intact.

The movie's key scene involves a kind of computer sculpture, showing a series of dots floating around together on a screen. If two dots touch, they "die," but if they float too far apart, they're drawn together. Eventually, "ghost" dots begin to appear. One character advises Kawashima not to stare at it for too long.

And so Kurosawa's ultimate point isn't to scare us or to drum up "B" movie thrills, but to explore the pain and horror of loneliness. He seems to wonder how human beings connect at all, or if a true, spiritual connection is even possible. Certainly computers have contributed a great deal to our being both more and less connected to other people. But the good news is that we keep trying, in spite of everything.

Over the past year, other Kurosawa films have been released on DVD: Charisma (1999, Home Vision), Séance (2000, Home Vision) and Bright Future (2003, Palm), and other films like Doppelganger (2003) have played the film festival circuit. All of these haunting, unforgettable films are worth hunting down. Once you've seen Pulse, you won't want to stop.

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