Sunday, July 27, 2008

Quiet Apocalypse: Kurosawa's "Pulse"

This post is part of the Kiyoshi Kurosawa Blog-a-thon being hosted at The Evening Class

In Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Pulse" (Kairo), the end of the world comes in hushed tones. The inhabitants of Tokyo begin to slowly absorb into the fabrics of everyday life- literally. It begins with a florist's assistant and then spreads to a group of technologically inclined college students. Messages begin to surface in weird video images on computers which causes the viewer to slowly go insane, taping off their residences with red tape and then morphing into wet stains on their walls. Is what they're seeing on the website the images of their dead friends? A portal to some other world? Or is it simply their imagination and a chance for a filmmaker like Kurosawa to broaden his thematic outlook on the modern world? Whichever way one looks at it, "Pulse" is one seriously scary piece of work.

Released in 2001, "Pulse" fits in nicely with the rest of Kurosawa's moody work. I've said it before, but for whatever reason, Asian filmmakers like Kurosawa, The Pang Brothers, Hideo Nakata and Takashi Shimizu understand that the recesses of the frame, the dark edges of the image and background shadows can be just as terrifying as any horror film aesthetic. Kurosawa is probably the unspoken master of this. For an entire investment in mood, check out his latest film, "Retribution", which seems to be shot entirely with natural sunlight and one bulb per room. And even though "Pulse" is another Asian metaphor on technology taking over society (on the heels of Takashi Miike's pretty damn good "One Missed Call"), Kurosawa makes us believe in it. The desperation and impending dread hovers over each and every second of "Pulse". I'm not too afraid of nuclear weapons wiping us off the map, but I could easily see the world degenerating into a chaotic hell hole if some super virus infected modern technology and rendered us helpless. "Pulse" plays on that fear and ends on a truly harrowing visage of planes going down in flames, a woman jumping to her death (in a remarkable well staged and tricky single shot") and a woman (Harue Karasawa) stumbling around the mayhem searching for a way out. The apocalypse had never felt so scary.

Filmed in 2001 but not released in the United States until 2005, "Kairo" was pilfered and turned into a nearly unwatchable Hollywood remake in 2006. Though some of the images were transferred faithfully- including the one with a "crab woman" walking towards the camera which, in either version, is one of the more disturbing images I've ever seen- gone is the fragile sense of dread. The Hollywood version amped up the ghosts and swept out the energy. The attention was turned from the darkness of the frame to the overtness of the "jumps". With Kurosawa, his films seep into your consciousness and rattle around for days. "Pulse" is but one great example of this.

The common visual structure of "Pulse" notwithstanding, it's also a film that demands your attention. With an array of characters, the narrative refuses to focus on one person. The man or woman that we're watching one minute very well could end up a stain on the wall in the next scene. Besides being a strong indicator that Kurosawa is interested in the mass psyche as it pertain to this unknown phenomenon causing mass suicide, this storytelling device adds great tension. Anything goes. But, anyone familiar with Kurosawa's films knows that the unexpected should be expected. In both "Cure" (the first Kurosawa I film saw on Sundance channel in 1998 one year after release) and "Retribution" (2007) an unknown force triggers ordinary people to kill without warning. With the introduction to each new character, we're never sure if we can relax and put our trust in this person or if they've already been possessed by this growing evil. In "Pulse", the students affected by one's suicide exponentially impact the others. Who'll be next? Who will go home and have their computer automatically turned on and see the image of a shadowy bedroom? For some, this unwillingness to identify with a strong character can be maddening. For Kurosawa, it's yet another methodical way of dealing with the non-descriptive nature of the evolving landscape.

Last year, I included "Pulse" on my list of 15 scariest Movies of all time. It's that good. Over time, it has only gotten better. With each new Kurosawa film, he continues to dazzle and mesmerize. The logic is a little fuzzy sometimes and I wonder if he doesn't get totally lost in mood sometimes (thinking of "Retribution, which I need to see again), but its the promise of seeing something nerve-shattering that brings me back to Kurosawa as the leading figure in modern Japanese cinema. "Pulse" has been regarded as a genre attempt by Kurosawa. If this is the type of minor genre attempt he continues to make, then I'm very afraid for the horror genre itself. His 'minor' efforts reveal more purpose, more visual brilliance and more damning statements about us as a society than any 'major' work by true auteurs.

1 comment:

Michael Guillen said...

Joseph, thank you for your contribution to the Kiyoshi Kurosawa Blogathon! You have your finger on Kurosawa's atmospheric dread.