Long available as a Region 3 release, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 2001 effort Kairo (roughly translated as Pulse, though a more literal translation might be "Circuit") has often been considered the film that fueled the worldwide popularity of J-Horror. While both Ju-On and Ringu predate it, Kairo presented the standard Asian obsession with death and ghosts in a greater, more philosophical manner, creating a film that was/is both terrifying and thought-provoking. After a brief theatrical run last year, Magnolia Pictures has finally decided to release a Region 1 DVD version of the title. While the tech specs may differ in significant (extras/audio) and minor (transfer) ways, the movie remains the same. Unlike the other examples of Japanese macabre listed before, Pulse/Kairo is a masterpiece.
Strange things are happening to the people of Tokyo. Thanks to a puzzling website that promises interactions with ghosts, normally happy citizens are killing themselves...or simply disappearing. There are strange warnings about forbidden rooms, red tape and immortality. For two young girls working in a nursery, the vanishings become an obsession - especially when they hit close to home. In another part of town, a young college student and a computer instructor also become preoccupied with the site.
Eventually the two sides will meet, and when they finally figure out what is going on, it could mean the destruction of the human race...or something even more sinister. How a webpage can promote the paranormal, or why productive members of society would decide to end their lives has a rationale much larger than any one person can grasp. Even when the revelation seems clear, it occasionally gets lost in the Kairo - or "circuit" - between reality and the supernatural, the living and the dead.
This film has already been reviewed twice before on the site. Click here to read John Wallis' look at the title, while a review from 2005 presents this critic's opinion. Both are dealing with previous Region 3 releases and differ very little when it comes to the actual technical qualities of the film. As for actual reaction to the film, here is this critics review in a nutshell:
With every other Japanese horror film utilizing the ghost to some simplistic, somber ends, Pulse/Kairo comes as a necessary necromancer wake-up call. Unlike the standard haunted house stories of the genre, writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation) is out to make his phantoms as epic as possible. The scope of Pulse/Kairo offers something deeply philosophical and aesthetically profound. Kurosawa doesn't want to just exploit the paranormal; he wants to give it a real basis in mysticism and the modern day tenets of technology. The result is something that transcends both concepts to create a kind of symbolic science fiction - a movie that moves beyond normal future shock into what Harlan Ellison would call the realm of the speculative.
Pulse/Kairo doesn't drive its point home with shock-scare set pieces. This is not a movie that requires a last minute denouncement or tidy explanation/left field twist. Indeed, the "justification" for what is going on is just a guess, delivered about halfway through the film by an ancillary character whose wild ideas and elusive words we more or less scoff at. This is a brilliant stroke by Kurosawa, since it makes us experience the events in the film in the same manner as the players. This is a movie that really rests on a very sound foundation of insight into human nature. It deals with the fear of death, and the fascination with ghosts and the hereafter. All its artistic triumphs aside, Pulse/Kairo is, at heart, a very absorbing dissertation on the concept of mortality and the anxiety producing prospect of dying.
But there is more to this movie than just deep thoughts and ethereal density. Kurosawa is a master filmmaker, his lens a neverending supplier of wondrous, weird sights. He makes a very daring choice in Pulse/Kairo, one that will rattle some movie lovers at first. The director wants to play with the dichotomy between light and dark, so all his outdoor scenes are brightly lit, almost too much so. Naturally, this means his shadows are deeper than a bottomless abyss. Action happens in these murky, unclear locales, and it initially causes one to balk. Kurosawa also uses lots of camera trickery. There are process shots, optical effects, arcane angles and creative compositions in abundance, all used to give the impression of a city under supernatural siege. Like any good apocalyptic vision, Kurosawa relies on the past to amplify his present. The final moments of the film are highly reminiscent of after-effects footage from Hiroshima, except in this case, the landscape is dappled by a more metaphysical human "fallout" than said nuclear nightmare.
In essence, Pulse/Kairo is a combination of science and spirit, a glorious ghost story turned even more magnificent by its desire to dig deeper than the surface scares. This is a film that exudes eerie and drowns in dread. Though many recent Japanese horror films have managed to reinvent the genre, adding a new level of cold, calculated terror to the mix, Pulse/Kairo is something quite different. Not only is this one of the best of the recent Asian examples of the fright flick, but its one of the best movies about individual isolation and loneliness ever made. When the novelty of the Eastern fear film fad finally wears off, Kurosawa's creative risk will still be remembered. This is a masterpiece of a motion picture, one of the best to come out of the entire movement.
As this is, basically, the same transfer as the Region 3 release, the following comments still apply:
Be warned - either because of how this DVD was remastered (possibly) or how Kurosawa decided to shoot it (definitely, according to sources), Pulse/Kairo is a very dark film. Deceptively and decidedly so. The otherwise crisp and clean 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is loaded with action hiding shadows, the darker the better. There will be times when you can't make out what's going on. There will be other instances where Kurosawa overcompensates for the dimness and lets in too much light. Again, this is an obvious ploy by the filmmaker, a way of distinguishing worlds that are supposed to be slowly merging. Still, home theater fanatics will probably foam at the mouth at the lack of continual clarity. In this critic's opinion, it makes the movie that much more mysterious...and moving. The revelations become that much more meaningful when we finally see them, and the hinted at horrors that much more terrifying once they're revealed.
The previous Region 3 version of this title was offered in a substantially creepy Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 Surround mix that created a wonderfully atmospheric and downright ominous tone at times. Sadly, Magnolia only gives us a less than effective Dolby Digital Stereo offering. While the English subtitles match the action perfectly, the lack of the ambient elements from the Region 3 version makes for a substandard scare situation. One of the aspects of this film that is so unsettling is the use of foley cues and spatial openness. When the world begins to unwind, Kurosawa utilizes the multi-channel palette to offer up a very successful spectral Armageddon. Such a dynamic is sadly lacking here.
Thankfully, Magnolia dug up a couple of bonus features for this film (the Region 3 versions are completely bare bones). First off is a trailer that gives away a little too much, plot wise. It would probably be best to watch it AFTER seeing the movie. The same goes for the 40 minute behind the scenes/interview featurette. What's most interesting about this documentary is that Kurosawa comes across as earthy, genial and very superstitious. He is horrified by the thought of ghosts, and even argues that his film is far scarier because it seems to suggest that they have a basis in reality and truth. Much of the making-of material deals with scene set-ups, prop adjustments, and technological snafus. Still, it's interesting to see how the Japanese approach the art of cinema vs. the way Americans - and especially Hollywood - make movies.
Since the differing audio mix is disconcerting, the Magnolia presentation of Pulse/Kairo is a bit of a disappointment. Still, the movie is a major cinematic effort, one deserving of the words stated before:
If problematic pacing that eventually reveals its motives, scattershot narratives that end up coming together brilliantly, and difficult questions answered in equally challenging ways are not your idea of entertaining cinema, then by all means, skip Pulse/Kairo. But if you are willing to be challenged, to have your mind opened to brave and brazen issues executed with intelligence and style, this is the film you've been waiting for. As epic as any standard special effects-laden shoot 'em up sci-fi flick, but filled with far more depth, complexity and emotional heart, this is the kind of film that symbolizes what's so special about the sudden emergence of Asian horror. With very little gore and an overabundance of atmosphere, this is a strikingly thoughtful, Highly Recommended take on humans and their place in the universe. Of course, the bastardized Hollywood version will be coming out in 2006, and one can almost guarantee that changes will be made. Tinsel Town and its meddling marketers would never be courageous enough to simply release this version of the story. And it's too bad. This is a great film, one that will live on longer than any crappy knee-jerk knock off. Do yourself a favor and experience the real thing. You won't be disappointed.
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