This is the problem facing the individuals in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's amazing film Kairo. The main characters live in a Japan slowly disappearing. They can see the people around them - friends, family, co-workers and casual acquaintances - slowly dissipating into the realm of the spirits. Some take a more direct approach, committing suicide to hurry the horror. But a few seem to simply merge into the infinite. And though it seems like the end, the truth is far more terrifying. What's happening may not be the death throws of this world...but instead, the frightening beginning of a new, even more puzzling possibility.
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.
With every other Japanese horror film utilizing the ghost to some simplistic, somber ends, Kairo comes as a necessary necromancer wake-up call. Certainly, like its Ringu/Ju-On/Dark Water brethren, this exercise in the supernatural uses the Asian superstition regarding spirits as a means of manufacturing macabre. But unlike those standard haunted house stories, writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation) is out to make his phantoms as epic as possible. The scope of Kairo (roughly translated as Circuit) moves beyond the drowned girl with a vendetta, or the pissed off poltergeist with a score to settle. Instead, there is something deeply philosophical and aesthetically profound going on here. 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.
At first, we are afraid Kurosawa is going to reconfigure that by now cliché concept of the longhaired she-specter. Our initial forays into the frightmare aspects of Kairo's narrative seem sadly reminiscent of other, more mundane movies. But once the first plot point is played out, and we meet another character with what seems to be a totally dissimilar problem, our interest is renewed. Then the director does something even more amazing. He combines elements of both stories into one, but then lets the logic drift and the connections come apart so we are never fully sure of what is going on. As with any masterful work, Kurosawa finds a way to bring it all back together in the end, to tie up every dangling issue and interlace all the storylines into something both majestic and meaningful. The finale is so fabulous, so visually stunning and emotional that we can't help but feel frightened. But it's not because of ghosts or goblins - it's with a genuine concern for the fate of the characters we've been following.
Kairo doesn't drive its point home with shock-scare setpieces. 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. As we move closer to the ending, we wish our chatterbox would reappear and give us more of his theories on the afterlife. Additionally, we see how the filmmaker laid the foundation for all this supposed foolishness sequences ago. So when the payoff comes, it's so palpable that it raises the hair on the back of our neck...and a lump in our throat. But the actual storyline is just one aspect of this film. The movie really rests on a very sound foundation of insight into human nature, the fear of death, and the fascination with ghosts and the hereafter. All its artistic triumphs aside, Kairo is, at heart, a very absorbing dissertation on the concept of mortality and the anxiety producing prospect of dying.
[Minor Spoiler Warning] According to Kurosawa, there is no such thing as reality or the supernatural. All life - current and after - is merely a state of being. How we choose to acknowledge the situation determines our fate, both in this world and any other. If we stay connected to others, give and receive love, and learn to make the most out of whatever amount of existence we are granted, we eventually pass away and pass on. If we struggle to stay alive however, desperate to defeat death at any cost, there are two potential prices to pay: we can either end up as a 'phantom', an unsettled spirit looking to protect its paranormal territory; the second option is to exist as kind of an indirect immortal. It's this latter theory that is so potent in Kairo and Kurosawa's story. By offering individuals the chance to live forever - disconnected from emotion and those who offer same - the narrative really plays into our most basic human worries. Religion and other spiritual pursuits all center around the desire to find a "guarantee" for life everlasting. Humans hate to think that death means the end of everything - intellectual, physical and emotional. The filmmaker hands all these concepts over to his characters. What they do with them, and how they affect their existence, marks one of Kairo's most exceptional elements [End Spoilers].
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 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. We are so used to seeing movies in which every element - otherworldly or not - is spelled out and shown in full CGI glory that to leave certain scare tactics to the imagination (gasp!) or dimly lit domains throws us off our game. 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, 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, that drowns in dread and celebrates the strange. The computer/Internet facet is merely external - a way of getting a modern generation to look at a paranormal tale from their own closed perspective. This is classic battle between good and evil stuff, except Kurosawa takes his story beyond said basics to really address issues like the ethereal plane, interpersonal relationships and human malaise. Though many recent Japanese horror films have managed to reinvent the genre, adding a new level of cold, calculated terror to the mix, Kairo stands out as 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 Mt. Fuji movement.