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.
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, 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.
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.