Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 2001 Japanese horror film Pulse is interesting in concept if not always successful in execution. In its two parallel storylines, spirits connect to the living world via the Internet. As is often the case with J-horror, the pacing of this material is sluggish, but the film offers some memorable and frightening visuals. Notable is that Pulse is among the first group of Japanese horror films remade for American audiences, alongside updates of The Grudge and The Ring. Kurosawa's film is deeper and more accomplished than those I mentioned, and the director effectively ties themes of loneliness and loss into the narrative. Pulse relies less on jump scares than its contemporaries but offers enough unsettling imagery to spook.
A college student, Taguchi (Benji Mizuhashi), commits suicide while working on a new computer program. Several friends, including Toshio Yabe (Masatoshi Matsuo), Junko Sasano (Kurume Arisaka) and Michi Kudo (Kumiko Aso), look into why their formally stable classmate would take his life so unexpectedly. Michi visited a missing-in-action Taguchi right before his death. He became incoherent and distressed before walking into an adjoining room and hanging himself by the neck. A strange black spot appears on the wall where Taguchi's body rested. Michi uncovers a Web site on which Taguchi appears, standing in the very apartment in which he took his own life. In the second storyline, another student, Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato), finds a Web site offering him the opportunity to meet a ghost. A shadowy figure then appears in a room, distressed, and Ryosuke's phone rings. The voice on the line asks for his help. These stories intersect as many citizens begin committing suicide and reports pour in about ghost sightings and apocalyptic visions.
Viewers expecting the spooks of The Grudge or The Ring may be disappointed here, although there is one particularly frightening scene with a female ghost approaching her prey. This film is more meditative, and offers an interesting rumination about the woes of technology. Kurosawa laments society's reliance on the Internet to communicate; something more relevant than ever in this age of social media and tweeting politicians. When victims are absorbed into the void, those left behind are forced to speak to one another in person, which rekindles long-forgotten traits of empathy and camaraderie. The film suggests those left behind are to be pitied more than the ones taken.
Although much of Pulse is effective, both as drama and for thrills, the midsection is too long and largely uninteresting. The film spends too much time tooling around with the students and retreading the same ground. When the pace picks back up in the apocalyptic finale, the film regains its composure. The acting is solid across the board, and the workmanlike cinematography works for the material. With an interesting premise and some subtly frightening images, Pulse largely earns its cult following. Although it is not as raw or intense as I had hoped, the film's themes are timely and disturbing.
Those familiar with Japanese film preservation know the frequent issues with foreign-sourced masters and hand-me-down elements. This 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image was provided by a foreign distributor, which Arrow acknowledges in the liner notes, so this HD transfer likely won't blow your socks off. The image often appears drab, with muted colors, anemic black levels and minor print damage. Grain ranges from moderate and film-like to chunky and oppressive. Fine-object details are generally decent but inconsistent, and wide shots are not without artifacts. I'm not sure this film is going to look much better without a full restoration, but that is unlikely to happen.
The sole audio choice is a Japanese 2.0 LPCM mix, with optional English subtitles. This is not a particularly dynamic track, but it gets the job done. There is some decent ambience in the spooky sound effects, and both dialogue and score are presented without distortion.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc set includes the Blu-ray and a DVD. The discs are packed into a clear case that features two-sided artwork and a 20-page booklet with an essay about the film. Extras include Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Broken Circuits (43:53/HD), a solid, career-spanning interview with the director; Junichiro Hiyashi: Creepy Images (25:03/HD), an interview with the director of photography; The Horror of Isolation (17:11/HD), in which Blair Witch directors Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett discuss their affinity for Pulse; an Archival Making-Of Featurette (41:03/HD); a Tokyo Premiere Introduction (7:04/HD); footage from the Cannes Film Festival (2:57/HD); Special Effects Breakdowns (26:13 total/HD); TV Spots (4:15 total/HD); and NHK Station IDs (0:15/HD).
Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse is both dated and unexpectedly timely. This Japanese horror film suffers from pacing issues but offers enough creepy visuals and relevant themes to entertain. Arrow Video's release features excellent bonus features and what is likely the best A/V presentation available on home video. Recommended.