Pulse (2001) review

Introduction

Kiyoshi Kurosawa remains, for most spectators, a master of Japanese horror, despite his explorations of other genres. With Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001), he was one of the initiators of the J-horror boom in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. This time, we put Pulse, a film that is beloved by many spectators, but also misunderstood by a few, under the psychoanalytic microscope.

Review

Junko (Kurume Arisaka), Michi Kudo (Kumiko Aso), and Yoshio Yabe (Masatoshi Matsuo), who all work at the same plant sales company, are waiting on Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi) to deliver a floppy disk. With no response from him and the deadline nearing, Michi decides to visit his place. Michi is able to talk to Taguchi, but the reality of this encounter is put radically into doubt when she discovers Michi’s hanged body in a corner of his bedroom. Not that much later, Yoshio invites Junko and Michi to check out the contents of the floppy disk. On it, they find a strange and unsettling picture of Taguchi’s room.

Strange things start to happen at other places as well. Michi’s television starts malfunctioning and the computer of Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) starts, after installing internet, randomly connecting to broadcast videos of people doing solitary activities in their rooms. Meanwhile, Yoshio Yabe receives a phone-call from Taguchi to help him. He visits Taguchi’s apartment and enter a room taped off with red tape. What he encounters inside fractures his subject.

Pulse (2001) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Pulse is not simply a narrative that depicts the overflowing of the realm of spectral beings into the realm of living, but also a story that makes the destructive impact of the blossoming of technology and gadgets on one’s subjectivity and social bonds explicit.

The central but hidden struggle of the subject within contemporary society is elegantly evoked via the character of Taguchi. What is  difficult for the contemporary subject is to offer a glance of his subjective position (e.g. his suffering) to an other who agrees to receive it. This struggle is not only illustrated by Taguchi’s act of isolating oneself in his room and his inability to address the other with signifiers, but also by the fabric and the flow of conversations that structure the bonds of his friends.

The signifiers our friends utilize in their interactions either avoid the subjective encounter or erase any kind of subjective surge that flares up within speech. Their interactions are, in a certain sense, devoid of a desire to tolerate the Other’s subjectivity. All their signifiers aim to do is to protect the deceptive image of relational peace, to silence the Otherness of the other, and refuse his/her discontent or struggle its right to be heard – “Let’s act normal” (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2, Narra-note 3).

Pulse (2001) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

This relational dynamic is poetically illustrated by what one of Harue Karasawa (Koyuki)’s seniors programmed. As a miniature model of the society, it visualising the fear to truly encounter the other as subject – If two dots get too close, they die, but also the unquenchable need for social interaction as well – but if they get too far apart, they’re drawn closer too each other. The result of these two forces is that the subject remains a singular dot that never meets an Other dot to form a inter-subjective connection.  

What causes the fear of the Otherness of the subject? Pulse sadly does not offer any answers to this question. Yet, Kurosawa does highlight is what lures the subject away from entering the inter-subjective relational fabric: the promise of solitary enjoyment. The blossoming of screens (e.g. computers, televisions, mobile-phones), the rise of technological objects (e.g. game consoles), the birth of internet, the proliferation of objects-of-consumption (alcohol, smoking, junk-food, …), and the presence of places-of-enjoyment (e.g. arcade-centres) advocate a form of consumption that aims to inject a burst of solitary enjoyment into the subject’s veins. The growing importance of the object-of-enjoyment within society goes hand in hand with the hollowing out of our social bonds and the blossoming of hollow imaginary connections that are devoid of true subjective meaning.

How can we understand the horrifying encounter that takes place within the Forbidden Rooms? The ghostly appearances that come to inhabit these spaces are, in our view, a visualisation of what happens when solitary enjoyment dictates the subject and relational pleasure has been forfeited. The lack of relational pleasure hollows out the subject and dooms him to “enjoy” the repetition of hollow acts. A subject without any relational pleasure is nothing other than a lonely ghost caught within the enjoyment of deadly repetition. Those who enter the forbidden rooms encounter nothing other than the horrifying truth of the further blossoming of technology and the rise of solitary enjoyment within such society. Such confrontation leads the subject to become consumed by their own hidden loneliness and lingering depression – a loneliness and depression born from technological advancement and relational decay.

Pulse (2001) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Pulse is luckily not devoid of people trying to establish an kind of inter-subjective connection. Michi approaches Yoshio to invite him to speak about his suffering and what caused it – the forbidden room sealed of with red tape and the horrible face that resides therein. Yet, can this singular act of subjective speech save him from his impeding death? Or has the sight of the future driven by solitary enjoyment already feasted on his eros-drive?

Can Ryosuke, who is in search for a connection with an other subject, form a bond with Harue, who aids him with his unheimlich internet problems, that can counter-act the deadly impact of the horrifying confrontation with subjective emptiness? Or will a missed encounter between them destroy their whole bond?

What sets Pulse apart from other Japanese horror narratives is its creation of atmosphere. Pulse’s atmosphere is not only function of the faded, vale, and darkish colours and the graininess of the visuals, but also of Kurosawa’s thoughtful way of composing cinematographic movement and fixity together and his ability to deliver visual compositions that are as visually pleasing as they are as foreboding and unsettling. The beauty of the shot-compositions is either function of the careful exploitation of the compositional potential of light and shadow or the refined utilisation of the interior and exterior geometry to create pleasant visual tensions.

The presence of something otherworldly is highlighted by visual and auditive decorations – a sudden distortion of the image or a part thereof and a surge of static noise. While such kind of decorations often disturb the atmosphere of the narrative or hinder the compositional flow, Kurosawa avoids such problem by thoughtfully integrating these decorations into his composition and giving them, in many cases, a compositional function. Such presence is also emphasized by Kurosawa by integrating unsettling visual moments (e.g. strange strangled throat, a sudden apparition, an unheimlich shadow, a burned blot on the wall, a woman jumping to her death, …etc.) into the fabric of the narrative’s spaces. While the integration of such moments is sometimes a bit rough, these moments do not fail to make the spectator feel ill at ease and heighten the unheimlich quality of the atmosphere.

Pulse (2001) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

The musical accompaniment as well as the decorative sounds are effective in echoing the ominous nature of the atmosphere, keep the spectator ill at ease, and make certain moments highly unsettling. Yet, it is not simply due to the subtleness and thoughtful application of music and sounds that Pulse becomes so eerie, but also due to their interaction with diegetic background sounds that resound the irreducible emptiness that marks the atmosphere of the narrative. The musical decorations, in fact, do not only allow the atmospheric emptiness to become truly sensible for the spectator, but also to attain its ominous flavour.     

Musical accompaniment is also thoughtfully utilized to highlight the importance of certain moments in the narrative – be it certain signifiers or certain acts. It is, in fact, by using musical accompaniment as a kind of highlighter that Kurosawa succeeds in infusing a flair of drama into his narrative, but also add a touching tinge of romance and a vein sense of hope.  

Pulse is an extra-ordinary apocalyptic horror narrative that explores, in a refined way, the destructive impact of consumption – the pulsating attraction of injecting solitary enjoyment by engaging with gadgets and screens – on our subjective position and the fabric of bonds that surrounds us. While the gadget endangers the formation of bonds and slowly hollows them out, the screen promotes the formation of hollow and imaginary bonds, bonds unable to accept or endure the Otherness of subjects. Highly recommended.

Notes

Narra-note 1: It is rather ironic that when Yoshio encounters the spectral fragment of Taguchi, he immediately asks about what happened to him. Before his suicide, he would never have posed a question that invites the Other to reveal something of his subjective suffering.     

Narra-note 2: The signifiers of the boss (Shun Sugata) of the plant sales company about communication are powerful because his words echo the growing unwillingness of subjects within contemporary society to utilize the power of the signifier.

It is, nevertheless, this fear of hurting the other and oneself with the signifier, fear of meddling with the imaginary peace between egos, that hollows out amical bonds and renders them unable to tolerate and deal with the Otherness and the suffering of the subject.

Narra-note 3: The gaps between their enunciations, gaps where background noises linger and fester, reverberate the emptiness that lingers within our characters and characterizes their bonds against the dark and forlorn walls.These gaps highlights what is not there: an inter-subjective connection.     

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