Millennial Malaise 39: Pulse

In Which There are Ghosts in the Modems

The paradox of modernity is thus: we live a world with more people than ever, closer together, and with more forms of communication than ever, and yet we feel incredibly isolated and alone. This seemingly contradiction of alienation in the connected world is one the primary engines of post-WWII fiction. That the modern world is simply not made for the living.

But then is it also made for the dead? That is the question that quite literally haunts Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 cult horror film Pulse. The maps of modern living, sewn together by technology, are the perfect grounds for the world of the supernatural. The sputtering beeps of Internet modems serve as calling cards for the beyond, and scummy digital video hides the dead in it’s blurry images. That spirits are in our machines because its the easiest way to reach us and express their fear of eternal isolation in the afterlife.

That sense of isolation reveals a pervading fear of a specific time. Pulse exists in the extremely short time span between the turn of the century and 9/11. A brief 18-odd month period of almost hushed frustration. The realization that no great reckoning came when the clock struck midnight on 1/1/00, but instead all of our concerns of the past have been only frustrated and heightened by the continual progress of technology. If the 90’s were the proverbial end of history, than the early 00’s were its afterlife.

It else revels in the specif feelings of Japan at the hinge of the millennium. I’m not an expert on Japanese history, but this is a film that was made at the end of a rather tumultuous decade for country, one wracked with economic downturn and pocked with events like the Subway Sarin Gas terrorist attacks. So in the Japanese milieu, this time was not the have it all despairs of America, but a true sense of “now what” confusion.

About halfway through Pulse tech-illiterate teen  Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) describes how he imagines the afterlife. It’s not a place of re-connection and rest, but instead something much worse, “it’s now forever.” That sentiment proves to be the crux of the plague of ghosts that invade Tokyo through the Internet. The world of the beyond is neither heaven nor hell, but forever this moment. The moment of uncertain stillness girded against tremendous technological progress. The moment of people isolating themselves to the point of unending despair in the face of the opportunity to reach out. The moment of possible connect getting subsumed by the endless churn of online information, and the fact that much of what we find online are already dead letters.


Kurosawa elides any concrete reasons for why the hauntings have swept Tokyo and caused a spate of disappearances and mass suicides. There are theories proposed by characters, one says that the afterlife just got too full and the dead have found residency in cyberspace, another postulates that the dead are back to warn the living about the despair to come, either way these figures remain obtuse. Visions of flickering webcams and the cryptic text of chain emails are signals for the dead and the feeling of isolation they sow, and those emotions are prioritized here.

Pulse then also sidesteps the traditional beats and scare scenes of a horror film. It’s an elusive movie, one that plays with seeing shadows shift in the background and witnessing horrific events at medium to close range. It’s not a movie that’s light on chilling moments, but these sequences are paced slowly and elegantly, acting in the way that one stares at a mysterious object to uncover its meaning, Kurosawa constructs frames within frames to segment off his terrors. Stacks of computer monitors hold esoteric images, the stairs to an apartment box in our characters as the world falls around them. Never do the ghosts appear suddenly, instead they are steady and deliberate, forcing the viewer into abject shock instead of sudden surprise.

This deliberate aesthetic then forces us to confront the horror that the ghosts represent. Not sudden violence, but creeping loneliness. The sense of dull loss and terror that life won’t move beyond what is in front of you, and instead churn through the same dirge of experiences over and over again. It’s a relentless sadness, and one that lends itself well to the apocalyptic conclusion. Our final girl Michi (Kumiko Aso) notes that death comes for us all, and the resistance we put up to that fate is where we can find meaning. In a place between total rejection of the oncoming end, and total nihilism.

It’s the kind of sentiment that can only fully take root in a cultural landscape that feels totally adrift. The world had truly entered a place of, “I guess that’s it,” angst. When a culture is left alone with it’s feelings it can frequently turn on itself and get reclusive, insular, and frayed by things not having the room to change in a conceivable manner.  But Pulse works excellently as a singular piece of isolating terror. A movie made exactly at the moment where the fears of the time could be effectively articulated as Internet Ghosts. That a new world has been opened up to us, and it’s already filled with the dead.

Odds and Ends

  • Highly recommend that you readers watch this flick. I know people aren’t always quick to come in and comment on a foreign language film, but you can rent Pulse on Amazon.
  • It must be odd to be a Japanese filmmaker named Kurosawa, and have to constantly clarify, “no, not that one.”
  • Interestingly J-Horror becomes one of the dominant aesthetic styles in the genre for about the next five or so years. It’s hard to say exactly why all that took off in America (though most of it can probably attributed to the smashing critical and financial success of Gore Verbinski’s remake of The Ring, a movie that also has an interesting relationship to tech), but Kurosawa provides a bunch of the stylistics elements of the genre in a fairly unique tone and format.

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Next Week: The world ends on Halloween in the 2001 cult smash Donnie Darko.