Japanese horror is a wide, multifaceted ocean, from Nobuhiko Obayashi’s deranged House to well-known classics like Ringu and Audition to scuzzy V-cinema gorefests. Kiyoshi Kurosawa has contributed more than a few times to that wealth of films, refracting familiar themes and genres through his distinctly menacing style. Cure (1997) could be compared to the likes of Fincher’s Seven and Mann’s Manhunter, but its worn cop-versus-mysterious killer plot becomes a bizarrely foreboding mood-piece. Serpent’s Path (1998) turns a seemingly conventional Yakuza revenge thriller into grimy and minimalistic psychological horror.

As early as that aforementioned film, the seeds of Pulse’s thematic terror were being planted. In Serpent’s Path, a home video acts as a father’s link to his murdered daughter; the video playing on grainy screens becomes a filmic effigy, gaining a ritualistic air as if the flickering frames crossed the spiritual divide. Three years later, Pulse would further explore the connection between reality and the screen in a haunting ghost tale.

In 2001, amid the burgeoning internet era, Kiyoshi unfurls two parallel stories. In the first, Michi Kudo (Kumiko Asô) investigates the suicide of her friend Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi), leading into a techno-horror enigma immersed in depression and early internet culture. In the second plotline, student Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Katô) is caught in the midst of a spreading phenomenon that’s blurring the line between real life and online spaces. People are vanishing into a digital beyond, while those digital ghosts reach out for connections and draw more into their hollow hell.

Purely as a horror film, Kurosawa’s Pulse remains one of the creepiest slices of cinema to emerge from the last decades. The director’s naturalistic camera and eye for unnerving urban spaces creates a film that never resorts to jolting scares or disturbing extremes. Rather, his horror is one of peripheral dread, lingering implications and goosebumps-raising imagery. Shaded figures on faded monitors, vague human stains festering on walls, the unblinking camera hanging on spectral figures: Pulse’s skin-crawling unease can seem nearly alien next to modern horror jolts, yet every scare serves a purpose to both immensely unsettle and reflect broader themes.

For all its ghostly spookiness, Pulse transcends its terror to become a haunted mediation on connections and loneliness. Kurosawa looks towards the future and sees one where the entire globe is overwhelmed by digital bonds. What starts with spectral stains as people vanish into the ether expands exponentially into the apocalyptic consequences of society’s digital embrace.

There’s a beguiling nature to Pulse’s new-millennium online probing. The delicate apprehensions toward exploring the internet seems almost endearing in our interconnected present. Characters discuss a schism between reality and monitor, where the cyber siren song decays real-life bonds and stunts personal relationships. One character even describes the digital afterlife as “eternal loneliness.” In Pulse, souls persist in immortal digital limbo, the flickering monitor screens acting as the porthole into lonely prisons. The film’s cyber existentialism recalls the earlier omens of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and its prophecies of online radicalization, social media, Internet anonymity and other all-too-familiar concepts.

Perhaps in that regard, Kurosawa’s internet dread has become prescient and quaint in equal measure. Pulse could be seen as prophetic of today’s reality-online divide and of digital ghosts outliving physical bodies, especially when Facebook accounts can be memorialized so a deceased’s online identity lives on. Conversely, its lonely souls trapped in their individual cages seem at odds with the age of social media bubbles and algorithm-skewed echo chambers.

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