By Nicholas Rombes | Press Play April 18, 2012 at 9:00AM
Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira Kurosawa) is perhaps best known for Bright Future (2003) and Tokyo Sonata (2008) and although these films bear his visual watermarks—very long takes, slow tracking shots, naturalistic settings, frame compositions that often leave large, impersonal spaces between characters—it is on his metaphysical detective/ghost films that his reputation rests. The most distinctive of these are Cure (1997), Charisma (1999), Pulse, and Doppelganger (2003), all of which, with the exception of Pulse, feature the remarkable, Peter Falk-like Kôji Yakusho as the lead actor. The pacing of these films produces an oddly perverse effect: the slower they are (and they are slow) the more anxiety they produce, as if the executioner’s bullet fired at the prisoner against the wall took two terrible hours to reach her.
Pulse begins with a man and a woman alone on an enormous ship on a dark sea. It becomes clear that they are survivors of some sort of massive, perhaps global, catastrophe. We flash back to Tokyo and the events that lead up to the epidemic of suicides, events that are presented elliptically and without the usual narrative exposition that we expect in apocalyptic films. Details emerge, but they are sketchy and difficult to piece together: it seems that some sort of ghostly presence haunts the Web, a sort of virus that causes people simply kill themselves when exposed to it. The protagonists address this obliquely, through philosophical conversations that center on topics such as loneliness, the possibility of love, and whether we become ghosts in the afterlife. The ending of the movie loops back to the beginning, on the ship.
Michi and Junko are at work at a Tokyo plant wholesaler, still in shock over the death of their friend Taguchi, who recently hung himself. That bare sentence doesn’t convey the cold horror of the scene, for it’s not just that Taguchi hangs himself, but that he does so in a completely unexpected and casual way, moments after the most typical banter imaginable with Michi, who asks him where a disc is, as he casually takes a phone cord out of a box of junk on the floor. When Michi goes over to his desk for the disk, he steps into another room with the cord and hangs himself, off camera. He may have well just stepped into the next room to put some bread in a toaster.
And now, at the 10-minute mark, Michi and her friend find themselves, on the roof of the plant company, surrounded by green, by life. This shot comes during one of the many long takes characterizing Kurosawa’s style, takes in which the sparse but soul-killing violence in his films come at us from the edges and margins of the frame. For all the formal, rigorous, distancing strategy of the film—also evident in Cure and Charisma—there is a healthy dose of quiet and sly humor, as in the fact that these women who work with dirt and plants and water also happen to dress like this. This visual contradiction—a naturalistic, washed-out setting featuring characters whose dress seems out of place—is just one example of how Kurosawa slightly de-familiarizes commonplace settings, rendering them just off-kilter enough to make us uneasy.
Michi, concerned about friend and co-worker Yabe (who has seen what’s on the disk that Taguchi was working on and will also kill himself soon), asks her boss if she can go check on him. This is just one of many shots where characters are framed and reframed on the screen, their bodies appearing behind or in front of a proliferation of rectangles—in this case indicated by the fence frame Michi stands before and the Mondrian-like structure in front of her boss--which only reinforce the film’s relentlessly deterministic sense of alienation. For no matter how these characters try to cope with whatever it is that’s causing the growing plague of suicides, they remain trapped, both individually and collectively, by certain patterns of thinking. Kurosawa uses the mystery/detective genre as a trope to suggest that the criminal is not an individual, or even a human being, but rather a force that is an expression of the collective unconscious of an entire society.
1. The plants, in their sad plastic pots and buckets, straining toward the dim sun.
2. The green water hose the boss is about to wrap into a coil.
3. And also: the fleeting thought that the boss might hang himself with that hose, as Taguchi did with the phone cord.
4. The barbed wire fence, like a cage.
5. Michi’s gaze, as if she has realized something, perhaps the dark knowledge that those plants, incapable of suicide, will outlast her and all the other humans.
In the context of the entire film, this frame from minute 40 constitutes a form of visual terror. Because violence in Pulse, more often than not, occurs unexpectedly and without visual or musical cues, the audience is conditioned to expect it at any moment. Although there’s not real tension between Michi and her boss at this moment, we ourselves bring tension to the scene, noticing for instance, the grip of the boss’s hands on the hose, and the gloves he wears, and the way that the slight tilt of his body and his hat obscure his expression, and the way that Michi keeps her distance from him. The coiling of the hose and the possible uncoiling of his violence. These are possibilities the frame permits.
In an interview regarding Pulse, Kurosawa has said:
Ultimately, the Other—anyone who is not us—remains incomprehensible no matter how much we try to communicate. And we should try to communicate with the Other. This concept is valid because we are surrounded by the Other: the incomprehensible humans and incomprehensible actions human beings take.
Ryosuke (wearing a tee-shirt from Gilley’s bar in Texas, where Urban Cowboy  was filmed) and Harue, university students, are becoming aware that the suicides are not isolated, but something that threatens to wipe out all humankind. The space inside the frame is itself disorienting, as there appears to be a mirror behind the bookshelves to the right of the gray chair. A white curtain hangs on the wall, obscuring what? Ryosuke’s posture is defeated. Harue refuses to look at him.
The frame is from one of many scenes in Pulse where the narrative comes to a nearly complete stop, offering us a chance to experience the reality of what’s happening in much the same way as the characters experience it. What they—and we—gradually come to understand is that, as Kurosawa suggests, the monstrous Other is not outside, but inside. Ryosuke, Harue, and the other characters carry it within themselves. As do we.