Kairo aka Pulse is a 2001 Japanese psychological horror film directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and starring Haruhiko Katô and Kumiko Aso. The film (produced by the legendary Toho studios) is a modern day ghost story set in urban Japan, which follows a group of young adults who are at the centre of a paranormal epidemic.
The film follows the two parallel storylines involving Kudo (Kato) and Kawashima (Aso). Kudo is a young woman who works at plant shop and starts to notice something very wrong with her friends. After witnessing her friend Taguchi inexplicably hang himself at the beginning of the film, one by one Kudo's friends fall into despondent trances and lose the will to live. The victims often receive phone calls from the recently deceased who can only utter the words "help me" and Kudo soon starts to notice doorways lined with red tape appearing all over Tokyo.
The Kawashima storyline offers more a of an insight into the mythos of the ghosts and explains that the spirit world has somehow found a portal to spill over into our world via the Internet. Kawashima himself discovers a strange website which shows grainy snuff-like web cams featuring depressed individuals, which asks the chilling question "Would you like to meet a ghost?". Through consulting university staff Harue and Yoshizaki, it is further revealed that it is the isolation in Japanese youth culture that is creating these suicides, and that after realising there is no life after death people simply lose the will to live. The string of deaths eventually escalates in to an apocalyptic situation by which time the two story lines converge as Kudo and Kawashima try and escape the city and it's ghostly inhabitants together.
Kairo is a very subtle and underplayed horror film, it won't necessarily make you jump or scare you as you watch it but the imagery and concept will stay with you long after the film finishes. It is certainly the look and feel of the film that gives it it's unique quality; the amateur webcam footage, the slow-mo effects and the look of the ghosts themselves. Instead of the over used pale-faced, long-haired Japanese ghost the film makers opt for a more classical style. For the most part the ghosts are simply shadows, against walls, lurking in public places etc. This is a brilliantly simplistic approach as it encourages the viewer to use their imagination and really engage with the themes of the film. Thematically speaking the film is very rich and philosophical, to understand the film fully though it is important to have some background knowledge on Japanese culture. Hikikomori is the Japanese phenomena referring to young adults who withdraw from society and isolate themselves in their houses, couple that with the well known suicide problem in Japan and you start to see what the film is really about. Which makes it all the more sinister.
The trouble with Kairo however, is no matter how metaphorically interesting it is or how eerie and unsettling some of the sequences are it is still, at it's core, a faintly silly premise. This was something much more apparent in the hideously misjudged American remake (Pulse 2006) but it's still there. The atmosphere and dread built up in the first half of the film is somewhat undermined by absurd conversations later in the film about how the spirit world is now full to the brim so now ghosts will invade our world and kill anyone they come into contact with. Simply putting red tape around a doorway seems like quite a flimsy safeguard against this and along with a number of other things is never really fully explained. It's a real disappointment that after engineering such a smart and thoughtful concept for a horror film that the execution feels a little bit clumsy and underdeveloped.
If you can suspend your disbelief then Kairo is a great psychological horror film much in the same vein as Ringu (1998) or Dark Water (2002)with genuinely meaningful metaphors behind the scares. The fractured narrative is typical of the Japanese style and does require extra focus but if you let yourself be engaged, you will be scared out of your wits. The film perfectly encapsulates the feelings of isolation, loneliness and despair which are certainly not exclusive to Japanese youth and also reflect a time when there was still much apprehension about the Internet and it's effects. For these reasons Kairo should definitely be given a chance and just to reassure you, that shadow in the corner of your bedroom is definitely not a ghost.
4 Stars ****
Have you seen Kairo or Pulse (remake)? Did the film affect you?