For anybody familiar with the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa the events in Kairo seem almost inevitable. Indeed his constant exploration of how alienation, isolation, miscommunication and how the supernatural affect individuals in modern day Japan always had a burgeoning apocalyptic quality but with Kairo the scale is ramped up, the tipping point reached and a brilliantly original and chillingly crafted supernatural end of days is underway.
“It all began one day without warning.” Michi (Aso) and Junko (Kurume) are concerned about their colleague Taguchi who has been missing for a week with a computer disk containing a project. Michi investigates calling at Taguchi’s apartment. Initially Taguchi seems fine, handing Michi the computer disk as she makes tea and conversation. Then Taguchi hangs himself. Shocked, Michi calls the police and is taken to hospital. After arriving home Michi encounters Taguchi’s ghost not just in her apartment but over the telephone and on television and computer screens. Meanwhile young economics student Kawashima (Haruhiko) finds his dial-up connection has a mind of its own as it links him to websites with distorted videos of people in the throes of depression. It then sends him the message “Would you like to meet a ghost?” and links him to The Forbidden Room. Taguchi is horrified and seeks help from a computer science lecturer named Harue (Koyuki). Between the three characters a mystery unfolds involving a rash of disappearances and suicides might be linked by a computer virus.
The plot hinges on the novel and original use of the internet and moves relentlessly forward maintaining, through Kurosawa’s cinematic skills, an unrelenting atmosphere of despair that makes the apocalyptic ending inevitable and the supernatural genuinely chilling.
Kurosawa’s vision of a bleak Tokyo populated by lonely, emotionally desolate people unable to connect to anything is convincing. Everything is shot in a pallid light and feels drained of life. Characters look so isolated and uncertain in a landscape that is so uninviting where other characters are obscured and turned into blurs by plastic sheeting, frosted glass and darkness or distance. His choice of filming locations is not the sugary neon Tokyo from tourism adverts but a place of run-down, impersonal and dark empty spaces. Backgrounds are used brilliantly as living and work spaces appear increasingly abandoned and derelict, people and ghosts drifting in and out. Even apartments that should be cosy have corners that are pools of blackness, screaming voids where terrifying things lurk. In a number of scenes a change in light, slick camera work and editing reveal the ghosts that are truly terrifying.
The ghosts seem like Sadako cash-ins but with less fury, more despair. This is what makes them terrifying. With Sadako she remains somewhat human – very, VERY angry so you could relate to her and imagine escaping her wrath by placating her desire. With Kurosawa’s ghosts the humanity is stripped away leaving a core of loneliness and there is nothing you can do or say but run. These ghosts are wrought by loneliness and use the internet to ensnare people and make them lonely in a clever reversal of the internet’s promises of connecting everyone.
Adding to the sense of inevitable doom is the music which begins with mournful violins, scraping strings, haunting singing before an insistent drumming joins in as the full scale of the apocalypse is revealed. Furthermore along with traditional cinematic craft is smart use of special effects. Scenes involving computers distort and fragment and like the video in Ringu hold flickering, grainy images of people which are genuinely disturbing. The creepiest effects come when the ghosts turn up and their victims, once touched by loneliness, disintegrate.
Overall this is a focussed and intelligent work that feels original and refreshing in tone and delivery compared to many other horror films. I think it still has the ability to chill on multiple viewings.
Kairo / Pulse
Running time: 119 mins.
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring: Kumiko Aso, Haruhiko Kato, Koyuki, Shinji Takeda, Koji Yakusho, Arisaka Kurume, Jun Fubuki, Matsuo Masatoshi, Sho Aikawa