Especially for a Japanese film, there’s a fine line between becoming another in a long line of Slow Bore Horror films and just being a Horror film. Luckily for my faith in Japanese cinema, I was treated to the entertaining Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl a few days ago, and now I have the pleasure of watching Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo (or “Pulse”). Kairo, despite having similar plot devices as the internationally popular (and mother of all contemporary) Japanese Slow Bore Horror film Ring, is actually a much better film, and is not only more stylish, but is also — dare I say it? — actually scary.
Kairo opens with the strange suicide of a young man, leaving his 3 friends to muddle through that inevitable post-suicide question: “Why did he do it?” No sooner does the 3 friends begin investigating the death then they begin experiencing strange events of their own. Meanwhile, across town, college student Kawashima decides he should try this thing called the “Internet” that he’s been hearing so much about. Kawashima’s first experience is a bad one, as the first web page that pops up on his computer screen is one that inquires, “Do you want to see a real ghost?” Spooked, Kawashima shuts off the computer, but the computer has a mind of its own, and begins turning on by itself, connecting to the Internet, and returning to the same spooky website over and over again. What the heck is going on here? Why are people suddenly disappearing all over the country? And who is going around sealing doors with red tape?
The world that writer/director Kurosawa and cinematographer Junichiro Hayashi presents us is quite remarkable. It’s the world we know, but one completely different. There is a hopeless look and feel to the film from the very beginning — and continues until the bitter end — that is fascinating, not to mention achieving its purpose of drawing us in. The universe of Kairo seems forever cast in shadows, regardless if it’s night or day, and despite the presence of technology, the people are always alone, even when they’re among friends. The movie posits the question: Are we really still “connected” to our fellow human beings anymore? The film’s answer: of course not, that with the coming of technology we’re actually more isolated.
What’s most important is that Kurosawa and Hayashi are masters of framing. Every shot and sequence is covered from head to toe in doom and gloom, and phantoms easily and effortlessly appear out of every corner and every patch of shadow. The mise-en-scene in Kairo is brilliant and breathtaking without having to resort to fantastical or magical backgrounds. Again, it’s the world we know, but not the world we know, and that’s what makes it most unsettling.
Kurosawa often relies on slow pans to reveal phantoms and other characters in the background, and it’s all very stunning and very creepy. Kurosawa also uses shadows and lighting to great effect, and the phantoms are never entirely shown in stark light — meaning we never really see “all” of them, and it’s preferable that we don’t, since the problem with many horror films is that they show too much too soon. Kurosawa manages to balance the “too much” and “too soon” just right — and in the process trumps the “too little” and “not enough” complaints that I have with many Slow Bore Horror films.
Actually, the phantoms are just that — “phantom” in appearance, and they seem to quiver and slink and quite literally move in disjointed, “inhuman-like” ways. The coming and going of the phantoms are effective, and each time they appear my skin began to crawl and the hairs on the back of my neck took notice. There is one particularly good scene where a character is inside a loud arcade, only to suddenly realize that he’s utterly alone. How it happened is a mystery to him as well as to us.
Another aspect of Kairo that I appreciated was the story’s “global impact”, which is to say the problems of our characters are the problems of the world. Many horror movies are so limited in scope that it’s sometimes trying to have to sit through 90 minutes of our heroes trying to convince the world that “something evil” is out there. Not so with Kairo. The world of Kairo is presently being invaded by beings from another dimension, and as a result there is a worldwide ripple affect as everyone beings to experience similar events. Slowly but surely, the world starts to thin out, but not in the loud and splashy way you expect. Like most of Kairo, even the end of the world is quiet and unassuming.
The actors all do a very good job, and for once I didn’t want to pull my hair out at the slow (and sometimes nonexistent) movements of Slow Bore Horror characters as they ponder the happenings — and ponder, and ponder, and ponder some more… Kairo has no problems with ponderous characters, and Kurosawa is always careful not to let the quiet scenes stay quiet for too long. Also on the plus side, there are very few of the stationary wide shots that Japanese filmmakers seem to always fall in love with. As a result, the camera is in constant motion, providing the film with a sense of “movement.” The film also makes good use of music, and the soundtrack, though somewhat obnoxious in the beginning, eventually proves to be an asset.
Haruhiko Kato, as the computer-impaired Kawashima, is especially good. Kawashima’s story runs parallel to that of Michi (Kumiko Aso) and her 3 friends, and seems unrelated except for the strange paranormal going-ons, but eventually merges in the end. While Aso’s Michi does have a prominent role, it’s Kato’s Kawashima that drives the film’s narrative. More often than not, Michi and her friends are prone to victim status, succumbing one by one to the phantoms, and it’s Kawashima and his relationship to the lonely computer expert Harue (Koyuki) that provides the bulk of the movie’s exposition. (No matter how ridiculous or beyond reason those expositions are, natch.)
Kurosawa has transcended the Slow Bore Horror genre with Kairo. He’s overcome all the faults I’ve had with movies like Ring, Memento Mori, and Uzumaki. Kairo is stylish, scary, creepy, and atmospheric to the hilt. In a word, it has it all.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa (director) / Kiyoshi Kurosawa (screenplay)
CAST: Haruhiko Kato …. Kawashima
Kumiko Aso …. Michi
Koyuki …. Harue