Doomsday Reels
Kairo A.K.A. Pulse (2001)



Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Haruhiko Kato (Ryosuke Kawashima), Kumiko Aso (Michi Kudo), Koyuki (Harue Karasawa), Kurume Arisaka (Junko Sasano), Masatoshi Matsuo (Toshio Yabe)


“The spirit or consciousness, the soul, whatever you want to call it, it turns out the realm they inhabit has a finite capacity.  Whether that capacity accommodates billions or trillions, eventually it will run out of space.  Once it’s filled to the brim it’s got to overflow somehow, somewhere.  But where?  The souls have no choice but to ooze into another realm, that is to say, our world.  Maybe, at first it started with something really simple.  Once that realm reached critical mass any device would have sufficed.  Thrown it together with the means and materials at hand.  That’s how I see it.  After many hours or days, or many weeks, it finally happens.  Through that process it spread around the world.  But now they’re no longer the faint presence they began as.”  – Monologue by Johnny Exposition, midway through the movie.

Technology is a common cause of humanity’s downfall in doomsday stories and understandably so.  There’s a weird sort of disquieting feeling that creeps over you when you sit and think about how we’re the only species in the world, possibly even the universe, that has electricity.  Most technology-gone-wrong stories are pretty straightforward.  “Oh we mined the moon until it collapsed!  Man wasn’t meant to play God!”, “Oh we built sentient machines and taught them to use swords!  Man wasn’t meant to play God!” “Oh we tried to cure Alzheimer’s by making apes super intelligent which caused one of them to learn how to talk and lead a revolution whilst simultaneously causing a super virus to kill us all off so that the world is better able to be ruled by the now hyper-intelligent apes!  Man wasn’t meant to play God!”

Kairo comes at this subject from a completely different direction.  Technology isn’t the reason for the extinction event, it’s just the medium that ends up being used.  The very premise of this movie is that the world of the dead is full and they need to go somewhere, which involves them spilling through via the internet… for some reason.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

Our narrative follows two characters: Kawashima and Michi.  Michi goes to check on a coworker/friend who hasn’t come to work in a couple weeks.  She shows up at his apartment where he greets her unenthusiastically and then hangs himself.  A few days later, the hanged man calls his work place and repeatedly says “Help me.”  Confused, their friend/coworker Yabe goes to check it out and finds a door sealed with red tape.  Inside the room a spectral woman walks toward him in slow motion in one of the most genuinely creepiest moments I have seen in any movie ever, partway she loses her footing and catches herself and then stands up and the motion is so weird and alien that it sends chills down my spine no matter how many times I watch it.

Next we meet Kawashima who’s kind of late to the party on this whole internet thing.  After hooking up his fancy computer box to the internet it automatically logs onto a site of depressed-looking people staring at him that flashes the words “Do you want to meet a ghost?”  He then goes and haunts the college computer lab asking if anybody has heard of this site, which is where he meets Harue.

Red-tape doors start popping up around the city as it gradually gets emptier and emptier, Michi sees a woman commit suicide, her friend Junko goes into a red-tape room and goes into a suicidal funk before turning into a sentient stain on the wall of Michi’s apartment and then blows away as ashes, Harue and Kawashima try to escape the city but she decides to go back for some unclear reason and he loses her, then our two protagonists meet and go back to try and find Harue before they get out of the city and go as far as they can to escape whatever’s happening.

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The movie loses momentum fast and while those first thirty minutes are scary and tense, it quickly becomes a bit of an endurance test to put up with all the finger twiddling the plot does.  There are scary moments here and there but mostly the movie jumps around between characters, disorienting the viewer and making it hard to figure out what’s happening.  At one point, when Kawashima and Michi meet, Kawashima say “So many things happened at once, it’s impossible to sort them all out.”  That is exactly how I felt watching this movie.  I finally pieced it together a few days later but there’s so much meandering and long-winded philosophical nonsense (I admit that the translation may have contributed to how dumb some of these conversations are) that the movie nearly forgets it’s a horror movie.

In my quest to divine what most of this was about I frequently found people (likely Americans) snidely telling people who were also dissatisfied with the convoluted nature of the plot that Japanese movies don’t spoonfeed you information like American movies do.  The irony of this is that Kairo spoonfeeds everything to the audience, it’s just really bad at explaing why any of this is happening.  That clumsy lump of exposition up there under the “The Story” section is delivered by some random grad-student who pops up mid-movie to deliver exposition along with context-less scenes of a character we’ve never seen taping up a room with the iconic red tape, then a ghost appearing in the room, then the man standing outside as the room is demolished by an excavator, the camera zooms in on the plate of a phone-line jack lying among the rubble as dial-up noise is heard.  When Kawashima calls bullshit on his story, he chuckles like Christopher Lambert and says “Of course it’s only a theory.”  It’s at once brilliant and the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.

That “theory” is a tremendous leap of logic and there’s never any explanation for how or why the ghosts have come through the internet.  The one detail I like is something that Kawashima and Harue stumble onto while discussing the ghosts.  The ghosts don’t want to kill people, that would just make more ghosts of which there are far too many already, rather they want to curse the living to a sort of undying nothingness, eternal life as a black smudge on a wall, and that aspect is one of the most existentially horrifying concepts I’ve ever seen.  I’ll give the Japanese this, between this or The Enigma of the Amigara Fault, they have inspired some of the most understated nightmarish concepts I’ve ever seen.

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Another thing is the red tape; it’s a striking and easily identified visual cue that something bad is about to happen, but that’s all it is.  There’s no explanation for how or why the red tape is significant in keeping the ghosts locked in a room just by sealing the door, if it even works at all.  They might as well just paint “Scary Door” on doors to signify that blurry ghosts reside inside.  Much like the technology angle it’s a neat little detail that’s not really explored and thus does nothing to serve the story and just adds unnecessary padding onto a film that’s already showing a little fat.

The first ghost is really creepy and there’s pretty scary one at the midpoint, but all other instances after that they’re actually pretty lame looking.  The one encountered at the climax of the story is clearly just a man with a cheap blur filter put over him and he’s so clearly and prominently shown that you realize how unscary he really is.  Since this is the pivotal scare of the movie, it’s kind of important that it lands.

Kairo is a good movie but it’s frustrating; the long-winded story mechanics would be better suited to a novel (Kairo was a novel, written by the writer/director of the movie though for some reason it’s impossible to find on Amazon) than a movie.  A novel doesn’t have to worry about keeping the tension like a movie does, though Kurosawa uses eerie music and an ashy almost noirish overcast look to the film stock that keeps a prevalent sense of dread front and center.

It’s haunting and frightening in a way far beyond simple boogeyman type scares, it’s a movie that wraps itself around your brain stem and injects you with terror rather than pouncing at you from within a closet.  Unfortunately it’s got a lot more style than it has substance, though it really does try, and some bad performances and hackneyed dialogue (I reiterate, this could just be the result of bad translation) as well as a muddled storytelling style, that doesn’t bother to show or tell with any great competence, keep a really excellent movie from being truly transcendent.

Kairo is available on DVD and through Amazon instant.

“Do you know what dying tastes like? Metal.”

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