An eternity already exists on the internet. Human life is no longer relegated to a material form, our lives extend outside boundaries of pages and the confines of flesh. Pulse, a 2001 film by Kurosawa Kiyoshi is distinctly haunted by this fact in an era when the internet was still an adolescent. In the years since, our collective relationship with the worldwide web has grown in proximity to the visions posited in this film, death happens to us but our virtual existence is stored forever in an inconceivable data bank that lingers like a spectre; the interests, contents and substance of our lives calcified into an identity that remains long after we have perished but is only a figment, a husk of the actual events and scenes contained therein. Digital cinema is perhaps the most significant war yet waged on mortality: paintings degrade, photos and filmstock can be destroyed, tapes disintegrate, but the virtual life is a permanent one that is completely incomparable and unfathomable to any tangible volume of encounters and information. We own one memory, cyberspace has agency over all that enters into it and it never forgets. So the internet in Pulse exists at once as transcendent of the human form and equally so, as a new landscape where we will experience that structure again and again; perpetually alienated within the system.
“I need navigational information”1 says the ship captain at the beginning of Pulse establishing the human characters as equally adrift as lost spirits, searching for a home in a world that is increasingly unrecognizable and unnavigable. By the film’s conclusion Kurosawa has reframed this moment as cyclical because he begins and ends the film with this same sequence, we are just treated to the entirety in the closing scene. This is not the first instance of repetition in the film, or perhaps it is, because it’s technically the initial image of the film, but it precedes the narrative in spite of it occurring after everything has already happened. This suggests one of the film’s central themes: the agony of eternal recurrence and the insurmountable “original” without location.
Coming back to this moment at the films end is pervasively existential as the image becomes smaller in the frame, revealing the black borders of a nothingness seemingly holding the film in place, recalling Sartre’s definition of space, that we create them (spaces) with borders2, walls form place, the screen acts similarly, cartographically arranging an area for our eyes, a funnel for our vision, organizing our sight, where without it, our perception might lack definition. Which is why, when the size of the image dwindles, shrinking, collapsing, submerged in a haze of digital static, our attention is drawn to the compressed, fleeting image, though being brought back to this scene in particular adds dimension to this technique: film is a loop and it’s repetition does not create understanding but only engenders difference. And like a VHS tape that is played on repeat, the fidelity of the image decreases with time and repetition, not just the quality but also its substance and relationship to the “original”, because it’s no longer that particular “original”. David Lynch is a filmmaker to note here, only because his films “demand” rewatches to understand, however, the mysteries therein become preposterously difficult to untangle the more time is spent with his work. Kurosawa is bluntly pragmatic about this fact, that though cinema is used to communicate it’s more often than not a tool of distance, far and away from de-distancing, it serves as a tool to reanimate the rifts between us, capture them as they stood and reintegrate them within our shifting structure.
Though Kurosawa has communicated something, he recognizes the limits of images, of words, of an ephemeral experience (best exemplified by the news-footage about a bottle with a letter inside that has washed up on shore but took ten years to reach its destination) that wishes to seize itself and reproduce a copy, thereby continuing its existence, unaware of the original death it succumbs too in the process. The first ghost in Pulse, is not necessarily a ghost, actually we don’t really know what he is, but we can infer his ghostly nature because Michi walks across his apartment, past where he is eventually seen without noticing him but then he rises slowly and dazed, like he can’t remember why he’s there and he’s suddenly arrived in that position. She talks to him about some mundane trivialities, about a disk he was supposed to copy, he grabs a chord while they speak and enters into the other room. After some searching for the disk Michi then walks into the next room to discover that her friend has hung himself. The ghost/person earnestly answers the demands of Michi and her questioning, while preparing for the ritual suicide, only calling it ritual because we are unsure of whether or not this is the first time this has transpired. Initially he is depicted staring straight up into the ceiling, recalling the aimlessness of ghosts throughout cinematic history, restless spirits without abode, however, we later learn, he does have a home, he exists in this space only because, in an immediate meta-sense, he does so both as a character in the film, and the actor inhabiting the screen, gazed upon by the camera which has positioned him within it, later echoed when we see the first image of him, captured by a camera, staring into a computer screen, in one screen the image repeating itself forever, in the other, his reflection.
One of the primary objectives of Cahier du Cinema was to display film as an art intended to capture that which was already dead and dying3. Best exemplified, perhaps, in Godard’s Contempt which sees a couple falling apart amidst a film that is recreating Homer’s Odyssey (directed by an aging Fritz Lang, the icons of cinema, the forefathers, perish on screen), requiring shots of marble busts, which are colored in at the eyes for some Godardian pop, but serves more to dilute their safety as objects that by submitting them to film, they are already dying, but film catches them in the act (for the couple: their love, for Fritz Lang it’s a question of his own mortality and movies as he knew them, for Godard the cinema, and finally in the content of the film-within-a-film: dead already, an inert past, revived for the screen which was already a fiction, in Baudrillard’s terms reality4, in Sartre’s that which we simultaneously can never not be and never be again2). By placing “the end at the beginning” Kurosawa undergoes some similarly complex narrative acrobatics: in the first shot, everyone in the narrative except for a single character has already died, with the fate of the captain and Kudo Michi (one of the protagonists, played by Aso Kumiko) still up in the air as they head for South America, almost every character has already fled mortality, for what we will later discover, is an eternity of ghosts, endlessly shuffling through digital landscapes. To return to the aforementioned sequence at the beginning, this is where we first locate the recently deceased character (the temporal reduction of his death as not given in any single moment in the film is distinctly unnerving, we experience it for the first time shortly after Michi does, but he lives it forever), in his home, as he was, his back turned to the camera, obscuring his face, reduced to nothing more than a recreation of when he was living, without the dynamism and unpredictability allotted therein. While this finds him in a limbo, some state of afterlife, the introduction to his character would imply that this is not a stagnant state but a continuous, looping reproduction. It is not life, but he experiences it in diminishing capacity again and again, because alienated, isolated was a designation that constituted a collective reality, which each character participates in, upholding, even in death.
Michi is arguably the only character with legitimately undiluted or unobtrusive feelings of sympathy for others. There is no ulterior motivation for what she is doing, just that her friends are suffering, there is a mystery afoot and she is trying to solve it. Kurosawa avoids the often ludicrous circumstances typically employed to force a non-“detective” character into a conspiracy by depicting her gravitational pull towards the disappearances as something haphazard, even the protagonists fateful meeting at the end, is stumbled into, the romance between Harue and Ryosuke is similarly understated. These are all elements that are unavoidable tropes of the horror genre, but like with his 1997 work, Cure, Kurosawa does something especially clever with genre. In Simulacra and Simulation Jean Baudrillard places his theories into a concrete example: a bank robbery. That if you were to enact a robbery with all of it’s features in place, a gun, a security officer, a bank, hostages, that what exists from this simulation is reality. It would be perceived as a bank robbery and furthermore would actually be one. Kurosawa approaches genre in a similar fashion, not that Cure isn’t a thriller, and that Pulse isn’t a horror movie, just that Kurosawa deconstructs the respective genres down to their scraps. So Cure isn’t a thriller and Pulse isn’t a horror movie but are rather reenactments of each, which is to say, on Baudrillard’s terms, Pulse is a horror movie and Cure is a thriller.
So to extend the argument to another Baudrillard example, Cure and Pulse are mummifications of their respective genres, their entrails removed and put into neat little boxes that are subject to classification, namely saddled with the “arthouse” label and ascribed to that realm of that canon in the “museum” of cinema. This is cheap, because Kurosawa is making genre pictures, just in a deeply insidious and psychological fashion, he painfully recognizes how isolating genre constraints are, the distance between he, his subjects and the film they are making is just deeply realized so that some “conventions” and “staples” of the genre, in Pulse’s case, jump scares, fighting back against the enemy, an identifiable villain, in Cure’s: copoganda, adept officers, exciting revelations and a clear finale are all denied to the viewer, however, the ticket stub that let attendees into a horror movie or a thriller is not inaccurate because, to approach Baudrillard once again, Kurosawa takes the organs of the mummy divided into their distinct, individual functions and reassembles them, resulting, in Baudrillard’s words “The real… produced from minituarized cells, matrices and memory banks, models of control- and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these… It is no longer anything but operational”4. So to with genre, it’s merely a matter of fulfillment of what constitutes the real which is already simulated in character, Kurosawa sees this in a profoundly existential manner, as opposed to Baudrillard who identifies as a nihilist. Kurosawa reckons with how human connection insists on attempting to overcome edges and confines, to quote singer-songwriter Angel Olsen: “Without this barrier of bodies, we’d already be inside”5, Kurosawa is romantic enough to want to achieve this but realistic enough to understand its impossibility, that the network of human relationships is merely a continuation of a flawed system that perpetually renews itself in difference.
Nietzsche begins his famous “The greatest weight” aphorism from The Gay Science with a demon who will “steal after you in your lonliest loneliness”6, it was his greatness that alienated him and separated him from a collective, in short, it made him lonely. He lived the most philosophically vibrant years of his life relatively alone before descending into madness, not even he could overcome the petrifying nature of individuality of being apart from the herd. In Cure and Pulse, Kurosawa’s characters are distinctly separate from one another, and increasingly so as they attempt to fit a mold, in their attempt becoming that thing or falling desperately short, which in turn reveals the delicacy of their position. This is best exemplified in a brief exchange from Cure in which the “serial killer”, the hypnotist Mamiya, is being “booked” and “interrogated” by two police officers:
“Are you a cop?”
“Why am I talking to you?”7
As a process of slow, methodical hypnotism, Mamiya, the suspect, asks the cop to affirm his role in the scenario and then once confirmed, that this is in fact the reality of the scene, he is lucid and remembers (in spite of a seeming lack of memory) the rules of the game thereby playing a part, instigating, the police procedural which far and away from an illusion constitutes itself as reality, albeit one he is exploiting especially as it degrades in resemblance. When Mamiya begins smoking, one cop says “you can’t smoke in here”, not smoking is the last refuge the police have of their station, Mamiya has already destabilized their work and made them fools who merely look and act like policeman, again, to return to Baudrillard, the operational function, is to reproduce this exact moment many times. And to pause on history for a moment, in 97’ arrest-conviction rates were extremely high in Japan (99% which remains true to this day), the system perpetuated itself but Mamiya acts like these rules are inapplicable to him. He smokes freely in the police station, so freely that one of the officers too, joins in. When his colleague smokes with the suspect, the vulnerability of their enterprise is unavoidable so the other officer leaves the room and insists “I’m on duty” a shallow grasp at recovering his lost ground, this moment registering for him as an absurd break from the real.
As Deleuze notes in Cinema II: The Time Image, genre films “bring(s) out the thing in itself, literally, in its excess of horror or beauty”8, Kurosawa is a filmmaker who scrapes at genre, catching the bits it sheds, and stitches them together because he recognizes them as unallocated, absent excess and though subverting it through his reduced aesthetics, in Pulse he locates the surplus, it’s the internet. Quite literally, a character says: “The realm they have has a finite capacity, it’s overflowing, where does the excess go? They must ooze into another realm…”2, and as film becomes an increasingly digital art; streaming will inevitably overtake theatergoing, more people watch tik-toks than they do the “essentials” of cinema, if we can picture a cinematic canon trying to hold all these developing, expanding components, it must drop some elements that time simply does not allot to humans, but a digital consciousness can store it, a home for eternity, which is in-itself an excess.
So there we live, in brief glimpses and disappearing images, here we die, but there we exist. In Episode #480 of YourMomsHouse9, a podcast hosted by married comedians Christina Pasitzky and Tom Segura, Tom, who has a penchant for sadism, plays a video, that the audience cannot view due to Youtube content directives, but contains a man being “degloved” that is exactly as horrific as it sounds, a man apparently reaches for something above a spinning wheel, his clothes get caught, he spins round and round, before moving so fast and brutally that he loses his skin. We experience our death once but it can be reenacted again and again, lived under the eyes of witnesses, and this is the reality. Not our lived moment but the inert dead event, the demon of Nietzsche finds us in our “loneliest loneliness”6, and perpetuates that shape, the structure of that alienation for all eternity, so the internet is not transcendence but condemnation to a continuous system of isolation that mimics the and mummifies the discarded shell of life, leaving the vessel empty. Camus said “we suffer alone”10, and Heidgger “the world is already further outside than any object could ever be”11, and perhaps, as a result of this irreconcilable distance, not only do we suffer alone, we live and die by ourselves, best we get is a witness; now the eyes and ears of the world. We’ve never been more alone.
- Kiyoshi, Kurosawa. Kairo (AKA Pulse). (2001) Toho, Japan.
- Jean-Paul Sartre. (1943). Being and Nothingness trans. Hazel E. Barnes. Washington Square Press New York, NY.
- Jean-Luc Godard. Contempt (1963) Criterion Collection.
- Jean Baudrillard. (1981). Simulacra and Simulation trans. Sheila Faria Glaser The University of Michigan Press.
- Angel Olsen “California” Track #7 Phases Jagjaguwar 2017 Alternative.
- Friedrich Nietzsche. (1887). The Gay Science (second edition) trans. Walter Kaufman. Vintage Books Edition (1974).
- Kiyoshia, Kurosawa. Cure (1997) Dahei, Japan.
- Gilles Deleuze. (1986) Cinema II: The Time-Image trans. By Hugh Tomlinson & Robert Galeta. University of Minnesota Press.
- Tom Segura and Christina Pazsitzky. YourMomsHousePodcast Episode #480. Video podcast. December 2nd, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyphV0K5Nyg&ab_channel=YourMomsHousePodcast
- Albert Camus. (1962). Caligula and Three Other Plays trans. Stuart Gilbert and Justin O’Brian Vintage
11. Martin Heidegger. (1927). Being and Time trans. Joan Stambaugh State University of New York, Albany, New York.