Updated: Dec 23, 2022
Mass communication technology represents a fundamental shift in how we perceive & experience the world. But a nigh-inescapable complication is that everyone is now more aware of how horrible the world can be, especially for those who attempt to use technology as a replacement for necessary real-life experiences. Seeing that disconnection 24/7 can be discouraging in itself: a negative feedback loop. With individual utility & community being erased from the force of outsourcing & deracination, many feel as if they're capable of little more than slaving away at unfulfilling jobs & consuming escapist products. Some might say they're practically dead.
As a sociologist, Kiyoshi Kurosawa is painfully aware of this decline. His films often involve creeping evils that psychologically reshape the vulnerable: corruptions worse than death. Pulse is one of his most horrifying hellscapes due to not being only filled with spooky concepts but also being highly analogous to modern spiritual anguish at large. Kiyoshi aims to demonstrate the larger workings of distressing trends... while warning you to not look too closely into the void, or else you inevitably join the despondent tide, yourself.
Confident in the power of genre elements to evoke everyday realities, Kiyoshi's films use apocalyptic ruptures as indicators of vast cultural changes. Cure charted the inevitable psychological emptiness resulting from the "century of the self," Charisma anticipated mass disaster rendering smaller conflicts a waste of precious calm before the storm. But Pulse may be the most disturbing of these films in that it sees humanity entering an irreparable state of spiritual stagnation.
In this nightmare, ghosts spill over from the overcrowded afterlife & invade the land of the living to not kill so much as banish us into entropy. Using sealed-off spaces (often with internet access points) as entry points, these specters of the dead feed on & exacerbate miserable emotions in the barely living until their victims simply fade away, a scorch mark & faint cries for help being the only signs they ever existed to begin with. Worse yet, those under this dread influence aim to spread their despair to others before disintegrating themselves. Cries for help are the lure of these predators. In fact, they often wait for an audience to come along before performing their horrifying acts of self-destruction. As with the provocatively attention-alluring serial killer of Cure, the specters of Pulse form a memetic threat that doesn't kill directly but rather uses exploits in the human psyche itself to extend its destructive ends.
Such ideological entropy achieves a catastrophic scale when utilizing the greatest proliferation technology of all: the World Wide Web. Indeed, the internet is such an overwhelming aggregation of information & signifiers (much of it distressing & dehumanizing) that it seems natural for ghosts of the past to use it to reach from beyond. Information overload is an almighty cause of ennui for the overstimulated, under-experienced children of the 21st century. When the modern man struggling to grasp onto any meaningful cultural & familial relationships is incessantly bombarded with immediate access -- some intentional, much accidental & osmatic -- to representations of the worst mankind has to offer, is it any wonder that so many are choosing to give up on life?
This is the menace faced by the protagonists of the film, mostly young adults in varying degrees of social isolation. After a brief flash-forward introduction that intimates an inevitable disaster, two parallel stories in Pulse tell the stories of people dimly perceiving the crisis encroaching upon them. At first, it seems we're seeing them as canaries in the coal mine before an apocalyptic rupture, yet it becomes evident that the phenomenon could be clearly observed only when it's become too late to stop it.
A tiny greenhouse amid the vast concrete of Tokyo sets the stage for the first of these plots; its employees begin to be seemingly systematically picked off by psychological afflictions. The first to go, Taguchi, has failed to arrive at work after being tasked with programming advertisement software. Concerned coworker Michi checks on him at his apartment, a drearily lit mess of computers & plastic curtains. In terse, staccato assurances Taguchi politely claims he's fine -- then he walks a few rooms over to hang himself on a short, improvised noose. The florists are shocked, though one awkwardly admits he can see why one would take the ultimate way out of the suffocating urban jungle. Their boss sours the empathy with some obviously prepared lines about how no one really knows or cares about each other: just some drivel from an unhappy boomer peddling his defeatism, no help at all.
While at work, the florists try to look out for each other, but greater forces break the weakest link of the chain. Yabe, that fellow who relates to having a death wish, gets phone calls from the deceased Taguchi begging for help. After investigating the dead man's apartment, he finds despairing scrawlings & sees ghosts whose stares pierce into his terrified soul. But Yabe isn't killed; he returns to work & confuses the others with his bleak aloofness. After failing to bring Yabe out of a storeroom in which he languishes, Michi finds that there is only a large burn mark where he had been cradling himself.
The strange doom of Yabe distresses Michi, but she tries to keep a clear head. It's her only remaining coworker, Junko, who has been rattled the most by the events despite pretending to not care. Like a moth to the flame, she ventures into the space in which Yabe met his fate. Ghosts now haunt the room, and Michi must force the mesmerized Junko away from the dreadful sight. Michi cares for Junko in her apartment, but Junko is too far gone & dissolves into disassociated dust scattered by the wind. Having lost all her peers, Michi searches for her divorced parents, though it's likely that they too are gone from the increasingly empty cityscape.
During this, another well-meaning fellow weathers difficult phenomena. Ryosuke is a young economics student, though he looks as if he knows more about what's on clearance at Hot Topic than about the laws of exchange. An awkward kid, he's willing to converse & keep eye contact yet struggles to get his foot in the door while others focus on their work. You get the feeling he would rather hang out with friends than play video games if he only knew how to reach out to the right people.
As with Japan as a whole relative to the rest of the first world, Ryosuke's been slow on the uptake to adapting to the encroaching internet age. Yet even he knows something is wrong when his newly online computer starts involuntarily showing Opentopia-esque camera feeds of dreary-looking people wasting away in their spartan living spaces. Ryosuke can't get these unsettling images off his screen, and as a video of a bag-masked man prompts the question "Would you like to see a ghost?" he opts to pull the plug & ask for help at a computer lab.
In those drab complexes, he consults with Harue, a friendly-enough tech major who shares the hero's halted way of speaking. But she proves over the course of her meetups with the inquisitive Ryosuke to be a decidedly distressed dame with unchecked insecurities about her solitary, directionless life. As the investigation makes it clear that a strange, otherworldly threat is proliferating itself through technology, she spills out onto Ryosuke her fears of death being nothing other than an eternal continuation of her impersonal, repetitive existence. He tries to console Harue that dwelling on morbid thoughts is a waste of energy, which seems to pay off when she eventually posits the idea that they should escape the increasingly eerie city. But at the first sign of difficulty in their exodus, she proves to be already too mired in her defeatism, choosing to remain in the desolation she's familiar with.
Harue's dejectedly rejecting a possibly better future is the inevitable influence of depressing stimuli (and ennui) that she's too pliable & solipsistic to divorce herself from. What may be the film's standout scene initiates when Harue sees the "Would you like to see a ghost?" computer prompt that Ryosuke had wisely fled from. She chooses to stare into the void & see a man shoot his brains out on camera. It gets worse for Harue; the screen starts showing a video feed of herself at the desk from the perspective of an unseen seer in the room behind her. During an incredibly tense sequence, she realizes this presence & dares to venture into this space, the film cutting back to the POV of the video feed all the while. What is happening vs what is seen becomes almost totally blurred at times. It is finally revealed that there is no visible entity in the room, yet the over-the-edge Harue hysterically embraces this "seer" and proclaims "Now I'm no longer alone." It's the sad, deluded cry of every e-girl the world over, every Eve thrown out of perspective from being hooked on fruitless social media attention & hollow interchangeable affirmations in lieu of a strong man to lead her.
This disturbing union of desperate human & intangible voyeur is paralleled by a more pleasant meetup of Pulse's parallel plots. Ryosuke & Michi cross paths in the seemingly deserted cityscape & decide to search for missing friends together. The two awkward, shell-shocked youths don't have much to connect over since their lives have been devoid of meaningful incidents & fruitful relationships even before the current crisis, but having any well-meaning, hopeful company is appreciated.
The survivor duo does find Harue in a desolate abandoned factory, but they aren't ready for what she's been waiting for an audience to do. Indeed, in a disturbing act of suggestion-induced mimicry, Harue has prepared to kill herself in a fashion similar to the bag-masked man she saw shoot himself online -- including scarring innocent spectators as she pulls the trigger. Ryosuke especially is distraught at her suicide; all that emotional investment to try to save someone arguably too far gone from the start was for naught. It's the uncaring punishment for vulnerable male romanticism.
Things only get worse for him as she searches for fuel so he & Michi can flee this wretched place... only to find himself in a haunted room he cannot escape. A specter appears to him & declares ominous tidings about eternal loneliness & suffering, the same grim picture Harue's despairing ramblings implied. Ryosuke dares to fight back, but his determination is no match for the gaze of the ghost.
A concerned Michi finds her friend by the remains of Harue; Ryosuke is clearly emotionally drained as the other victims of prompted self-destruction were. Yet he keeps a stiff upper lip, abstaining from wallowing & instead resolving to hang onto life for Michi's sake. The city rapidly deteriorates, bodies litter the ground, & planes fall from the sky, yet the couple escapes by sea to find a larger ark of survivors. They seem like a capable, mature bunch, with the leader setting a course to find others who resisted the encroaching threat. Once it's certain that Michi will be in good care, Ryosuke finally fades away. To the end, he keeps the pain of brutally losing his overgrown naivete, of losing practically the only trait he had to define himself in an experience-deprived life, silently to himself.
It's a bleak conclusion yet not without hope or actionable advice. More than fantastical technophobia, Pulse is a warning that your aesthetic environs, information feed, and social circle (or lack thereof) are an absolute influence over who you are. There's hardly such thing as peripherals you can consciously regard or disregard at will. Don't fool yourself: whether displayed across a flickering screen or broadcast through a world-weary face, every show of evil & hopelessness does take its toll on you. Death by a thousand cuts.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa's direction seeks to not discourage you so much as showcase human susceptibility in the interest of self-awareness & resistance to negative influences. In a certain light, it's one of the best films about friendship ever made, urging us to recognize the like-minded from the terminally dreary, else we be dragged down to their despair. Indeed, the ending holds some optimism in the creation of a community environment as exclusive & positive as possible. You are nothing other than the sum of your received stimuli; make sure to be around the right ones.