The rise of J-horror as a phenomenon is now – get ready to feel old – almost two decades ago, and as the images of spooky, long haired female ghosts have long become cliché and subject to satire, it’s sometimes hard to remember just how revolutionary and terrifying these films were at the time. But movies like Ring and The Grudge were a significant shot in the arm for a horror genre that was just emerging from a decade of dreadfulness, and they have been massively influential – the traditional ghost story has never been quite the same since (look at Hammer’s The Woman in Black and imagine what it would have been like without the precedent of these movies).
One of the most acclaimed J-horrors of the era was Pulse, and seen fifteen years after it was originally released, it’s fascinating to see how Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film both plays with and subverts the tropes of the genre that were already developing into cliché. While ghost stories by nature tend to be small scale, intimate stories, this is a grand, apocalyptic tale – the end of the world, no less. Yet it begins quietly, with mysterious suicides and ghostly figures appearing on the internet (like any film dealing with cutting edge technology of the time, Pulse seems very quaint when discussing dial up modems and the like; nothing ages a film more than being ultra-modern when it was made). What develops is a fascinating idea, told across two stories that eventually interlink, about the loneliness of life and death, and the idea that the souls of the dead are invading the world of the living through the internet.
At two hours, Pulse is overlong, and the almost funereal pace at times won’t be for everyone. But this is a film that is full of ideas and atmosphere, and one that takes the creepiness of the Japanese ghost story and twists it into something quite unique. For those who have the patience, this is extremely rewarding, and even after years of familiarity with the genre – and the inevitable American remake – Pulse still stands up well as a deeply unsettling piece of cinema.