Kairo (2001)
Written and Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring Kumiko Aso, Haruhiko Kato, Koyuki, Kurume Arisaka, Masatoshi Matsuo, Shinji Takeda

Isolation provides the anchor to this slow-brewed horror movie which blends psychological tension with philosophical musings. Utilizing the alienating side-effects of technology Kiyoshi Kurosawa draws ghosts into the land of the living while questioning the ability of people to connect deeply with one another. It’s a dark and eerie creeper that forgoes the shock of blood and guts for the darkness that makes the hair on the back of your neck to stand up. While the film is rife with genre conventions it never descends into cliche, especially not those which have come to define Asian horror cinema.

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Strange things are afoot in the world of computing. Workers at a greenhouse become concerned when their co-worker and a disc of data disappear, leading Michi (Kumiko Aso, as seen in Casshern) to investigate his home. Using the spare key to gain entry she rifles through his dim apartment, digging through stacks of software and piles of paper in a hopeless quest. When he suddenly appears in his bedroom he points her to the right spot but disappears into a back room. Michi goes to find him and finds his hanged body.

The workers are shocked by this sudden suicide and puzzled behind the motivations. Still, work must continue but everything comes to a standstill when Toshio (Masatoshi Matsuo) discovers something strange embedded in the spreadsheet they had been waiting on. An image of their recently deceased co-worker appears on the screen, his body standing before his desk, the image repeated on his own monitor. It’s a disturbing find which deepens the mystery behind the death, but it isn’t until Toshio receives a phone call from the dead that he rushes back to the apartment.

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Slovenly college student Ryosuke has heard all about the internet and decides see what the fuss is about by loading some software (Ur@nus) onto his computer. He’s not keen on technology but persists through several confusing prompts and user agreements. The internet immediately sends him an image of someone’s room and he watches as a grainy figure staggers back and forth, flickering in and out of view. The image changes to another room, another figure, then again. It becomes too much and he hits the computer to turn it off. The computer, however, isn’t done playing and, as Ryosuke lays sleeping, turns itself back on.

Frightened and confused he goes to a computer lab at school, asking random students what they think about this. Eventually the instructor Harue (Koyuki of The Last Samurai) asks him what he’s babbling about, taking an interest in the strange behavior of his machine. She sends him off with instructions for capturing the page he has seen.

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Toshio finds little in his former co-worker’s home, just a crumbled sheet of paper reading “The Forbidden Room”. Reflecting on the suicide he suddenly sees his friend standing against the wall, then sees only a black stain in the shape of a slumped corpse. Rattled he leaves the apartment but becomes intrigued by a basement room which has been sealed off with red duct tape. It appears empty inside, but behind him in the darkness stands the figure of a woman. She flickers as she moves, out of sync with her body.

Ryosuke succeeds in capturing a screen shot of the mysterious website and Harue comes to investigate. She talks about how people use the internet to connect with one another but that it’s a false intimacy– that everyone remains alone. It’s heavy conversation while he tries to hurriedly tidy around her but he’s obviously a little attracted. Enough to hunt her down in the library where he finds her reading books on ghosts, and enough to spend time in the computer department examining the programming work of a graduate student who designed dots to obliterate one another when they meet but are drawn towards one another the more distance they seek.

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Things are beginning to get very strange. Michi watches a woman throw herself from a factory tower, possibly the same woman who she had seen the day before taping the door to her apartment shut. Toshio returns after missing half a day of work but isolates himself in the office. When she confronts him later he falls into hysterics, but she can’t fully comprehend what he’s babbling about until he suddenly disappears, leaving behind a black stain on the storeroom wall. Her other co-worker Junko (Karume Arisaka) finds another taped off room and investigates, only to square off with an enraged specter. Harue introduces Ryosuke to graduate student programmer Yoshizaki (Shinji Takeda) who shows him a ghost in the library and then explains his concepts of spirits as energy in a finite space, spilling over into our world. The streets are growing empty and the taped off doors are growing plentiful.

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The most glaring problem with Kairo is that by American standards the internet was an overused plot device by the time it was released. The concept of a ghost in the machine is so laughable that you may as well have Emilio Estevez battling possessed trucks in the desert. However two things to keep in mind about this: Kurosawa claims that when he began production the internet hadn’t percolated into the pop culture of Japan; the computer and ghostly calls to cell phones are just introductory elements for the concept of voices from beyond the grave. As unsettling as the images on computers are the real story involves the characters on a psychological level– there’s no hands reaching out from the screen. The second most glaring problem with Kairo is the inevitable comparisons to Ringu which was released several years earlier. The low definition images of repeated motion, vague figures and technology on the fritz mirrors the haunted tape from the previous film, but all can be forgiven when you take into account that ghost stories have been around for centuries so just because it’s something you’ve seen before doesn’t diminish the effect. It’s not entirely surprising that the cinematography is handled by Junichiro Hayashi who shot Ringu as well as Dark Water.

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Kurosawa’s greatest strength comes from the tone of the film. His sets are dim, disheveled and defeated. His framing encases the actors in cages and isolates them into corners or boxes. There’s a suffocating air that permeates the more tense scenes, turning dark apartments into the very images flickering on computer screens. One anachronistic touch is his handling of the actors in vehicles. There’s a couple shots of people on an empty bus, some shots of people in a car and one of people on the JR, but each is obviously shot in a studio with the exteriors projected which is very bizarre and hallucinatory. His lighting is well considered, accenting the edges of vision where nothing is too clear; in some ways I would compare this with the noir-styled Jacob’s Ladder. However this leads to some difficulties for the viewer, although I can’t say whether this is caused by the film stock or the transfer to DVD. At times the picture becomes so grainy that it’s difficult to discern things that you assume should be clear.

What’s less clear is the story as it unfolds. The protagonists travel different routes through the film and in shuffling back and forth between one and the other I got lost about where everyone was or what they were doing. Developments in the plot, particularly when revealed in dark and grainy rooms, were easily missed and I could only connect dots well after they were introduced because they were repeated. This might have been intentional but I think it’s more the result of jumbled storylines being thrown together in a jarring manner.

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Character development also suffers with no need for back stories or motivations. Overall we can assume that each person is isolated in some way– they don’t appear to have many friends and live alone– but this never reveals itself as a burden on their sense of well-being. It might prove to be a more striking peculiarity for the Japanese audience who are more accustomed to the integrity of the group over the individual, just as seeing someone walking down an empty street doesn’t resonate the same way for someone who doesn’t live in a tiny coffin surrounded by a million other people at all times. Harue and Yoshizaki are the two people who seem to have anything going on in their heads beyond reacting to circumstances and each elaborates on their theories of humanity and spirituality as if defending dissertations. The other characters come with stock emotions, not too blank or clinical to ignore but not really flesh and blood either.

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That Kurosawa attempts to pervert the standard ghost story with philosophical musings and bad thoughts about alienation is noble and adds a sense of realism to the story while causing the viewer to second guess where the line between reality and hallucination sits. As events pile on top of one another the characters attempt to unravel the mystery and we attempt to do the same. There’s nothing particularly profound in what is being said or discussed, and at times the conversations seem a little ridiculous, but it makes for a more engrossing and somewhat unique horror experience. Unfortunately everything kind of falls apart in the end and Kurosawa seems to suddenly want a different movie entirely, but as disappointing as the final scenes were I don’t think they ruin the movie. If he had been able to sum things up in a more concise manner while staying focused on his original vision the film, nearly two hours long, would have benefited tremendously.

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What almost ruins the movie is the score. Composer Takefumi Haketa begins the film with soaring orchestral arrangements that clash violently with the grimy sequences unfolding. It brings to mind the dissonance Bernard Herrmann would lend to some of Hitchcock’s suspense movies, but overdone like Max Steiner on Prozac and Benzedrine. Haketa eventually realizes what movie he’s working on and begins to add quasi-industrial ambient soundscapes but frequently is overcome with an impulsive need to wave the baton wildly about as if warding off demons. Fortunately the overall sound design is incredibly effective in countering these spasms, adding to the sense of dread as effectively as many American horror movies do with music. There’s a constant hiss and hum of a world surrounded by electricity and machines from which unearthly terrors whisper.

Kairo was released in the States as Pulse, or at least it was after the American remake of that name was released. The transfer provided by Magnolia is questionable depending on who’s to blame for the grainy film. All region copies might have cleaner prints or it might be Kurosawa’s fault– I can’t tell. The sound was excellent, however, excusing Haketa’s exertions.

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