By Chris Hyde

May 6, 2003

That Matrix Reloaded trailer is really mesmerizing.

The Hollywood version of The Ring has brought some stateside recognition of the talented work being done presently in the horror genre in Japan. One skilled helmsman working there now is Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose 2001 Kairo (Pulse) is an alienated bit of modern creepiness that's also slated for a future domestic remake.

As a director, Kurosawa has been behind the camera for a number of projects for both television and the movies since the early 1980s, though it was his 1997 Kyua (Cure) that was really his breakout moment. From that point on, he's crafted nearly a scary movie a year, and has been so successful at it that his latest film (Bright Future) has been entered into competition at this year's prestigious Cannes film festival. Being nominated for the top prize at that famed event alongside renowned directors such as Peter Greenaway and Clint Eastwood is quite an achievement for the filmmaker and can only strengthen his growing international reputation.

But Kurosawa's arrival on the global circuit is no out-of-nowhere fluke; to the contrary, his earlier work demonstrates that the director has been quietly assembling a solid body of work unseen by many beyond Japan and the more devoted fans of Asian film. Unfortunately, much of his oeuvre is inaccessible to those who do not have a solution for viewing DVD's or VCD's from other regions of the world, and even then precious few of the director's films have been subtitled in English. There are at least a couple of his movies available to be found by the dedicated fan, however, and perhaps this year's appearance at Cannes will help bring some more to market beyond Kyua or Kairo.

This latter film is set in modern Tokyo, though the city in this instance seems very far cry from the bustle-filled streets generally associated with that Asian metropolis. Much of the movie consists of the telling of two parallel stories that are eventually tied together towards the end of the film. In the first one that we see, a young woman named Michi (Kumiko Aso) goes to the apartment of a colleague who has failed to show up for work for some time. While there, he talks to her almost as if he's perfectly normal, but by the end of their encounter in his darkened apartment he has managed to utterly dispel the notion that everything is okay. The film then changes perspective over to the apartment of a college student, Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato). He's taking his first delicate forays onto the Internet, as his obvious lack of taste for computers seems to have kept him offline prior to this point. Unfortunately, his initial logon is an even more bizarre experience than he's expecting, as he finds himself connected to an odd website that shows a room filled with blurred shadows. This page eventually disappears and is replaced by a black screen that asks one simple, unsettling question: "Would you like to meet a ghost?"

Needless to say, poor Ryosuke isn't all that enamored of his trip into cyberspace and quickly shuts down his computer in a semi-panic. But later on that night, his computer spontaneously turns itself on and logs itself on to the net. Awoken by the sound of the modem handshake, Ryosuke gets freaked out again and yanks the plug in hopes that this might stop the madness. The following day he goes down to the university's computer lab to seek guidance on his odd trip into the online world. There he meets a graduate student, Harue Karasawa (played by Japanese actress Koyuki, who will appear in Tom Cruise's upcoming Xmas 2003 project, The Last Samurai) who he enlists in trying to figure out whether hackers are attacking him or if the trouble is something far more sinister.

Kurosawa from there alternates his stories between these two threads, as Michi and Ryosuke each pursue their own means of attempting to figure out just what in hell is going on. Along the way, the shambling denizens of a nebulous spirit world and plenty of strange behavior from their friends and fellow citizens of Tokyo confront them each in varying encounters. Eventually the pair meets up to tackle the civilizational crumble together, though given the way the city is falling apart around them, their prospects by this point don't look altogether promising.

What makes all this so disturbing is the consummate skill with which the director delineates the setting of a city gone completely awry. Given the alienation and loneliness of the main characters and the technological means used by the spirits to gain access to the world, the film's thematic bent isn't too difficult to unravel. But luckily the director is smart enough not to let too many pat metaphors bog down the horror. Instead, the film proceeds into terror at a creaky, languorous pace as the primary characters face the dissolution of the shattered world around them. Much of the narrative is slightly confused and indefinite; but rather than being a distraction this mode of direction reflects the hazy nature of the events befalling Michi, Ryosuke and the world in which they live.

Of course, if you like your horror overtly shocking and over-the-top, then this film may not be completely to your liking. The evil here is eerie in its lack of clarity, and the quiet, indistinct way that people are broken down by the lurking wraiths makes the overall atmosphere of the film much more important to its success than any particular shocks or individual scenes. The leisurely pace and pervasive dread that surrounds the characters as their everyday world begins to dissipate into madness and they are left to face their own isolation and fear helps give the film a poignancy and empathic bent missing from many supposedly scary films. And it's this bit of Kurosawa's point of view that ultimately makes the film a winning project rather than just another run-of-the-mill piece of genre hackwork; whether the main characters can escape (or simply overcome) their own sense of aloneness and triumph at the end becomes much more meaningful given the sympathetic light which paints them throughout the movie.

Given its quiet nature, alienated vision and restrained means of delivery, Kairo would seem like a bit of an unlikely candidate for a Hollywood version. But the remake rights have indeed been purchased by Distant Horizons, and for a while it even appeared that Wes Craven might be helming the American copy. It's now rumored that this is no longer the case, but in any event it does seem as if there will eventually be a retelling of Kairo for the American marketplace. It appears likely to this viewer that the subdued, perceptive nature of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's version will be lost in the welter of shocking moments and make-you-jump-out-of-your-seat thrill ride moments now required of contemporary domestic horror films. While final judgment should of course be withheld until that final product is available for assessment, it seems somewhat unlikely that an American version will pack the kind of subtle punch that Kurosawa's sly Japanese tale of dislocation and estrangement does. The student of horror is here then recommended to first attempt to seek out the Asian original in order to experience the becalmed terror and ambiguous weirdness of Kairo in all its Eastern glory before a new variation hits these shores. Ultimately, the quality of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's vision and the delicate nature of its terror makes it worth the extra effort required to track it down.



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