Released: 2001
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Do you want to meet a ghost? Or rather, do you like your horror with a side of existential crisis? Is garden variety nihilism just too cheerful for your tastes? If the answer to any of these questions was yes, then Japanese horror has gifted you with a dark, unsettling gem that just may be up your alley.

Kairo was one of the most upsetting victims of the influx of American remakes of Japanese horror in the early 2000s. Some of these remakes got things right, or at least kept the spirit of the film intact (Dark Water is the best example of this), and some of them got things so very, very wrong. If you’ve seen the American remake of this film, Pulse, disregard everything you know about it.

The story begins with a woman, Michi, who goes to see a friend who has been reclusive for a number of days. When reaching his apartment, she has a short conversation with him, during which he fashions a noose and casually hangs himself in another room. After his senseless death, his friends uncover a disk, which only seems to contain images of him alone in his room, looking at the computer screen. Shortly after this, Michi begins receiving calls that seem to be from this same friend, simply stating “help me.” We are then introduced to Kawashima who, while setting up the internet on his computer, encounters a website that simply asks the question, “do you want to meet a ghost?” It goes on to show him a number of eerie, quiet images of people silently looking at their screens. It becomes clear that the website is somehow letting something through into their world as events around them become increasingly disturbing and mysterious.

This film is a classic of Japanese horror for a reason, and its haunting tone has stayed with me since I first watched it. There are a few things at work here that make this movie successful. It presents an apocalyptic storyline, but an influx of ghosts is something that is off the beaten path of the usual zombie, disaster, or dystopian fare. The storyline is loose and fragmented, which would be a flaw in some films, but is used to a terrific disorienting effect in this. The visuals are markedly ethereal, with a palpable sense of foreboding in every shot.

Being made in 2001, and dealing in large part with the internet, there are a number of things that are going to seem dated – some to the point of absurdity. The worst example is the use of a dial up sound effect during a crucial frightening moment, breaking the tension and making it come across and silly and hokey. That said, even with the sparse moments of technological dissonance, the film’s story and message hold up remarkably well. With the introduction of the internet, there was a great fear that it would separate us, rather than connect us, and while the technology at play has evolved, the same anxieties exist today. Whether it’s the internet, texting, or video games, every new technological fad brings out the same criticism: it doesn’t bring us together, but locks us in our own isolated bubbles.

The terror that Kairo represents is taking this fear to its logical extreme. The internet isn’t what’s disconnecting humans from each other – we are already incapable of connecting, and the introduction of the internet just makes that much more apparent. That we live in solitude and die in solitude, and everything else is a feeble attempt to fill that void. There is a nihilism to the tone of the film that is hard to shake even after you finish it, especially because there are no answers to the questions it raises. The confrontation between Kawashima and one of the ghosts offers insight, though not full comprehension as to the goal of these wandering spirits. As the film progresses, the blending of the two worlds, and the havoc it ultimately wreaks on the world makes perfect sense. Humans are faced with oblivion, and fall into hopelessness, and in turn, become part of the oblivion they so fear.

Michi is a wonderful lead character, and one that shows her strength in an interesting way: through relentless optimism and determination. The main foe that any character faces in this film is their own loneliness, and their willingness to give in to it. In that sense, the biggest villain in the story is the weakness in human desperation. Michi, having faced down the specters invading our world, as well as watching three or four of her friends fade away in front of her, doesn’t succumb. She feels the loss, of course, and she breaks down, even wondering if things would have been easier if she had “gone with the rest,” but when finding herself falling into despair, she picks herself back up and chooses to live. Even in her final lines in the film, she manages to find the light in a hopelessly bleak situation: “here, with my only friend in the world, I have found happiness.”

Kawashima’s storyline is interesting, because it’s set up almost as a standard romance. He meets a girl who happens to work with computers, and in an effort to get to know her better, confides his computer woes to her. She comes to his rescue, and there is clear romantic chemistry between them. However, the romance is destined to fail, despite Kawashima’s optimism and efforts, because it serves to underline a point about the inescapability of loneliness. Kawashima’s story doesn’t intersect with Michi’s until the very end of the movie, where you finally see two characters connecting out of desperation and fear. The ultimate irony of it remains that Kawashima, the one who so firmly believes in human connection, in life and optimism, is the one who gives up on it almost as soon as he finally finds it.

If there are any criticisms to aim at this film, it would probably be in the obscurity of its story. It’s laid out like puzzle pieces that you have to assemble yourself, and while you eventually get enough pieces to see the intended picture, you’re never certain if you have all of them. The confusion and bafflement the characters feel is relatable, because you’re often just as baffled as they are by what’s happening. This film could become frustrating for someone who wants to know all of the “how” and “why” when some of those answers are left intentionally vague. So while the narrative isn’t necessarily hard to follow, it takes some effort and self reflection to understand it.

Visually, the film is ethereal and beautiful, with an emphasis on dark and secluded spaces.  While that kind of focus might get tired after some time, the settings in the film often offer enough contrast to off set the perpetual darkness.  The scene in which Junko succumbs to the spirits is set in a serene and brightly sunlit room.  There’s also an interesting visual metaphor introduced by Harue, simple white dots representing humanity, which is equal parts depressing and insightful.

The final images of the film are deeply unsettling: a world that is devoid of life and hope, with few survivors hanging on and trying to reach out to each other for any human connection. It is a cold and empty existence, and one of the characters the audience had hope for simply withers away, leaving our final survivor to try to find something to live for, and try to find someone that has held on as well. Michi is able to hang on, but just barely, leaving us to ponder if any one of us would have the strength to do the same.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5. Dark, melancholy, at times confusing, but ultimately a deeply worthwhile watch.

Scariness level: While a lot of its horror comes from a philosophical place, there are still ghosts, and they are still pretty terrifying. Say hello to the wobbly ghost in the Forbidden Room, because she’ll be coming to visit your nightmares often. There is one prominent “jump” scare, but it’s used well. Also, jump scare is both and accurate statement and a pun. You’ll understand why.

Violence level: Low, but with frequent images of suicide (including hanging and gunshots to the head). The violence never feels like it is exploiting the audience, even with the focus on suicide.

Bechdel test: Passes. Michi and Junko speak a few times without mentioning any male characters.

Mako Mori test: Passes easily, considering much of Michi’s story is internally focused.

Posted on March 3, 2017, in Films and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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