Academic journal article Film Criticism

Ailing Screens, Viral Video: Cinema's Digital Ghosts in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse

Academic journal article Film Criticism

Ailing Screens, Viral Video: Cinema's Digital Ghosts in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse

Article excerpt

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 2001 Pulse (originally released as Kairo in Japan) alternates between two storylines, both following young inhabitants of Tokyo as they confront a rash of suicides, disappearances, and reappearances (i.e., ghosts) linked to various technologies including computers, phones, and televisions. As ghostly figures complete their invasion of the capital city, the film shifts its attention toward an impending global apocalypse that at once gestures towards the atomic bombings of Japan and a mass epidemic. Widely praised for its inventive treatment of the horror genre, Pulse fits comfortably into Kurosawa's growing oeuvre of films that simultaneously investigate and reconfigure definitions of film and genre.

Although Kiyoshi Kurosawa began making films in the early 1980s, it was not until the release of his 1997 film, Cure, that he began to acquire international recognition as an auteur known for his films' thematic complexity and his penchant for cinematic experimentation (White 18-19). Often considered a genre director, Kurosawa claims that he begins each of his projects by selecting the genre in which he wishes to work and developing the rest of the film according to this decision (Midnight Eye). While Pulse is one of several films Kurosawa chose to make within the horror genre, he claims that this film has a special goal: to "explore the ghosts ... to show what I think a ghost is" (Reverse Shot Online, emphasis in original). Accordingly, Pulse makes an important addition to the J-Horror canon, and not only as a major work by one of its most renowned director/theorists. Produced after many popular and heavily exported and adapted ghost-and-technology films such as Ringu (1998), Pulse raises metatextual and metageneric questions that reexamine the role of ghosts within the recent J-Horror genre cycle while setting them in relation to ghosts of past cycles. With this in mind, after a brief overview of the film's major plot points, I will turn my focus to the onscreen invasion of Kurosawa's ghost population. Specifically, I will explore and distinguish between ghostly moments--eerie points in the film that allude to spectral presence--and ghost figures--physically present ghosts that take human dimension and form--to show how each participates in different discourses surrounding the J-Horror genre, the construction and meaning of cinematic ghosts, and digital technologies. Ultimately, I will show that both ghostly moments and ghostly figures provoke fear not because they disrupt distinctions between life and death, but because they point to tensions between analog and digital technologies, emphasizing cinema's liminal status at the turn of the 21st century.

The relationship between ghosts and recording technologies has long been a source of popular interest. In the middle of the eighteenth century, the invention of the telegraph offered many the hope of contact with the spirit world (Sconce 21-22), while the later advent of photography sparked conversations about possible links between shadows etched on the surface of light-sensitive paper and the human soul of the sitter (Bruce 25). In particular, the late nineteenth-century Spiritualism movement gave rise to a boom in spirit photography, a genre of photography believed to reveal images of otherwise invisible spirits or function as a form of visual spirit manifestation (Gunning 65). For artists and craftspeople, photography, and later cinema, also became ideal media through which to imagine and experiment with representations of ghosts through techniques such as double exposure. (1) In Louis-Georges Schwartz's study of interviews and writings on cinema by Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze, Schwartz explores the ways both theorists discuss the cinema itself as a specter that disrupts the very definitions of life and death (23-24). Others who famously align ghostliness and photographic media include Andre Bazin, Roland Barthes, and Gilberto Perez. …

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