Within the four years that have passed since Miramax bought Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse for the remake rights—the long-delayed, Wes Craven-scripted Americanization is finally in the works—the J-horror phenomenon has reinvigorated the horror genre and showed signs of passing into irrelevance. Between 2002's The Ring and more recent remakes like The Grudge and Dark Water, many of its tropes (the flash cuts, the creepily passive specters, those pale, long-haired children) have fallen into cliché, recycled in conventional Hollywood gorefests like 2005's The Amityville Horror or The Exorcism Of Emily Rose. Pulse's years in confinement have enraged Kurosawa fans, but the film arrives just in time to rescue J-horror from its creative slump, if only by proving that the genre can offer more than singularly eerie effects. Like Kurosawa's best work, the scares are chillingly potent but not an end in themselves—they underscore deeper concerns about technology's corrosive effects on the younger generation.
Storytelling clarity has never been a Kurosawa strong suit, yet Pulse baffles even under those standards, so it's best to just get on his abstract wavelength and ride the thing out. A thrown stone in Tokyo is likely to hit disaffected Japanese youths like the ones depicted in this film, who are collectively haunted by ghosts in the machine. When one of their own commits suicide for no apparent reason, a group of friends are disturbed by his reappearance on a network of computers in grainy video images. A floppy disc found in his apartment offers some vague clues, but the frightening transmissions start to multiply exponentially, as do the number of mysterious disappearances. The fate of the world rests with a Luddite (Haruhiko Katô) who receives these images as a scary initiation to the Internet, and a plucky programming expert (Koyuki) who works in a computer lab.
No doubt the American remake will straighten the plot out a little, but in the process, it may lose the overwhelming dread that comes from not always knowing exactly what's going on. As in Cure, Kurosawa's masterful thriller about a serial killer whose evil will spreads a lot like the computer virus here, Pulse gets much of its frightening effect from the soundtrack, which swells with the eerie industrial crunch of a David Lynch film. In this aural environment, simple effects have an almost paralyzing impact, like the odd hitch in a ghost's step as it sidles slowly toward the camera. At bottom, Kurosawa's ghosts resemble his techno-savvy characters, doomed to an eternity of loneliness behind the monitor.