Spooky Season: Pulse (2001)

Tiger Media Network

Trigger Warning: Suicide

In a sea of anonymity, where the truth isn’t what it seems, we become lost in fantasy. While our hopes, dreams, or fantasies are valid and important, it is the recognition that these dreams are simply the fuel to pursue our real achievements or goals that keep us from being cast adrift. While this vast ocean of information, connection, and even liberation can make us feel uninhibited, we will never truly be by swimming through this tool alone. The mirage reflecting on the surface of the water or the fog hovering over clouds our vision of the truth. We are not fish meant to swim and breathe in the sea. It is unsustainable. Eventually, we must make our way back to shore where humanity, in our bodies, exists. Able to be hugged, kissed, seen, and heard. With our voices and faces unaltered by murky illusions. To be held in the arms of someone real, and to overcome the challenge of existing as your real self unaided by the waters. To love what you are as you are unconditionally and to receive unconditional love from others.  The surface of the sea is a warped mirror, if we stare into it for too long, we begin to identify with it rather than our true selves and bodies. We hide in the thickest of fogs as to not even see ourselves, worried that our flaws are too numerous and our strengths are few and far between. Unable to ever truly live up to the perfected selves we have been wearing, We become truly lonely and subsequently drown.

That? Something we programmed here. If two dots get too close, they die, but if they get too far apart, they’re drawn closer. – Harue Karasawa

“Pulse” directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa while very slow and quiet is horrifically heartbreaking. It tells the story of young Japanese people who are lured into a place called the “forbidden room” after exposure to a website. The description is too simple to capture the concept exactly. I urge horror fans to check out the film to understand just what I mean. The film was released in the same year as Shuji Iwai’s “All About Lily Chou-Chou” which is so fascinating to me given the content and themes that can be drawn from both films. I have previously written a review on “All About Lily Chou-Chou” for Tiger Media Network in the past, but I have always looked at that review as not reaching its full potential in terms of examining the ideas it expressed. 

Before we get into the meat of things, I want to lay the groundwork of the connections between not only these two films but some others that have been floating around in my head. “Chungking Express” by Faye Wong was the inspiration for “Lily Chou-Chou” which was directed by the same person as “Ritual.” Each of these films centered around a longing and or a built up fantasy. With “Chungking Express” an example could be Faye’s longing to be accepted by the officer whose house she has been breaking into. 

The forbidden room taped in red

In “All About Lily Chou-Chou” it is Yuichi’s longing for Lily but also his use of a fansite and her music as a means to escape the horrible real situations of his life. While not about the internet, “Ritual” is about the dangers of a self-imposed fantasy on your ability to cope. How it can stunt your ability to move forward, but in the end shows the reward of tearing down the prison walls of our own making. This reward is connection, healing, and acceptance. Satoshi Kon’s 1997 “Perfect Blue” forewarns the fearsome side to the anonymity of being online. “Perfect Blue,” “Chungking Express,” “Ritual,” “All About Lily Chou-Chou,” and “Pulse” all have a thread connecting the films that I think achieve a kind of summation of conclusions when compared. 

They are all connected through isolation or the longing brought out by loneliness. Whether that be in a city full of people or a digital sea full of opportunity. “Pulse” and this writing journey reminds me of the song called “Little Person” by Jon Brion from the Charlie Kaufman film “Synecdoche New York”. The standout lyrics are:

“I’m just a little person

One person in a sea

Of many little people

Who are not aware of me

I do my little job

And live my little life

Eat my little meals

Miss my little kid and wife

And somewhere, maybe someday

Maybe somewhere far away

I’ll find a second little person

Who will look at me and say—

I know you

You’re the one I’ve waited for

Let’s have some fun

Life is precious, every minute

And more precious with you in it

So let’s have some fun”

Like those dots simulating humans. We all live totally separately. That’s how it seems to me. – Harue Karasawa

With that in mind let’s dive into the world of ghosts, ash, and red tape. “Pulse” presents us with a microcosm of the themes pervasive throughout the film through a computer program. The film (along with this article’s sea metaphor) is analogous to living on the internet or becoming too reliant on it. Meaning using the internet as a substitution for living out our lives, in turn treating the motivating fuel of fantasy as the reality itself. I recently touched on this mask idea in my “Howl’s Moving Castle” retro review. If we are away from people for too long, we find the allure of being drawn back in, but we fear true connection as we fear subsequent death. If there is no struggle and only peace are we simply waiting around for death? You are a dot swimming away from those who accept you, swimming against the insurmountable current trying to impress those who don’t see you. 

If we were to frame lessons from “Pulse” in a more modern context, we could think about our manufactured digital identity. Do you know how frustrating it would be to have spent years building up this image, thinking it is what others want? To invest your all in resisting yourself wholly, just to fit in or to gain the love of someone you want so badly. Only for someone to come along and perceive the mask as transparent. To find the mask as ridiculous as the people you were trying to impress. 

For them to lift up your mask and cry yet smile or blush at the same time, saying “who would hide such a beautiful face?” A face, a body, a personality, or person you may hate or hold contempt for. “Pulse” shows us two different kinds of people. People who concede to a negative interpretation of meaninglessness. We see this in multiple characters in the film who express loneliness like Harue or Taguchi who dies by suicide. Then, those who believe in their heart that there must be a point in struggling continue to struggle, we see this in characters like Ryosuke Kawashima. Afraid of what comes after peace or acceptance you continue to swim against the waves or die giving up on all there is. But is that really all there is?

No, meaninglessness is not inherently a bad thing. It is liberating, it is melting the shackles of oppression and saying I am who I am. I am what I am. Embracing meaninglessness would be to defy the fears of true connection and to let the current push you into the arms of that special someone or those unconditionally loving people in your life and embracing yourself. Being pushed out of the sea and crashing into the sands of the beach. Screaming, like “One Piece’s” Nico Robin, to your friends, family, or any person who loves you “I want to live,” screaming it until you can’t for you. Cathartically crying for you. While at first, our online persona may help us unveil our true selves we must be able to eventually take that knowledge and confidence to our real life. 

Ghosts won’t kill people… because that would just make more ghosts. Isn’t that right? Instead, they’ll try to make people immortal by quietly trapping them in their own loneliness. – Harue Karasawa

The internet is a tool. I don’t want my image of your face to be your profile pic or default icon, I don’t want to hear my voice reading your words when trying to hear what you sound like. I want you exactly as you are. For the good and the bad. Whether on a boat in pursuit of connection or If I must swim to the next Island, I will always pursue connection regardless of meaninglessness or impending death because when we are dead, we are not alone. We are gone. True in-person connection is so important because we have to overcome our fears to be liberated. Knowing that one day we will fade away with fear vanquished makes it so much easier to breathe and to have fun. In the body I want to love and you in yours, I’d rather spend my time here with you. Regardless of how ridiculous we may think we look or sound or are perceived. “Life is precious, every minute and more precious with you in it.”

For anyone struggling with suicide ideation: https://988lifeline.org/