Spooky Movies: Kairo (2001)

Kairo - English Poster

Well, Spooktober is drawing to a close. It’s certainly been a new experience for me; I’ve written a lot more on this blog in a month than I ever have before, but I still feel a little ambivalent about the whole thing, like I’m just dashing off half-completed thoughts just to get something up that week. I suppose this is more conformation that I’m not cut out for the sausage factory of journalism. I’m going to be dialing back my output for the rest of the year, but there should be at least three or four new things up before January rolls around.

To give this month the proper sendoff, I’m going to talk about Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 J-horror classic Kairo (also known as Pulse in the English-speaking world). I’ll admit I’m not that deep into Japanese horror; the only movies of this sort I own are this and the American remakes of The Ring and Dark Water (I am so sorry). I was recommended this one a few years ago, but I didn’t really get it the first time I saw it. Now that I’ve seen it a few years later, I think I have a better understanding of what the movie is doing.

There are two simultaneous storylines running through Kairo. The movie begins with Kudo Michi (Kumiko Aso), a young woman who makes a living selling plants in modern (i.e. 2000-era) Tokyo. The first hint of trouble comes early on, when her co-worker Taguchi misses several days of work. She pays a visit to his apartment to retrieve a disk needed for work, only to find him almost catatonically withdrawn. After telling her where the disk is in his apartment, he uses the distraction to quietly hang himself in his bedroom. After this, Michi and her other co-workers begin poking around into what happened to Taguchi. The movie’s second thread is focused on Ryouske Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato), a economics student whose attempt to set up his home internet connection is stymied when his computer logs onto a strange website showing a slideshow of people at their computers, ending with a blank screen with the words “do you want to meet a ghost? ” spelled out on the screen. Things get even more unnerving when his computer just starts powering itself on and returning to the site.

As Michi and Kawashima try to figure out their respective mysteries, everyday life in Tokyo becomes increasingly weird. People begin to receive phone calls in which heavily distorted voices beg the recipients for help. Doors sealed off with red duct tape begin to appear all over the city. On top of it all, more and more people are committing suicide, with their bodies disappearing into ashy imprints after their deaths. While the movie starts out seeming like a normal sort of ghost story, by the last third events accelerate into a full-on quiet apocalypse, with the few remaining characters wandering their way through an empty Tokyo.

Something that took me a second viewing to truly appreciate is how lonely Kairo is. Most everyone in the movie is disconnected from the rest of the world in some way or another. They put on brave faces and act personable, but at the end of the day they go back to their bachelor apartments and spend their time watching TV or browsing the Internet. Families are in decline: the film establishes that Michi’s parents are separated, and that she hasn’t spoken with her father in years. Another character mentions that she has parents and siblings, but that “they’re not important.” Michi and Kawashima spend the film trying to forge relationships with other people as they endure the thinning of the world around them, but these are fragile connections, made with people who eventually decide to withdraw into their own misery and commit suicide, leaving nothing behind but another ashy silhouette. Even the ghosts responsible for the disappearance of mankind are motivated by loneliness, appearing in the red-taped rooms and on computer screens, imploring to living people that “I am real.”

The internet plays a big part in Kairo, becoming the vector the ghosts use to transmit themselves all over the world. There’s some interesting things happening with computers and the internet in the movie. Watching from the perspective of 2015, it’s surprising to discover that Kairo has become a period piece. The movie is set in the days before the Web had melted into the fabric of everyday life, so the image of the online life is of CRT monitors and desktop towers, where software is installed off of CD-ROMs. While trying to figure out the nature of the website, Kawashima has to have the basics of using a Windows operating system explained to him, rather than having understood it instinctively since childhood. Computers dominate the lives of the characters, with most of them having extensive jury-rigged workstations in their apartments. Even Kawashima, a computer neophyte, has one parked right next to his bed. Meanwhile, his apartment has a small living-room-esque area that looks like it just came out of the boxes.

While Kairo does depict the Internet and online life as instrumental for the events that follow, there’s a certain sense that the Internet is more an enabler for what happens than a root cause. In the beginning of the movie Tokyo already seems like a ghost town; characters ride the bus by themselves, walk around by themselves, mostly sticking to the same few locations and the same few people. A sociological reading of the film is certainly possible, particularly with an eye towards the effects of the “lost decade” of the 1990s and contemporary Japan’s demographic woes. However, it seems like Kairo is a movie that is relevant even beyond its Japanese context. The sense that we are alone, and that our societies and ways of life are designed to actively make us lonelier, is a sentiment that permeates the developed world, and as more and more nations build themselves up and pack more of their citizens into hard, anonymous cities, it is a sentiment that will continue. It’s not hard to imagine versions of Kairo taking place in Seoul and Sacramento, in Oslo and Ottawa. Watching this movie on my early 2000’s-era television perched atop my dresser, in the main living/bed space of my third-floor walkup, it was hard not to feel a certain connection with the events on the screen. (Sitting at an angle such that I couldn’t see my bathroom through my kitchen and having someone call me just as a character in the movie was getting a call did little to help matters.)

Overall, a good movie, if a little crude in places, that is best watched with other people. Lots of people.

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