Kairo (2001)

Being Film #4 in Hail Horror 2008

After what feels like 100 remakes of what's commonly referred to as "J-Horror" or Asian Horror, typically starring hot young actors straight from the CW (or WB back in the day, y'all), you'd  be forgiven for forgetting what was so fresh and unique about the genre in the first place.  Part of the problem is due to the (mostly) low-quality remakes (I know a lot of people will argue for THE RING, but for my money it was "meh"), but another stems from the glut of copycat films that came out over the next few years after the success of films like RINGU and JU-ON: THE GRUDGE from all over, springing forth like Cabbage Patch Kid knock-offs.

So for a reminder I went back to one the films that started it all: 2001's KAIRO, also known as PULSE (and remade as such in America in 2006).  Directed with careful skill and a palpable sense of dread by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, KAIRO moves beyond its trappings of balletic, long haired ghosts and timid heroines to become an an apocalyptic nightmare stemming from our disconnection from one another concurrently with the rise of technology.  And because of its refusal to explain itself, its insistence on moving at its own measured, ominous pace, it stands as one of the truly terrifying examples of the genre.

The basic plot of KAIRO is relatively simple, but it's presentation is complex.  In a nutshell, ghosts are somehow using the Internet to escape their purgatory and come back to Earth.  Witnesses to this exodus are driven into severe depressions, eventually turning to suicide or simply fading away, leaving an  eerie black stain near their final throes.  One explanation given for this is the limited space in Hell or wherever the dead are, so they're spilling over into our world.  Even those who succumb to the ghosts' presence and die are doomed to linger in the corners of our world.  None if this is made definitive in KAIRO: the point is to scare you, and Kurosawa does that in spades, using the sounds of dial-up as birthing pangs for the spirits, as well as pictures that imply something dreadful, even though no one's ever sure what exactly the pictures are showing:

As more and more people come into contact with the spirits and die, the city starts to empty out, and the dread continues to ratchet up.  Kurosawa makes a habit of emphasizing our distance from one another by filming many scenes through some kind of barrier - a transparent tarp, a computer screen, a series of window frames.  Most of his locations are cold and industrial, lacking any warmth or sense of life.  Even the rooftop plant store where the main characters work is completely overshadowed by the gray skies and cold concrete.  The only real flash flash of color comes from the red construction tape that begins to mysteriously show up, sealing off windows and door frames.  Somehow someone has discovered that the red tape will seal off the spirits in and prevent them from spreading.  Woe to the unwary person who crosses that portal:

Another great trick of Kurosawa is the use of reflections and screens to cast a pall of despair and mystery over the events.  Unclear forms are seen on blank television screens.  Computer monitors shows choppy video of unknown entities shambling back and forth in a daze, oftentimes parts of them fading as if there's a hiccup in the video.  One of the most effective examples of this comes in the beginning of KAIRO:  a news broadcast about a message in a bottle that was discovered after being at sea for 10 years suddenly freezes.  The top of the newscaster's head is cleanly missing like a tear in the video...except that we can see the wall behind his head:

As the city becomes less and less populated - a "ghost town" in every sense of the word, we discover that the phenomena is not localized to Japan - the entire world is suffering from a massive influx of the dead.  Human connection, the contact between people supposedly made so easy by the advent of the Internet has now become the conduit for the acknowledgment of our our further isolation.  The people touched by the ghosts slowly have this realization eat them from the inside - at one point one of the victims, not yet dead, starts to groan and gesture.  And what is at first mistaken for the onset of the victim's transformation into the hideous black stain is, in fact, a startled cry for connection, even if it comes too late.

Beset with nightmarish scenes and shots that refuse to offer solace, with an outlook for our society that's bleak in the best of circumstances, KAIRO is a tremendous horror film that isn't content to just frighten us.  Using a poetry of visuals it dares to reflect a very possible future in our world of LCD screens and not as a ghost, but as someone yearning for contact.