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Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2001

'KAIRO'

Ghosts that lurk in the machine


Someone, perhaps John Carpenter, once said that to make a good horror film, it helps to be a bit of a sadist. True enough, if your idea of horror is whacking teenage girls with a cleaver. But if, like "Kairo (Pulse)" director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, you're making a film about the dead invading the world of the living, it helps to believe, in your worst nightmares if nowhere else, that all this stuff about otherworldly entities might be for real. In other words, no scare in the filmmaker, no scare in the audience.

Kumiko Aso and Haruhiko Kato in "Kairo"

From the evidence of the film, as well as of his previous work ("Door III," "Cure," "Oi Naru Gensho," "Charisma"), Kurosawa must have had some unquiet dreams indeed and remembered them with unusual vividness. How else to explain the strange, shivery sense of conviction in these films, the unsettling feeling that, no matter how bizarre it gets on the screen, the filmmaker is not simply pushing our buttons, but giving us a slice of his less-than-sunny inner life? Creative types are always being asked where it comes from. In Kurosawa's case, maybe it's better not to know.

But to really put the scare across, to make the audience still see the world on the screen when they walk out of the theater, the filmmaker also has to be a storyteller and craftsman. Kurosawa is stronger as the latter than the former, producing chilling effects with the most ordinary of materials (in "Kairo" he gets a lot of mileage from red duct tape), while at times letting the story sag, or sink out of sight altogether.

"Kairo" also has its share of scenes that fumble in the gloom before arriving at the point, but Kurosawa has the good sense not to explain too much, while deftly racheting up the terror. By the end, he has created a totally incredible world with a compelling dream logic.

This film, I imagine, would be a hard sell at a Hollywood pitch meeting ("and then the dead, like, come out of the computers"), but it is also far more creep-inducing than most of the teen-targeted shockers the Japanese film industry has been churning out in recent years. It's the difference between hearing the latest urban legend at the school lunch table and taking a night-time plunge into the dark end of the collective unconscious and feeling, with a clutch of dread, that you'll never come up for air.

The film begins, conventionally enough, when a young man named Taguchi who works for a small greenhouse disappears for a week with a floppy disk containing an important customer list. When a colleague, Michi (Kumiko Aso), visits his apartment to retrieve the floppy, she finds him sitting alone in the dark, looking oddly wraithlike. To her relief, Taguchi answers her like a normal, if distracted, human being, but when she turns her back, he -- well, let's just say that before seeing this film, I'd never realized how far a neck could stretch.

The scene shifts to the room of Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato), a college student who hates computers, but has decided, out of boredom, to get on the Internet. When he logs on for the first time, however, he finds himself on a strange site, with shadowy images of rooms much like his own and shadowy figures moving about in them. Then a message appears on a black screen: "Would you like to meet ghosts?" He pulls the plug in horror, but the screen flickers back to malevolent life. What in the name of Bill Gates is going on here?

What is going on, it seems, is the spread of an unholy virus, one that has no rational explanation, at least none that Michi and Kawashima can discover. Kawashima tries to get help from Harue (Oyuki [one name only]), a college computer whiz with fashion-model looks and a sympathetic soul, but she has no answers either (not surprisingly -- he doesn't know how to ask the right questions). Meanwhile, another of Michi's colleagues, Yabe, hears Taguchi calling for help on his cell phone and goes to his apartment to investigate. There he finds, to his everlasting regret, that the ghosts are no longer in the machine.

Enough to say that the escalation continues and that Michi and Kawashima meet, as we always knew they would. Enough also to say that the first scene of the film, with Michi standing at the rail of a ship in the middle of the ocean, telling her story to the gruff long-haired captain (Koji Yakusho), ties in with the last, but in a way that must be seen to be believed.

The story of "Kairo" may be stolen from "The Night of the Living Dead," but Kurosawa takes it further -- much further. It helps that Kato and Aso play his two leads. Aso won several awards as the earthy young whore in Shohei Imamura's 1998 "Kanzo Sensei (Dr. Akagi)," while Kato, a TV talent with a scattering of film credits ("Midori," "Another Heaven"), could be any second flame-haired kid walking down Shibuya's Center Gai. They give the film a grounding in quotidian reality, bringing it, if not quite down to earth, closer to home.

To enjoy the film, though, it helps to be a bit of a technophobe who still believes, even after thousands of hours online, that monsters lurk out there in the digital deep.

And they do, don't they?

"Kairo" is showing at Cine Front in Shibuya and other theaters.


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