Cross the “Ring” series with “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and the result wouldn’t be far from “Pulse,” another step on the road back (after his TV movie “Seance”) to the psychothriller genre by which cult Japanese helmer Kiyoshi Kurosawa first made his name overseas. Result is always watchable, occasionally creepy and teasingly pitched halfway between a genre riff and a genuine scarefest. Fests looking for quality latenight fare should line up for this mid-range Kurosawa, with limited sales also likely to cable and specialist outlets.
Bookended by a sequence on a ship (with a cameo by favorite thesp Koji Yakusho) that only becomes clear at the end, pic is one large flashback introduced by Michi (Kumiko Aso), a young Tokyoite who works for a florist, Sunny Plant Sales. Michi goes looking for a colleague, Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi), who’s late delivering a computer disc, and as soon she arrives in his apartment he promptly hangs himself. On his computer monitor is an image of the apartment with a ghostly form inside it.
Meanwhile, across town, university student Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) logs on to the Internet using some new software and finds his computer asking him “Would you like to meet a ghost?” It provides an image of a man with a black plastic bag over his head in a weird room plastered with the word “help.” A computer illiterate, Ryosuke panics and asks the help of university tech wizard Harue (Koyuki), a similarly lonely soul who uses the Internet as a substitute for human company.
Michi’s world, meantime, is starting to go seriously fuzzy. A young male colleague, Yabe (Masatoshi Matsuo), is acting robotic; her boss (Shun Sugata) is more than a little distanced; and, in one of the movie’s genuine shocks, Michi watches stunned one day as a woman throws herself off a tower and lands in front of her.
Hereon, Kurosawa gradually brings the two story strands together as Ryosuke and Harue are increasingly spooked by ghostly computer imagery, and Michi and her co-worker, Junko (Kurume Arisaka), have a close encounter with a spirit. After Junko is “taken over” and transformed into confetti before Michi’s eyes, Michi and Ryosuke finally meet and hook up to save themselves as Tokyo is literally transformed into a ghost town.
Kurosawa had the idea for the pic seven years ago and, without overstating his hypothesis, draws parallels between the spirit world and the Internet — both of which are inhabited by souls stuck in a kind of social limbo-cum-denial. But in a movie that is essentially just a smidgeon above good generic fun, that’s as far as his script pushes it.
Though “Pulse” has vague correspondences with Kurosawa’s more serious movies, like “Charisma,” it never strays far from its genre roots, with an ambiguous tone that oscillates between sheer psychothriller silliness and moments of haunting abstraction when time and the real world seem to momentarily freeze. Lensing by Junichiro Hayashi is a fillip throughout, with a cold, clammy patina in several scenes (such as Ryosuke and Harue in the subway) that could come from no other director.
Aside from a stunning effect involving an airplane late on, visual F/X by Shunji Asano are restrained but atmospheric, and largely rooted in reality. Aso (“Dr. Akagi”) makes a cute, perky heroine and Kato (“Another Heaven”) has some fun as the computer dork. Takefumi Haketa’s music is too overstated in the early going but delivers in the final sequences with a driving string melody.