(brief note about content: this piece discusses suicide as depicted in the film and online, so if you need space from that, please take it and either avoid this piece or wait until you’re in a better headspace ♡)
Being ‘very online’ is no longer novel, but largely just a mundane fact of life we are forced to confront to varying degrees. Growing up online is a lot different now than it was even for me, only recently grown, but is also so much more common and prevalent. I say this with a specific example in mind; there’s a TikTok (that I saw retweeted) that is just a young person sitting on their bed, with a bunch of seemingly meaningless single letters edited above their head, but even within the first few letters it’s clear that, to anyone online enough, it’s an expression of suicidal ideation. All the comments underneath begrudged the fact that it was legible to them. (Note: the tweet I saw has been removed since writing).
My digital youth was, perhaps fortunately, the last of its kind. Message boards in the form of anything other than Reddit don’t seem particularly relevant anymore; DeviantART is largely abandoned; Tumblr, rest in pieces, was never even a site I particularly frequented, more so just experienced peripherally, vicariously even; Skype, purchased by Microsoft and inundated with adware, is unusable, and took MSN Messenger with her; AOL has long been dead and gone; YouTube, sweet YouTube, is home to Patreon collectives or commercial endeavors, with little in between. I say this somewhat nostalgically, but it is a sweeping, unspecific familiarity, rather than any sense of loss. I had a bad time in these spaces, ultimately, but not for lost time, just for the instability of it all, the anxiety of unknowing. A digital youth for me was less boxed into my hands, too, instead just in front of me, glowing, low res, a no-more-or-less honest experience, but one with significantly less cameras, less faces. I felt like I could never know if people were being genuine with me, and sometimes I learned the answer. More often than not, I didn’t like what I heard. I often don’t know if I am being ghosted, and don’t want that tension resolved.
Pulse (2001), by director and writer Kiyoshi Kurosawa, is a movie not unlike contemporary Japanese thriller Ringu, in that it maps traditional, folkloric horrors (here, myths of yūrei) onto then contemporary domestic technologies (VHS and the medium of film in Ringu, and Web 1.0 for Pulse). Pulse, however, is not so much about anxieties over modernity (a fairly traditional reading of Ringu) as it is a lurching, slowly unraveling story of inevitabilities and alienations.
In Pulse, much of the literal text is philosophically engaged with anxieties over a fundamental inability to connect with other people. The movie lets us in on this fairly early. We even get extended conversations devoted to this anxiety, one in each of the parallel narratives (the histrionics of Harue’s deterioration for Ryosuke’s story, and the comparably mild, weary soliloquizing of Michi’s boss, respectively). Otherwise, though, much of the text is comparably sparse, to the point of incomprehensibility. By the end of the film, we are viewing what is a full-on apocalyptic scenario; but it is a scenario we are given little, if any, context for. This isn’t a complaint; the mechanisms of how things happen are deliberately vague, as too are the spaces in which they happen, and that in turn sharpens what we do have. Cramped apartments and the stains they have. All of our loved ones turned to ash in bleached out skies. Sickly monitors and red tape the only things that seemingly hold back our ghosts.
And what ghosts they are. Ghosts, here, take on layers of symbology, sometimes contradictory ones. They are both figurative and literal within the landscape of Pulse, both the lingering souls and the very idea of being. They are intermittently immortal, incomprehensible, and eternally lonely, a matter of perspective for characters and cameras and given moments in time. A general lack of stability guides the narrative of this film. Ideas do not remain static, wiki-ready, instead taking on an inherent mutability. What are the black stains, beyond the obvious markers of death? Why the ashes? What are these websites? Who is watching us? These don’t matter, most of the time, or at least not in the way that talking about art online has proliferated “meaningfulness.” They just are. They are inevitable. It doesn’t matter why we are turning to ash, we just all will.
The bleakness of the film, the dread that sticks its fingers in between ribs, stems from this sense of the senseless-yet-unavoidable that pervades the whole film, but it is not the endpoint of what this movie thinks is worth saying. The movie’s sharp turns towards the end, both narratively and tonally, and the convergence of the narratives into a doomed road trip, focuses us on what is most upsetting about Pulse and its many ghosts: we know them, and we so often are them. It’s scattered, but consistent: suicide, violences towards selves, frame the film for us early on, and the grief that plays out from it is muted, but driving; we watch strangers, online and physically, and even our friends undergoing these traumas, expressed through often malevolent, or bare minimum imperceivable, supernatural entities; people meet, or connect, and try to understand one another, only to watch each other crumble to dust; impulses and compulsions are just hammered in both the psyches of others and our own. All these archetypes of people I have seen and been in my more than a decade of being online. I don’t always like being reflected.
At times, the film reminds me of my experiences of my own earlier internet access, albeit it doesn’t mirror it so much as contort it. Something we don’t talk about enough, maybe have even forgotten, is just how weird it was to be on a site like YouTube, in the brief twilight before Google’s acquisition and before their copyright and content censorships were fully and (semi-)regularly implement. I’m not saying it was an uncanny subjective reality in the way Pulse presents the dichotomy of voyeurism/exhibitionism, but the feeling was different, the feel of it was different, maybe in part from the low-res VHS-driven submissions, the comparative, perceivable ‘authenticity’ of it all. Similarly, the message board experience was a lot different; these were much more intimate spaces, with little outside intrusion in the way social media promotes, and that made these spaces in many respects more vulnerable. But I suppose that’s textural differences. In other places, the unreality of onlineness in Pulse feels more relevant now than it ever could have back then; how much violence has been proliferated through Internet exposures within just the past few years? How much more common is it to be inundated with these faces of strangers, these ghosts, and their anxieties, their self-harms? That is an anxiety that exists more with today’s bandwidth, and all our collective memories of the psychical space of the internet, than it ever could have in 2001.
Much of Pulse is timely in this way. It’s easy to read metaphors here about the uncertainty of being in new, and even existing, relationships, especially as mediated online. I can never know you are being real with me. There’s something romantic in the dual sense of the word when it comes to that incomprehensibility of others, tender, but it is fleeting, and fled. More than that, like all relationships online at, there is this inherent dance of exhibitionism and voyeurism, and the dual structure here. We watch someone we know, and know to be alive, commit suicide, and then we watch a ghost commit suicide, with equal reality and gravity. We watch ourselves being watched without our consent and smile because we are not alone. At some point we struggle to articulate ourselves at all. We write help me on our walls. By the end we are just chasing ourselves into some sort of emptied-out apocalypse still running to and from all our ghosts. We are both definitely here.
We are both definitely here. There are moments of these Moorean factual appeals to the world, to reality, that are seized upon by a decidedly antirational approach, almost a rejection of relationships in any ontological sense. A lot of great horror does this, but very little feels as though it pushes itself, reifies this fundamental disconnect between realities, as far as Pulse does. Pulse, too, is not a narrative of our relationships with online spaces, but a narrative of the ways in which disconnection, opacity even, is conjured through specific mediums, here both spiritual and technological. And while Kurosawa’s envisioning of opacity is not of a postcolonial kind, per say, not addressing subaltern voices, or even an Other, so much as a broad, agnostic Being, it’s that mundanity and anonymity that drives that breathing, anxious rejection of the ontological. This is not about exceptional people, or even particularly indicted people; it is senseless, antirational, theatrical, and all encompassing. This is rapture. It happened because we were lonely. There are ghosts, and God they are so lonely.
Even from the jump, the tension is about lack of understanding. Its fears of technology are more grounded than Ringu or even comparably nihilistic works like Serial Experiments Lain, lacking the conservatism of the former (not a critique, per say, but again, a standard read) and the reactionary displacing bent of the latter (despite having not wholly incompatible senses of isolation). And unlike Sion Sono’s Noriko’s Dinner Table, maybe the most complimentary piece I can think of, this is not about specific relationships forged online, their means of predation towards listless youths. The characters of Pulse are young, but not adolescent, or teenaged (at least functionally). And really, no one in Pulse meets another person online; there are relationships, but they are either in person, or if online, than with ghosts. Noriko, too, feels less inevitable, more circumstantial, perhaps as all narratives of cults do; if there is any inevitability to be found, it is purely functional, as Noriko is both prequel and sequel to Sono’s previous Suicide Club. Pulse, meanwhile, from its first shots to its last, establishes one thing firmly: this is what is going to happen.
The thesis here is clear, and it is painful: we are doomed to never understand other people, and if you ever feel like you do, it’s probably because they are dead. Now, I am alone with my last friend in the world, Michi says to us in voice over, watching Ryosuke fade into nothingness just as everyone else had, and I’ve found happiness.
It feels easy to have a hard stance on whether or not Kurosawa’s argument is to be bought or not. My initial impulse, after processing what I had watched, was to simply disagree. It is scary, sure, but is it true? Maybe not. I think the moral and intellectual centers of me want to reject that sort of “all in” approach to unknowability. I want to know people, and maybe I should believe that I can. But as I’ve sat with it, and written, I have been grappling with this thought. Do I know anyone? When someone speaks to me, do I really understand them?
Pulse is not so much about ‘being online’ as it might seem initially, but it is nonetheless still capable of observations towards our relationship to this state of being. It captures the ways in which our visibilities online, both in what we put out and take in, are contributory to our loneliness; it doubles down on the way partial anonymity dematerializes others’ agencies and needs through this metaphorical ghost; even a read of the ghosts as some type of ‘ghosting’ in common parlance is at least partially sustainable; more than anything, it knows how bleak and desperate and yet necessary it is to try to make connections online for many of us in the 21st century. Ryosuke and Michi continue a doomed struggle in a dying world to make this happen, even as he crumbles away. We are all inevitably ash and sabled stains. Maybe that doesn’t matter as much as just continuing to plug away at it, continuing to think it possible, thinking our terrors can be made into tiny hopes.