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Ailing screens, viral video: cinema's digital ghosts in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 2001 Pulse (originally released as Kairo in Japan) alternates between two storylines, both following young inhabitants of Tokyo as they confront a rash of suicides, disappearances, and reappearances (i.e., ghosts) linked to various technologies including computers, phones, and televisions. As ghostly figures complete their invasion of the capital city, the film shifts its attention toward an impending global apocalypse that at once gestures towards the atomic bombings of Japan and a mass epidemic. Widely praised for its inventive treatment of the horror genre, Pulse fits comfortably into Kurosawa's growing oeuvre of films that simultaneously investigate and reconfigure definitions of film and genre.

Although Kiyoshi Kurosawa began making films in the early 1980s, it was not until the release of his 1997 film, Cure, that he began to acquire international recognition as an auteur known for his films' thematic complexity and his penchant for cinematic experimentation (White 18-19). Often considered a genre director, Kurosawa claims that he begins each of his projects by selecting the genre in which he wishes to work and developing the rest of the film according to this decision (Midnight Eye). While Pulse is one of several films Kurosawa chose to make within the horror genre, he claims that this film has a special goal: to "explore the ghosts ... to show what I think a ghost is" (Reverse Shot Online, emphasis in original). Accordingly, Pulse makes an important addition to the J-Horror canon, and not only as a major work by one of its most renowned director/theorists. Produced after many popular and heavily exported and adapted ghost-and-technology films such as Ringu (1998), Pulse raises metatextual and metageneric questions that reexamine the role of ghosts within the recent J-Horror genre cycle while setting them in relation to ghosts of past cycles. With this in mind, after a brief overview of the film's major plot points, I will turn my focus to the onscreen invasion of Kurosawa's ghost population. Specifically, I will explore and distinguish between ghostly moments--eerie points in the film that allude to spectral presence--and ghost figures--physically present ghosts that take human dimension and form--to show how each participates in different discourses surrounding the J-Horror genre, the construction and meaning of cinematic ghosts, and digital technologies. Ultimately, I will show that both ghostly moments and ghostly figures provoke fear not because they disrupt distinctions between life and death, but because they point to tensions between analog and digital technologies, emphasizing cinema's liminal status at the turn of the 21st century.

The relationship between ghosts and recording technologies has long been a source of popular interest. In the middle of the eighteenth century, the invention of the telegraph offered many the hope of contact with the spirit world (Sconce 21-22), while the later advent of photography sparked conversations about possible links between shadows etched on the surface of light-sensitive paper and the human soul of the sitter (Bruce 25). In particular, the late nineteenth-century Spiritualism movement gave rise to a boom in spirit photography, a genre of photography believed to reveal images of otherwise invisible spirits or function as a form of visual spirit manifestation (Gunning 65). For artists and craftspeople, photography, and later cinema, also became ideal media through which to imagine and experiment with representations of ghosts through techniques such as double exposure. (1) In Louis-Georges Schwartz's study of interviews and writings on cinema by Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze, Schwartz explores the ways both theorists discuss the cinema itself as a specter that disrupts the very definitions of life and death (23-24). Others who famously align ghostliness and photographic media include Andre Bazin, Roland Barthes, and Gilberto Perez. (2) More recently, theories of digital technology continue this practice through descriptions of the digital as mutable, partial, composite, disconnected from the real, lacking physical form and dimension, and intimately tied to presence qualities that share uncanny affinities with ghostly properties of liminality and otherworldliness. (3)

Among the many other projects that grapple with the cinematic ghost, different methodologies and points of focus have led to a wide variety of scholarship that indicates the fecundity of the subject for contemporary media studies. Many of these studies explore the socio-cultural meaning of a particular cinema's ghosts at a given historical moment. (4) With special significance to this project, Jay McRoy's Nightmare Japan identifies links between some iconography of the current J-Horror cycle--the long-haired female onryou or "avenging spirit," for example--and Japanese cultural practices, such as Noh and Kabuki theater, religious beliefs, including Shintoism and Christianity, and socio-cultural tensions between nostalgic longings for an older Japan and shifts in the makeup of the contemporary family (75). Other ghost-centered studies investigate the meaning of cinematic ghosts through a psychoanalytic framework, while still others attempt large taxonomies to come to terms with the form and signification of ghost figures. (5) In what follows I will focus my own investigation of Kurosawa's Pulse through neo-formalism, a somewhat uncommon methodology for studying cinematic ghosts. As I will show, this understudied facet of the construction of film specters bears important implications for the consideration of the horror genre and its relationship with science fiction and digital technologies.

Kurosawa couches the main body of Pulse in a frame story that begins on an ocean liner as a woman stares out into the open sea. In an ominous echo of "Once up on a time," she narrates, "It all began one day ... without warning ... like this." The film shifts backwards in time to when Michi (the narrator) and her two friends, Junco and Yabe, experience the suicide of their friend Tagushi. After examining a computer disk made by Tagushi that features ghostly images of the deceased's apartment, Yabe decides to investigate. When visiting Tagushi's home--also the site of his suicide--Yabe sees not only the ghost of his old friend, but upon entering a room sealed with red tape, he meets with another, far more terrifying ghost figure. Both encounters set off a chain of suicides, disappearances, and ghostly interactions that occur throughout the rest of the film. Michi and her friends, however, only comprise half of the film's narrative.

A second storyline combines with Michi's tale via crosscutting. This story features economics student Kawashima, whose computer displays a series of mysterious web camera images followed by the cryptic question, "Do you want to meet a ghost?" when he tries to connect to the internet. With the help of computer technician Harue, Kawashima uncovers possible explanations for the appearance of ghosts on his computer and in the realm of the living. His story too becomes fraught with ghost sightings and disappearances as the film works towards its final scenes. The two storylines eventually collide when Kawashima meets Michi on the side of a deserted Tokyo street. By this point it is clear that few are able to avoid life-destroying interactions with ghosts. As the film reaches its denouement the two flee Tokyo together in hopes of finding other "survivors."

In the broadest terms, Pulse functions thematically as a meditation on contemporary feelings of alienation and loneliness in the face of new technologies. Much of the expositional dialogue centers on lost relationships, the inability to know or communicate with others, loneliness of both the living and the dead, and the ghostliness of those who seek out and fail to find connections through the internet. Furthermore, when characters encounter a ghost in a "Forbidden Room," a type of ghost portal, they experience a phenomenon akin to infection. This near-death experience isolates them from uninfected characters who often refer to the unlucky ones as "sick." While the sick call out to the well for help, it is clear that communication between the two groups is impossible. Every such encounter with a ghost results either in suicide or disappearance, what one of the characters hypothesizes as the process of "quietly trapping [people] in their own loneliness." Clearly, theirs is a terminal disease.

Of course, loneliness is hardly a novel theme for contemporary films. Nor is isolation new in horror films; even if it is expressed chiefly in spatial terms, we need look no further than Dracula's castle or The Bates Motel. Instead, the most productive examination of Kurosawa's Pulse comes through its ghosts. While thematically, ghost figures function somewhat traditionally with regards to the horror genre--embodied apparitions that haunt, attack, isolate, or infect other characters--ghostly moments function formally within the film quite differently. That is, especially for spectators, ghostly moments attempt to provoke fear through the failures of analog technology and the subsequent rise of mutating and unknowable screens. In a movie with over twenty instances of ghostly moments and ghost sightings, Pulse employs a relatively wide array of devices and special effects. Consequently, I have divided ghostly moments into four categories: the ghost in the machine, compounded screens/compounded cameras, incompatible synchronicity, and emptied flames. It should be noted that these categories are based largely on how the ghostly moments exploit context and multiple filmic devices for terrifying ends rather than simply how they "look." While the remainder of the paper includes a remarkable stylistic variety of ghosts and special effects, I have organized it as a means to discuss the appearance of more traditional anthropomorphic ghosts, their relationship with digital special effects, and consequences of all of these categories for the J-Horror genre.

The Ghost in the Machine

My categorical investigation begins with a relatively familiar ghost that appears often in both science fiction and in horror films that incorporate technology: the ghost in the machine. While the phrase has a substantial lineage, originating in philosopher Gilbert Ryle's 1949 Concepts of the Mind before it was used to title Arthur Koestler's 1967 book on the self-destructive nature of man, (6) for the purposes of this paper I am employing the term as Donna Haraway does in A Cyborg Manifesto to refer to "haunted" machines that lay claim to spectral attributes beyond their raw mechanics. This category includes moments in which Pulse's televisions, phones, and computers display qualities mysteriously inconsistent with their programming and physical capabilities. The two examples I discuss below concern incidents when moving images on a television or computer screen indicate a ghostly presence that exists in the space and time between flames that cannot be captured on film. Importantly, neither computers nor television actually use still frames to generate the illusion of motion as analog film does. Instead, both electronic media infer motion through a process of sequential scanning that incrementally updates their displays. In these sequences, the logic of the analog overrides the mechanics of the digital, showcasing the potential failure of "analogue" film flame-based technology and the blurring boundaries of digital and analogue technologies. The ghostly moments in this category are some of the most interesting, for unlike most of their counterparts, the ghosts in the machine can be a source of unease for both the film viewer and the characters within the film. Pulse's first ghosts belong to this category.

An unusually anthropomorphic example in this category occurs early in the film as Michi watches a TV newscast. During a report in which an anchor talks about a message in a bottle found after 14 years, discordant extra-diegetic music swells as the sound of the television broadcast becomes scrambled. The television image, too, becomes violently jumbled as the sound of interference and the disjointed voice of the reporter crescendo. Suddenly, all sound ceases and the screen freezes in an impossible image. While the background of the TV news studio remains intact, the top half of the anchor's head is missing. Neither standard malfunctions nor simple interference could be responsible for the decapitated image, which combines two distinct time periods: the empty news set and the peopled news set. Terrified, Michi runs over to turn the TV off and then slowly backs away as the same discordant music continues until the scene closes.


A similar moment occurs in the film's second storyline. While speaking with Harue, Kawashima asks about a computer in her lab that displays continuously shifting white dots on a black screen. Harue explains that the computer runs a program, "a miniature model of our world," that simulates the forces that bring people (the white dots) together and drive them apart. A few scenes later, our attention is again directed to this computer program. Only in our second meeting, Harue claims that a few of the dots are displaying peculiar behavior, remarking, "They're just like ghosts." Instead of moving smoothly along like the others, they slither and skitter around the computer monitor, disappearing in one section of the screen only to reappear close by. Furthermore, these special dots are no longer neatly self-contained circles; instead, they look more like amorphous amebic mutations (or like pathogens under a microscope) that leave behind motion tails and occasionally flickering offshoots.

To further examine the dots, Harue rewinds the computer program and plays it in a slow motion loop. The film cuts to an extreme close up of the computer monitor, lingering on a disconcerting spectacle of analog technology as the looped program provides the illusion of a frame-by-frame survey of the dots. Although the playback indicates a collection of sequential screen stills in extremely close temporal proximity to one another, gaps between the slowed-down "frames" are readily apparent as ghost dots stagger across the screen. The computer thus convincingly imitates analog technology at the same time it emphasizes its failure.

Philip Rosen reminds us that this uncanny ability of the digital to imitate older forms--which he terms "digital mimicry"--permeates digital imaging (309). Not only do indexical and analog images offer fodder for digitization, digital media rely on visual codes established and propagated by indexical media to claim credibility as imaging technologies (313). It is not uncommon for digital video artists to exploit digital mimicry by using simulated film grain or lighting and cinematographic techniques that imitate the look of celluloid to obscure their films' digital origins. However, if, as Stephen Prince argues, digital mimicry results from a somewhat banal "nostalgic drive, an attempt to retain part of the past in a present that is outdistancing it" (33), Kurosawa hints at the terrifying results of this imitation taken to its extremes wherein "the digital spreads, infiltrates, overwhelms, conquers all other media" (Rosen 324). The computer program's seamless digital mimicry of older technologies showcases the increasing impossibility of distinguishing the material analogue from the computer generated, immaterial, and largely fabricated digital. Besides collapsing these distinctions, the computer's imitation of analogue failure further emphasizes the untrustworthiness of our images.

Like the ghostly interference and jumbling of the news reporter's on-screen image, the disrupted motion of the strange dots, especially when shown frame by frame, indicates the time and space between frames that is impossible to record or capture. This interstitial space becomes ultimately terrifying, perhaps because it is unrecordable and thus unknowable. The severed head of the news anchor adds to this horror by depicting a collision between two different frames that have become unstuck from their regular sequence and randomly and violently forced to cohabit one screen. At the same time, this scene refers to the nature of analog moving pictures, which rely on stills in order to provide the illusion of motion. Functioning in direct opposition to the specifications of the computer program that spawned them, the dots disturb because they cannot be controlled or contained. These two examples, like the rest of the ghosts in this category, destroy the screen illusion of fluid motion and highlight the inability of recording technology to capture or master reality by revealing the gaps between frames that resist imaging. Furthermore, the ability of digital technologies to mimic indexical forms works against euphoric discourses of the digital that propose a profound rupture between old (analog) and new (digital). Rosen argues, "the historicity of the digital utopia avoids historical self-consciousness (349)" by disavowing this hybridity constituted in part through older forms. Kurosawa's digital dystopia, however, reveals a formulation of the digital haunted by the shape of its analog predecessors.

Compounded Screens/Compounded Cameras

Unlike the former category, in which machines themselves exploit uneasy tensions between analog and digital technologies, ghostly moments in this category attempt to destabilize viewers' ability to decode screens or understand technically recorded images. More specifically, compounded screens/compounded cameras refers to moments in which one screen or camera is confused for another or when multiple screens converge in a single frame. By employing digital computer aesthetics and acknowledging the filmic convention of the fourth wall, these moments threaten the coherence of the diegetic (analog) film world by aggressively confronting the spectator.

A particularly jarring example of this phenomenon occurs when the graduate student who designed the computer program described above relates his theory of how ghosts infiltrated the living world. As he speaks, the film cuts to a man at a construction site creating the first "forbidden room" with red tape. The camera then cuts to an extremely dark shot inside the sealed room. As the room gets brighter, the film becomes overwhelmed by greenish light and pixilation, taking on the aesthetic qualities of a web camera image. Very slowly, a shadowy human form in a far corner takes shape, creeping towards the camera until it engulfs the screen in darkness. In this instance, the film first leads its viewer to believe that he or she is watching an image supplied only by a film camera; the initially dark lighting matches the overall lighting of the rest of the film and the image is clear and without pixilation. The smooth transition to the web cam aesthetic, which recalls the other web cam images distributed throughout the film, overturns any assumption of a single, stable screen; belatedly, Pulse indicates to its viewers that they were watching a computer screen the whole time. This unsettling discovery of multiple screens in the place of a single screen attempts to overturn viewer expectations, questions the reliability of the camera as narrator, and evokes disorienting spatial questions. Viewers trained to ignore the surface of the film screen in order to perceive depth in film images are confronted with this illusion when the "transparent" film screen is replaced by another, very substantial surface; the film camera is butted up against a computer monitor.

Pulse engages in a similar tactic that attempts to upend viewers' expectations through an irregular editing and camera positioning technique that inserts establishing shots long shots traditionally used to introduce a new scene into scenes' mid and end points. An example of this pattern occurs after Yabe visits Tagushi's home. Upon exiting Tagushi's apartment, an eye-level tracking shot follows Yabe until he stops to stare at a door framed with red tape. Suddenly, the film cuts to an extreme high-angle shot and all sound, including extra-diegetic music, drops from the soundtrack. Accompanied by silence, this unusual placement of the long shot may initially disorient viewers trained by classical Hollywood continuity editing. In order to make sense of the pattern, viewers must once again revise assumptions about the cameras through which the film is narrated. Although the silent high-angle shot makes little sense in a series of images captured by a film camera, the same combination suggests the relatively banal intrusion of a high-mounted surveillance camera. These sequences are unnerving, since the film's visual style neither confirms nor denies the possibility of surveillance camera footage. Once again, the film indicates digital technology's uncanny aptitude for mimicry. Confounding distinctions between analogue and digital technologies through an almost perfect imitation of older forms, Pulse's digital technologies invoke ghostliness through the blurring boundaries of temporality (old and new) and materiality ("material" analogue and "immaterial" code-based digital)--two characteristic problems for hauntings.

In addition to disorienting camera shifts, this category also includes moments that provoke unease by upsetting the stability of the analog screen surface. Computer aesthetics invade the film's mise-en-scene, which regularly divides the film frame into multiple "screens," recalling digital displays' multiple windows. In some cases, this effect also disrupts traditional configurations of film time, forcing several moments in the film to cohabit one image. In one such example that occurs at Michi's apartment, the film uses the legs of a chair to tightly frame Junco's body, cutting her off from the rest of Michi's room. As Junco slowly reaches out her hand, she invokes the film image of a ghost who attacked her in a previous scene. In this instance, the smaller frame functions as a "replay" of the earlier ghost scene nestled within the larger frame of the current action (Junco at Michi's). Unlike analog film, which relies primarily on editing for temporal play, these compounded screens mimic digital interfaces, which employ multiple windows to display several time periods simultaneously.


Most often, however, compounded screens employ an uneasy mise-en-abyme effect that challenges viewers' expectations of analog film aesthetics. This phenomenon is particularly prominent when the camera lingers outside of the greenhouse where Michi and her friends work, framing each character in their own window and dividing the rest of the shot into dozens of smaller screens. Much like a computer display, the smaller windows contained within the film frame combine multiple media types, requiring different reading strategies from viewers. While the windows activated by characters' movements evoke moving-image screens, the smaller frames devoid of motion simultaneously recall still photography. This effect, a milder version of Lev Manovich's description of the computer screen as "a battlefield for a number of incompatible definitions--depth and surface, opaqueness and transparency, image as illusionary space and image as instrument for action" (90), demands that viewers move constantly from one type of image to the next, frantically scanning for the frame that will feature the next horrifying image or event.

Incompatible Synchronicity

This last example can also be discussed under the third category of ghostly moments, incompatible synchronicity, which refers to the impossible coexistence of two or more disparate cinematic elements in a single frame that threatens the coherence of the film image. In many ways, this category represents Pulse's overarching project of investigating and juxtaposing analog and digital technology. Since I will discuss the larger mission of Pulse in my conclusion, I will use this section to explore several specific instances of incompatible synchronicity on the level of the film's style.

In horror films, this phenomenon occasionally appears as the combination of two different film speeds in a single frame. In Pulse, a paradigmatic example occurs when a slow-motion ghost inches towards Yabe. An extended moment in which the ghost stumbles as her body wildly and slowly contorts exaggerates the use of slow film speed, especially in contrast to Yabe, who continues to move at a regular speed throughout the scene. This impossible combination of speeds upsets the conventional "naturalism" of the diegetic world, marking it as supernatural.

A second manifestation of incompatible synchronicity occurs through rear projection. While slow motion unsettles diegetic time, rear projection--or its flawless imitation--disrupts diegetic space. (7) During rear projection, incompatibility arises between solid three-dimensional objects and actors in a scene's foreground and its two-dimensional filmed backdrop. Pulse exclusively employs rear projection when solitary characters ride the bus to Tagushi's apartment, the site of the film's initial suicide. Even though the movie camera flattens everything it films, the visual contrast between the bus and the street backdrop is disquieting, especially in a contemporary film that exaggerates the device when it could make use of far more seamless special effects. Pulse's rear projection effectively creates eerily stylized spaces that confront the illusion of "naturally" figured film space and lay bare film's status as a two-dimensional art form.

Finally, Pulse forces incompatible synchronicity through its soundtrack. Examples include moments when all sound inexplicably drops out of certain scenes--as in the example when Yabe visits Tagushi's home--and when discordant extra-diegetic music plays against otherwise banal city shots. In both instances, dissonance arises due to a sound/image mismatch that defies film convention. This combination of incompatible elements within a single shot--whether a soundtrack unfaithful to aural expectations, two distinct film speeds, or three-dimensional set pieces against two-dimensional rear projection disrupts the illusory spatial and temporal integrity of the analog film diegesis.

Emptied Frames

Like the category above, emptied frames dismantle the coherence of conventional analog aesthetics. The ghostly moments in this category employ shot composition that emphasizes and ultimately destabilizes filmic conventions of anthropomorphic scale. Effectively, these moments imply presence where there is none, shaping a specter through absence. This occurs throughout Pulse's second half, when the film revisits its characters' disappearances. In one example, the film returns to a silo that served as a jumping platform for one of the film's several suicides. Mimicking the jumper's falling body, the film holds on the top of the empty tower for a beat before quickly panning down the silo and stopping on the black spot that marks where the woman previously fell. This scene eerily implies human presence in the empty frame, since the woman's missing body guides the camera's trajectory and sets the scale for the scene's shot composition.

A similar moment occurs during a modified shot/reverse shot sequence in which Michi abruptly encounters Yabe, who earlier went missing. The sequence begins when Michi enters a room in her friend's empty apartment and the film cuts to a P.O.V. shot that reveals Yabe standing stiffly against a far wall. After cutting to Michi's face, the camera pans 180 degrees back to the spot where Yabe stood. However, Yabe has disappeared, leaving behind a black, vaguely human smudge on the wall and an uncanny empty frame. Yabe's disappearance is especially shocking because it seems impossible within traditional film language. Unlike other forms of editing that signify a break in time or space, shot/reverse shots almost always link co-present people or objects. Thus, when Yabe disappears, he upsets the promise of the shot/reverse shot pattern that initially links him to Michi. Like the above example, this sequence reinforces humans' place as the frame's primary structuring force in analog film while it begins to unsettle this privileged position. Put another way, although digital technology threatens to purge humans from the film's narrative, Pulse's visual style remains haunted by human scale.

While I have discussed a wide variety of the ghostly moments Kurosawa employs throughout his film, this list is by no means exhaustive. Furthermore, it should be noted that these categories are not mutually exclusive, as many ghosts cross multiple groups. Nonetheless, this taxonomy enables differentiation among ghostly moments that attempt to evoke fear by threatening the coherence of analog film--whether by invoking the ghost in the machine, activating multiple screens, combining disparate film devices, or employing disorienting shot composition.

Generic Ghosts

The accumulated effects of mass disappearance become evident towards the end of the film. As the human population of Tokyo eerily disappears, so do its ghosts. The mise-en-scene of Pulse becomes apocalyptic. Characters wander through empty buildings and silent streets, and emptied frames occur with increasing frequency. In an ominous meet-cute, Kawashima encounters Michi on a desolate Tokyo road. As the two attempt to flee the city, the film's mise-en-scene becomes cluttered with smoking cars, burning buildings, and crumpled light posts. When they arrive at the greenhouse where Michi once worked, she runs to the building to find the key for a speedboat. Before she reaches the greenhouse, however, a flaming WW2 bomber plane falls through the sky and explodes. Michi continues on, entering a murky room filled with floating ash and two grey, badly disfigured corpses. After she returns to the boat with the key, the film cuts to a long shot of Tokyo, capturing the city in smoldering ruins. With seven minutes left of its official runtime, the film cuts back to the frame story on the ocean liner. Pulse ends as Harue and the crew set course for South America, where they believe there are other survivors.

At first glance, this enigmatic ending does not seem to fit with Kurosawa's claim that he devoted Pulse to the exploration of ghosts. The unusual twist, however, directly relates to the film's considerations of ghosts and genre. Pulse not only portrays an apocalypse, it invokes the WWII bombing of Japan. The city in ruins, the bomber plane, the room filled with nuclear ash, the black smudges that marked characters' deaths, and the charred bodies (the only two corpses in the entire film) visually echo photographs and popular representations of the bombings. Furthermore, this imagery of the abandoned city and the city in ruins permeates post-WWII 1950s science fiction films. Linking these representations of the failed city to a period of American history marked by nuclear fear, greater reliance on electronic technology, and the rise of global communication systems, Vivian Sobchack argues that empty or destroyed cities represent a "loss of faith" in earlier utopian visions of the city as the embodiment of modern civilization's aspirations (129-30). For depictions of abandoned cities, this melancholic sentiment is particularly intense; it represents a nostalgic imagination "always already fixed on an irrecoverable past rather than on a future that has not yet occurred" (132). In its conclusion, Pulse aligns the suicides caused by an electronic "virus" to the deaths caused by atomic bombings. In a film that purports to be about computers and information networks, an older fear of atomic technology resurfaces.

The disruptive power of Pulse's ghosts thus affects generic lines, binding the Japanese tradition of kaidan or "ghost stories" with global science fiction narratives of the middle to late twentieth century. In fact, the ghost story provides the ideal vehicle through which to return to earlier science fiction cycles. According to Bliss Cua Lim:
   Ghosts call our calendars into question. The temporality of
   haunting, through which events and people return from the limits of
   time and mortality, differs sharply from the modern concept of a
   linear, progressive, universal time. The hauntings recounted by
   ghost narratives are not merely instances of the past reasserting
   itself in a stable present, as is usually assumed; on the contrary,
   the ghostly return of traumatic events precisely troubles
   boundaries of past, present, and future, and cannot be written back
   to the complacency of a homogeneous, empty time (287).

Ultimately, Lim reads the function of ghosts' relationship with time as a political possibility, a renewed historical consciousness inspired by the audience's experience of a dimly remembered past and its as-yet unrealized future (317-18). I argue, however, that the temporality of haunting offers equal access to the uncanny, which Sigmund Freud describes as, "nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed" (148). In the context of Pulse, ghostly return becomes threatening by reasserting fears of nuclear apocalypse into contemporary anxieties of digital technologies. Furthermore, Pulse's atomic imagery explicitly links the recent J-Horror cycle to older genre conventions of Hibashuka cinema and the 1950s/60s J-Horror cycles, implying all share fundamentally similar concerns with regards to hauntings and technology. Only in the current cycle's reimagining of these fears, ghosts no longer represent the casualties of weaponized technologies; they become its agents.

Unlike ghostly moments, which threaten the integrity and logic of the analog image, ghost figures transpose returned fears of catastrophic machinery onto digital technologies. Although Pulse's ghost figures frighten through traditional strategies, including mutilated appearance, unearthly speech, and surprise, it is their relationship to and constitution through--digital special effects technologies that promises their biggest scare. Combined with Pulse's digital recreation of atomic holocaust and the film's repeated disruption of analog images via ghostly moments, the presence of these ghosts suggests a meaning to the film audience that is eerily similar to how the film's characters perceive ghosts. Kurosawa describes the effect of the ghosts for his characters:

I take reality and characters who live in a certain kind of world and then I inject something that's foreign. Through the injection of that foreignness into their daily lives, they start to see their lives differently and re-evaluate their realities. That's the overall horror that holds my films together (Reverse Shot Online).

In analogous fashion, Pulse's ghosts ask audiences to consider the compositing of digital special effects into analog film and, ultimately, the disruption of cinema's indexical relationship to reality. In his study of postfilmic cinema, Garret Stewart identifies a similar phenomenon:
   Screen plots of the last decade continue to remember and address
   cinema's partial derivation from--and formerly total constitution
   by--the photomechanical imprint. This happens even while (and often
   quite directly because) the photogram--the single imprinted
   rectangle of the celluloid strip--is increasingly invaded or
   replaced in screen imaging by the digital photon (4).

As I have shown throughout my analysis of ghostly moments and ghost figures, these same concerns also surface on the level of poetics.

Due to its long-standing relationship with special effects, science fiction offers an ideal genre through which to theorize the implications of this invasion of the digital. Special effects have long been a showcase for new film-production technologies; in effect, special effects "dramatize not just the thematic materials of science fiction and fantasy plots, but also illustrate the 'state of the art' (La Valley 144). Pulse's ghosts and its apocalyptic finale are heavily invested in this particular project. While almost all of Pulse's ghosts metonymically recall the human body in some way, they run the gamut of possibilities from undulating shadows and floating women with long black hair--the by-now well-known image of the traditional onryou--to quick flashes of deceased characters and old warplanes. Taken together, these ghosts confront viewers with a spectacular compendium of special effect techniques at the disposal of digital technology. Moreover, the film's naturalistic recreation of atomic destruction functions through "impossible photography," a term coined by Andrew Darley to encompass "a powerful visual illusion: the visual semblance of reality--an analogical effect--even in scenes of the utterly fantastic" (108). For Darley, "it is precisely this effect of impossible photography that constitutes the dimension of spectacle in the scene" (ibid). Pulse's atomic destruction is thus doubly spectacular. Not only does the film offer traditional elements of visual play--e.g. explosions and ruins--by pursuing analogical naturalism, it creates another level of spectacular verisimilitude that calls attention to its own artifice. Thus, the film once again confronts viewers with the intrusion of the digital and its separation from indexical reality. Ultimately, what Pulse asks its audiences to re-evaluate is no less than the ontological status of cinema.

It is no coincidence that the digital effects that disrupt our conceptions of the nature of film are themselves often theorized as disruptions. In particular, Darley argues that films laden with naturalistic digital special effects "represent a renovation and intensification of the potentially disruptive power of spectacle within narrative" (113)--a phenomenon foregrounded by Pulse's abrupt and inexplicable turn to the apocalypse. Furthermore, while there may be pleasure in the consumption of spectacle, its awesome and overwhelming affective associations also fit comfortably within the horror genre. Linking the experience of science-fiction special effects to the sublime, Scott Bukatman argues, "despite the recontainments and reassurances that are the function of these films' narratives, scopic instability and cognitive accommodation remain fundamental to, and implicit in, our experience of the works" (108). Unlike the films Bukatman discusses, however, the horror genre conventions of Pulse's narrative offer no reassurance, no opportunity to identify with spectacular display. In fact, through its ghostly moments and ghost figures, the film constantly challenges the viewer's ability to revaluate the meaning and structure of the film image. Consequently, according to Bukatman, "under the terms of the sublime, technology is divorced from its sociological, rationalist underpinnings to become a technology without technocracy, a technology beyond the scope of human control" (106). Indeed, the unease evoked by digital/simulacral/disembodied invasion and disruption of the analog/indexical/material represents yet another threat deep in the psyche of science fiction: machines that surpass human capability and comprehension.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: reflections on photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

Bazin, Andre. "On the Ontology of the Photographic Image." What is Cinema? Trans. Hugh Gray. Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.9-16.

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(1) For an overview of the links between photographic technology and ghost as well as the socio-historical context of the early American and European interest in spirit photography, see Bruce, "Sympathy for the Dead," 24-31.

(2) See Bazin's "On the Ontology of the Photographic Image," which discusses cinema's "mummy complex" (9). Though mummies may not equal ghosts, both share traits germane to these discussions by disrupting distinctions between life and death and linear flow of time. See also Barthes' Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography in which the author details relationships between the photograph, death, and the viewer's perception in Part Two. Perez's Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium, a book-length film criticism project, casts cinema as a liminal specter.

(3) The relationship between ghostliness and technology haunts discussions of digital media. Descriptions of the digital as mutable (Mitchell 7, Manovich 36, Rosen 322), partial (Rodowick 137), composite (Manovich 137), disconnected from the real (Darley 108, Rodowick 170), disembodying (Sobchack "Scene," 80), lacking physical form and dimension (Rodowick 134, Binkley 112), and intimately tied to presence (Bolter 10-11, Binkley 108) indicate how many conceive of digital media as a similarly otherworldly and liminal object (or being). In his book investigating the perceived ties between modern technology and ghostliness, Sconce sums up a similar tendency of postmodern theory--often invoked in discussions of the digital--to employ supernatural motifs, "Within the mythos of postmodernity, television often appears as a mystery box somehow capable of exorcising human subjectivity and conjuring a hallucinatory realm that hovers above the referential rubble of contemporary culture. Where there once was 'real' there is now only the electronic generation and circulation of almost supernatural simulations. Where there was once stable human consciousness, there are now only the ghosts of fragmented, decentered, and increasingly schizophrenic subjectivities. Where there once was 'depth' and 'affect,' there is now only 'surface.' Where there was once 'meaning,' 'history,' and a solid realm of 'signifieds,' there is now only a haunted landscape of vacant and shifting signifiers" (170-71).

(4) See, for example, Lee Kovacs' The Haunted Screen, which focuses on the "romantic" ghosts of the 1930s and 40s, as well as the impotent and victimized "fin de siecle" ghosts that populated the end of the twentieth century.

(5) In an example of the former, Katherine A. Fowkes employs psychoanalysis in Giving Up the Ghost to investigate how cinematic ghosts function in relation to subjectivity and gendered viewing positions. In particular, Fowkes focuses on audiences' pleasure and perception. For an example of the latter, see Tom Ruffles' Ghost Images, which creates a "thematic" schema of ghosts, e.g., ghost lovers, ghosts of those who cannot rest, and ghosts who dispense sage advice.

(6) Gilbert Ryle was Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at the University of Oxford when he published Concept of the Mind, the monograph that contains the first iteration of "the ghost in the machine." In it, Ryle attempts to unsettle what he calls the Cartesian myth: the mind/body opposition which, Ryle claims, asserts that "every human being has both a body and a mind" (Ryle 11) and in which "it is assumed that there are two different kinds of existence or status ... physical existence ... in space and time; ... mental existence ... in time but not in space ... a polar opposition between mind and matter" (ibid, 13). Ryle goes further, stating that in Descartes' theory, the mind is "described by the mere negatives of the specific descriptions given to bodies.... As thus represented, minds are not merely ghosts harnessed to machines, they are themselves just spectral mechanisms" (ibid, 19-20). It is this false opposition between the body and the mind that he labels 'the dogma of the ghost in the machine'" (ibid, 15), wherein the "ghost" refers to the invisible mind and its spectral-like processes. Koestler's book, "The Ghost in the Machine" critiques B.F. Skinner's theories of behaviorism and Darwinian evolution in order to put forth Koestler's theory that all natural and social processes are determined by hierarchy-based systems. One of Koestler's central claims is that as the human brain evolved, it incorporated and built upon primitive brain structures that continue to exist in contemporary man. According to Koestler, these atavistic brain structures, the "ghosts" in his title, are responsible for negative emotions, such as hate and anger, which have the ability to overpower cognitive logic. Taking his theory to its logical extremes, Koestler claims these primitive sections of the brain will eventually lead to the self-destruction of man.

(7) Although it is unclear whether Kurosawa employed rear projection for these bus scenes in particular, the director has discussed his frequent use of rear-screen projection in a recent interview (Kasman).
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Date:Dec 22, 2011
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