Kairo: Wait, What?



Kairo has come very recommended to me. A conversation about Japanese cinema couldn’t arise without a certain someone telling me “you should see Kairo!” So I’ve kept my eyes peeled and sure enough, it never showed up. I didn’t even see it in stores! When the hell had this movie been released?! It should’ve been riding the wave of apathy interest sparked by its American remake Pulse, starring the wonderful, talented, and totally misguided actress Kristen Bell from TV’s Veronica Mars. I mean, was she THAT eager to fall into Sarah Michelle Gellar’s footsteps? But anyways, imagine my surprise when scouring a used DVD store the clouds parted and Kairo plopped into my lap. I was excited and eager to see what kind of movie it was. You could say I’m still waiting!

Kairo begins with a group of friends who all work at a plant nursery trying to contact their co-worker/friend who seems to have gone incommunicado. When one of them actually takes the step of going over to this guy’s house and makes small talk with him, after he creepily walks out of the shadows, that is. Then after retrieving a disk for work he was supposed to turn in, she tries to talk some more with him, only to discover him hung in his own apartment. I’m assuming that she’s mostly upset about the rudeness of killing yourself while you have company over.

The plot thickens when while looking at this guy’s disk he handed them, his friends discover weird things in an image contained therein. They’re suitably creeped out, if they weren’t already by their FRIEND DYING BUT WHATEVER LOL. But of course it wouldn’t be much of a horror movie if things stopped there. One of them starts receiving a strange phone call with a ghostly voice asking him to, “Help me.” After investigating the dearly departed’s apartment, he finds a strange piece of paper labeled “The Forbidden Room.” After figuring out what this means, he enters it and encounters something that changes his life.

At the same time as this plot thread is developing, we’re also introduced to a parallel one. A random young Japanese college student decides he wants to connect to the Internet. This movie was released, and presumably set, in 2001, so you can figure how computer savvy this kid is. So as he goes through typical Internet provider setup bullshit, he finally gets to connect to the Internet. But as soon as he does, he’s whisked away to an odd screen asking him if he’d liked to meet a ghost, and then presents him with grainy video feeds of strangers that deservedly creeps him out. So he goes to his school and asks around until he finds a foxy young computer science chick (LOL) to help him figure out what went wrong. After some hilarious suggestions consisting of bookmarking it and using the “print screen” key, she has to become more hands-on to figure out this phenomenon, much to this guy’s pleasure. But as the answer to all of this begins to lean more and more towards the supernatural, things turn very sinister.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a bit of a modern auteur in Japan because of his films in the J-horror genre. His breakout film was 1997’s Cure, which dealt with a serial killer with very unusual methods. After seeing both this and Cure, I can safely say that Kurosawa has a bit of a beef with Japanese society. Both movies seem to have themes running through them about how modern Japan is just no good. In this one, in particular, Kurosawa’s ire seems to be levied against technology and the Internet and its power over how we interact with each other. The computer science cutie in this asks the college kid if he decided out of the blue to connect to the Internet because he wanted to connect with other people. He says he did it because it seemed to be what everyone else was doing. Later on in the movie, when she’s become obsessed with the phenomenon, she has a multitude of screens in her apartment showing the ghostly videos, yet she has secluded herself from all human contact, save for the college guy. She becomes obsessed with her isolation, saying that she’s completely alone. When the college guy asks her about family, she says they don’t really count.

There’s a phenomenon in Japan named hikikomori. It’s a form of acute social withdrawal mainly among adolescents or young adults where a person completely shuts him or herself away from all social contact. It’s hardly a Japanese-only condition, but it’s becoming a bigger issue there. I have a feeling Kairo was meant to touch upon the issues of how technology supposedly has the power to bring people together, but when we begin to rely on it, we actually separate ourselves from each other. It’s like a more pessimistic version of the Solarians in Asimov’s Robot novels, who have advanced to the point where technology can take care of a person’s every whim, and robots outnumber humans twenty-thousand to one. While lives of isolation are paradise for Solarians, Kurosawa seems to be of a mind that humans can’t function without other humans, and the psyches of the characters in Kairo seem to break down further as the movie goes along.

One of the gimmicks Kurosawa uses to get his message home is rather subtle, but powerful. At the beginning of the movie, Tokyo’s populated, as always. People are everywhere and usually inhabit the scenes where our main characters are walking through or talking. But as time goes on, the crowds suddenly disappear. Everyone in the world but the people in the audience’s limited circle of characters vanishes, leaving us with the same sense of abandonment as our protagonists. It even becomes an explicit plot point, with a character frantically trying to contact her parents, a pair of people driving through a completely desolate downtown, and college guy happening upon a soda machine that’s been left open, stealing some cans for himself.

Another theme Kurosawa addresses in this movie is yet again one that seems to weigh heavily on the Japanese mind. Suicide seems to be the “in” thing for them nowadays. Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex Solid State Society (say that five times fast) features a prominent plot point where characters put guns to their heads and commit suicide. The latest entry into the popular Shin Megami Tensei series of RPGs, Persona 3, has characters shooting themselves in the head to unleash their Personas. No, really. And with suicide pacts being a troubling problem in Japanese society, it’s not hard to see why it’s such a hot button issue. Suicide is definitely unglamorous in this movie, but that doesn’t mean Kurosawa’s unsympathetic towards the people that feel they have to commit it. When the plant nursery group is bumming over their friend’s death, asking if there was anything they could have done, the guy says, “Maybe… he suddenly just wanted to die. I get that way sometimes. It’s so easy to hang yourself.” He paints a picture of a disaffected generation with no strong ties to their lives. Even as this guy says that he has suicidal thoughts, the others continue to look on blankly. They claim that they didn’t know that their dead friend was depressed. Maybe Kurosawa’s saying that people in Japan nowadays aren’t paying enough attention to each other to spot these things? I dunno.

But here’s where I come across an issue I have with Kairo, and Mr. Kurosawa’s film-making in general. He seems to care far more about his social agendas than communicating to the audience what is going on with his plots. In Kairo, it’s never really firmly told to us exactly what’s going on. We get the vague idea that ghosts are entering the Internet. We see people driven to the brink and trapping themselves in rooms bordered in red tape. There are blurry videos of people thrashing around. Phantoms seem to malevolently harass people. People vanish into inky black stains that then become dust motes. But no effort on the part of the director is made to clue us in as to what this all means. There’s some general hemming and hawing in the middle of the movie about a possible theory, but it never gets explained, really. Kurosawa’s so busy condemning modern Japanese that he forgets to develop the literal half of the movie, instead completely focusing on the symbolic and allegorical. He did the same goddamn thing in Cure to lesser effect, but it really burns my biscuit here.

It’s extremely confusing and disappointing to watch almost two hours of vague supernatural voodoo and not have any of it backed up with a reason or a motive. Why are ghosts so mean to the people? Why are people becoming depressed and vanishing? Why can’t I understand what it all means by the time the credits roll? It almost feels like a waste of time. It makes me feel stupid, is what it does. But I know I’m not stupid. It’s this movie that’s opaque and its director that’s far too in love with being subtle and vague. I used to think there was no problem with that, but now that I’ve seen two movies that have left me almost completely puzzled and miffed, I’m going to have to say that yeah, there is a problem with that. Subtlety can be taken to far, and Kurosawa’s done so by a few steps. I’m not saying I want Michael Bay levels of accessibility, here, but jeez, I should at least be able to reason what’s going on in the movie I’m watching five minutes before the end. Instead I’m left simply to have the images of the movie wash over me, with no intellectual investment in what’s going on.

And what fine images they are. Even with (or maybe because of) the grainy filming tools he uses, Kurosawa can shoot a mighty fine movie. His touch is quite objective, content to just observe the characters for as long as needed. That scene I told you about where the college guy meets computer science chick? It takes nearly ten minutes and uses basically the same vantage point for the entire thing. He seems to love lingering in one place. It’s reminiscent of Kubrick the way that he feels so hands-off with his material. And his locations are lovely and grimy and dark most of the time, perfectly fitting with his subject matter. I almost feel like calling him a Japanese David Fincher in the ability he has to render squalor. The imagery of the forbidden rooms is also superb and speaks to something in me. Very striking stuff. The vision of an empty, apocalyptic Tokyo is also extremely memorable, and even though the CG for the crashing airplane was a little hokey, I still liked it.

The ghost effects are also just artsy fartsy enough for me to love them. In the first encounter, the ghost moves as if in a dream. That’s the best that I can describe it. Its menace is far more closer to that of a nightmare than any other stab at “nightmarish” images I’ve seen before. It reminded me of some of my own ghost nightmares I’ve had. During that whole sequence, the scene demands nothing more than your complete attention, and I happily gave it. One of the most solid of its kind I’ve seen.

wut's goin on in dis thread =3

The music is usually typical horror stuff. But for some reason it works extremely well in this. Kurosawa frequently uses abrupt audio cuts in order to jar the audience. The requisite horror strings pop up during particularly sinister parts in order to help the mood and generally do a great job at making things seems scarier than they actually are.

Which is nice, because as a horror movie it’s not that scary. There weren’t very many moments where I was actually scared about what would happen next, or dreading what was going to happen. There’s just a general sense of unease and sinister-ness that you find in J-horror. I really wish that Kurosawa had been able to make the movie scarier, because then it might be easier to recommend it to horror buffs. Instead, it comes off as a lot more science fiction than horror.

There’s a key scene in the movie where computer science chick is showing college guy around their lab, and college guy wanders in front of a screen with a bunch of floating dots hovering about hypnotically. Computer chick says that some former graduate student programmed it. As the dots come closer to each other, they’re programmed to avoid touching. But as they move away, they’re also programmed to be drawn towards another dot. A computerized Hedgehog’s Dilemma? At first, one sees it as an obvious allusion to this movie’s message on human nature and not much more than that, but then later on when he looks at it again, dots seem to be flickering in and out. And then by the end of the movie, these dots have moved into the real world and infest everything. What does it mean? Kurosawa isn’t interested in telling you that, I guess. It’s a shame, too. Technically, this is a great movie. Intellectually, it’s also very stimulating. But as just a movie?

10 Responses to “Kairo: Wait, What?”

  1. sirtmagus Says:

    Fascinating read. Too bad I had to read it before I go to sleep. =(

    When I first saw the movie at a Rutgers film festival thingamajigger I lost sleep over this flick. I frakkin’ loved it. It struck such a primal chord in me. I had to lay awake at night, lights on because the shadows would creep me out. Any moment a ghost could phase in and the air could be polluted with that horrible ghost dust.

    More than that, it was the absolutely bleak atmosphere Kurosawa put together in Pulse. Complete hopelessness. The idea that death is a lonely, painful existence. There is never happiness. That there is no heaven or afterlife, and loneliness and darkness is the only truth there is. THAT’S what scared me most. That all the dead are returning to seek vengeance on the living – just BECAUSE they live – that’s icing on the cake. Kurosawa said he wanted to deglorify suicide with this movie. Mission accomplished!

    You make some excellent points and they’re all spot-on. Japanese David Fincher, the computerized dots, what Kurosawa is saying about Japanese society, he’s by far one of the most pessimistic filmmakers working today. The final shot of Cure (that you somehow missed?!) is testament to that. His recent Retribution (Sakabi) continues his campaign. But yeah, I guess you’re right about his literal shortcomings though I think most Asian directors are guilty of that.

    Glad you liked it.

  2. johnmora Says:

    I like what Kurosawa was trying to do, but his quirks infuriate me to no end. I can’t live on neat visuals and intellectual masturbation alone! :(

  3. sirtmagus Says:

    Yes you can. You didn’t like any of the characters? Once the ghosts started invading I got a kick out of Dim College Student’s defiance.

  4. johnmora Says:

    No, I didn’t like any of the characters. Although computer science bimbo was appropriately sweet and stuff. Kurosawa doesn’t really try to engender sympathy. Y’know, we could have a conversation about this on AIM. >:3

  5. james Says:

    Extremely well written and interesting. Pulse just seemed stupid, even with Ms. Bell, so I avoided it, but you certainly make this one sound interesting, even with the negative points. Maybe if I ever set foot in a video store again I’ll check and see if they have it.

  6. filmwalrus Says:

    Great review. Looks like your own screenshots? If so, I’m especially proud. I also really like the way you encompassed the plot, themes and style so naturally.

    I think your question about how much ambiguity is enough to survive on, is a key one. With someone so close to my border as K Kurosawa, my opinion can change from film to film or even during a rewatch. I almost have to warn people not to be distracted by trying to figure out the movie, because simply immersing yourself in the atmosphere and dry horror results in the most enjoyment (often a good approach to Lynch, Greenaway and others). I agree that Kurosawa could give us a little more by way of explanation, but in some ways I think he intentionally starves the audience of cathartic clarity and closure as a technique for keeping us off balance and disturbed.

    Kurosawa’s disaffected tone of quiet apathy and suicidal desperation is certainly a style of terror that few other directors lean on so heavily. Sometimes it works well and some times it goes too for for me in movies that are very similar otherwise.

    I do hope you look into my two favorite (so far) Kiyoshi Kurosawa movies: “Charisma” and “Doppelganger.” Charisma adds a whole new layer of dark humor and even self-reflexive parody plus allegorical interpretations that make “Pulse” look like kid’s stuff. “Doppelganger” is a structurally audacious marvel with beautiful triple split-screen moments and so much genre-switching and genre-blurring (horror, old-school sci-fi, screwball comedy) that most critics threw their hands up and condemned it.

  7. johnmora Says:

    Yeah, they’re my own screenshots. Are Charisma and Doppelganger available on DVD?

  8. Josh Says:

    I really, really didn’t like this movie, despite how badly I wanted to love it. I thought it was didactic and pretentious and really, really hokey. the scene you described with the ghost “moving as if in a dream” just looked to me like some Japanese lady walking toward the camera, waving her arms around, set to what I can easily say is the worst background music I’ve heard in a long time (something along the lines of “oooooooooOOOOOOOOOOOooooooooooooohhhh….”). I was extremely excited to see this movie and extremely disappointed afterward. Kiyoshi Kurosawa would make great PSAs, but in my humble opinion, he should take his hat out of the film making ring.

  9. johnmora Says:

    Depends on what you look for in a horror sequence, IMO. I thought it was a nice way to evoke some psychological horror. Most stabs at horror nowadays come with MTV editing, turbo-zombies, blood and guts and a soundtrack featuring Marilyn Manson, so I appreciated the effort from Kurosawa on this. But yeah, the film’s relentlessly pretentious.

  10. unguided Says:

    Am I the only one who’d rather have no explanation than a bad explanation?

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