Technology: great connector or great divider? A year into the pandemic, isolation has tested tech’s connective capabilities. The world seems distant in a way that it never has before. Socializing via zoom offers comforting visuality but the inherent transience of such interactions fails to replace in-person communication. One click of a button and faces zap out into nothingness, a blank screen stares back at you. There may be a sense of collective experience in the pandemic––undergoing a global trauma of sorts––but there is not much to be found in this sentiment other than existential despair. Technology serves up cold plates of simulated connection, but these pickings are our only options. By necessity, we have become even more dependent on devices as our means of connection. If disconnection is dystopia in Pulse (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001) and Suicide Club (dir. Sion Sono, 2001), then it seems we are in its midst: on tech we are reliant, on tech we are deprived. In these techno-horrors, loneliness is a kind of death too, and a lonely life can’t be worth living.
Both released in 2001, Pulse and Suicide Club reflect contemporary anxieties of an economically unstable and commodity–driven society. Meditating on a particularly urban experience of techno-alienation, the two films are rather pessimistic. Sion Sono’s Suicide Club takes satire to gruesome extremes. It begins at Shinjuku station: a group of young schoolgirls stand at a platform, their excited chatter crowding the air. Cued by the arrival announcement, they gather at the platform’s edge, stepping past the safety line. A cheery pop tune enters the soundscape, overlapped with the thunderous chugging of the incoming train. In choreographed unison, they hold hands, count to three, and jump into the tracks. The screen explodes with blood: pouring on the train windows, spewing in peoples’ faces, and pooling on the platform. Suicide becomes gorefest, a horrific “ type of post-modern virus (Balmain, 180).”
The shock of this group suicide is only amplified by waves of increasingly bloody suicides that follow. What the gore seems to suggest, or at least tries to, is that the suicidal impulse to which they fall victim has roots in social disconnection. Director Sono explains his stance on virtual interaction: “The Internet is a way of communication which I think is suicidal (Balmain, 180-181).” Suicide Club criticizes the police’s failure to perceive the group suicides as hanzai, crimes that imply social responsibility, rather than jiken, accidents. The gore deconstructs the individuals into a non-identifiable togetherness; in a twisted way, their suicides “…seem to suggest that their whole point is the desire of the individual to be a part of a group, rather than an isolated individual (Balmain, 181).” At the sites of mass-suicide, circles of crudely sewn-together flesh are found––a possible reference to giri, “the social cloth that binds individuals together.” Sion’s nihilism appears in the splatter horror–– another questionable use of the mutilated female body (see my previous blog on Sion Sono’s Tag). However, a more pointed critique can be found in the soundtrack.
‘Dessert,’ a fictional girl group made up of children, produces the eerie J-pop music that backdrops the violent deaths. Their hit songs like ‘Mail Me’ have ominous lyrics illustrating the Internet generation’s disillusionment: “Mail me. I’m sure you never knew, how I feel about you, this is real, I need to hear from you right now or I’ll die.” Under the guise of pre-teen innocence, their message articulates the suicidal impulse Sono describes––deepening the film’s disturbance. Balmain quotes Timothy Iles, who suggests that in Dessert is a hopeful suggestion “that children hold the answer to overcome the alienation of the age.” But I would argue that the children’s role in the film––they seem to be leading a ‘Suicide Club’ of sorts, urging adults to commit suicide––is anything but hopeful. Children already recognize the impossibility of survival in a tech-reliant urban space. The only choice, or rather the perceived natural choice, is death––a problem to which the film offers no solution. Pulse, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s equally solution-less take on techno-horror, lacks the outrageous performance-like gore of Suicide Club, but it pumps up the existential dread.
In Pulse, peoples’ search for connection via the Internet dooms them to eternal isolation. A virus-like Internet site guides the lonely to rooms sealed off by red tape. Upon entering these rooms, ghosts of the dead emerge and prey on them. Rendered soulless, the victims––bearing little resemblance to their previous selves––gradually fade away into ash, leaving behind stains of their fallen forms as they proceed to an eternity in limbo. In Kurosawa’s apocalyptic world, paranormal forces emerge via the Internet, rendering the technology that enables it explicitly dangerous. Pulse’s Y2K Japan context has aged––a protagonist with virtual computer-illiteracy seems hardly believable in 2021. But the film’s cinematography fills the screen with a sense of paradoxical solitude and surveillance all too familiar twenty-years later.
The film’s minute–long prologue ends with an aerial shot of an ocean liner, the ship like a lone fish in a vast expanse of water. The drone’s-eye view immediately invokes what I would call ‘surveillance aesthetics,’ eliciting a sense of unease through obstructed framing, dramatic irony, juxtaposed mise-en-scène, etc. The visual techniques and themes establish the narrative’s preoccupation with “isolation, emptiness and apocalypse (Balmain, 184).” Like Sono’s film, Pulse begins with suicide, Michi (Kumiko Aso) finding the body of her co-worker Taguichi (Kenji Mizuhashi). Balmain writes:
“This suicide anticipates many of the later deaths in Pulse. By doing so, the motif of suicide, omnipresent in many contemporary Japanese horror films, is used to imply that the subsequent deaths can be seen as a consequence of suicidal impulses which allow the ghosts in the machine to seep into the world of the diegesis (186).”
The manner of suicide in Pulse also reveals the critique––and fear––of technology. The ghosts in the machine act as metaphor for the ills of social disconnection amongst Japanese youth. In this techno-horror, their viral power is so strong that it virtually decimates urban Japan. Only a few survive, leaving behind a desolate metropolitan for an equally empty sea. Just as ambiguous as Suicide Club, Pulse offers no solutions, ending with dismal annihilation.
A year since the pandemic began, we stare at our digital screens, itching for a taste of connection. Confined to solitude, our screens seem like our only source of transportation. Pulse and Suicide Club suggest this is only illusion; our screens infect us with loneliness, a virus spreading rapidly. Twenty-years later, it seems that we may already be living in Kurosawa’s apocalypse: on tech we are reliant, on tech we are deprived. But we have already grown accustomed to tech’s artificiality, perhaps even reliant on its very deprivation. In the contemporary moment, is there anything scarier than a tech-free world?
*Suicide Club (dir. Sion Sono, 2001) is available to rent on Apple TV. Pulse (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001) is streaming for free on Tubi, or available via Prime Video.
“Techno-Horror and Urban Alienation.” Introduction to Japanese Horror Film, by Colette Balmain, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2008, pp. 168–187. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1g09x15.16. Accessed 14 Apr. 2021.