pulseKiyoshi Kurosawa can make something out of nothing. From quiet soundtracks and shots that linger, dread is built. In Kairo, his moodiest, darkest film (recently a Hollywood “ghosts-are-coming-for-you!” piece of crap), he weaves a narrative both stupefying and scary, one that confounds despite the high-concept appeal.

Kairo’s logline: “The world of the dead finds a pathway into the human realm…via the internet!” And from this we get a story about the inviolable separation of human life, via technology. Since its purpose is to make things easier, technology is inherently an isolating element. Even communication technology provides just a semblance of connectivity, erecting buffer zones and limitations on our ability to convey messages. Maybe this is why the film’s characterization, its narrative, is so murky.

We see a group of people working for a botanist (a flower shop? We don’t know). One of their friends, a coworker, is missing. Michi goes to his apartment, finds him without a problem. After some pleasant conversation, Michi’s friend hangs himself in the next room. The only clue to his mania is a floppy disc, which (supposedly) contains information needed for work. Michi gives it to a coworker, who comes down with the same melancholy that gripped his friend. Something online is making people want to die.

In a parallel narrative, we see a young college student go on-line, but his connectivity is a bit too aggressive. Thinking the computer has a virus, he inquires at the computer lab, and meets a girl there.

An odd pair of related sequences take place in the lab. They give us the key to understanding the film. The girl the student meets shows him a computer simulation designed by a resident genius, an artificial life program where single entities orbit around each other. Coming into direct contact, they die. Occasionally, ghost entities find their way into the program. The second sequence, in the library, shows our intrepid kid trying to catch a ghost. Out of the corner of his eye he sees it, standing still, but when he runs after it, the ghost steps out of the way and disappears. If the ghosts in Kairo are metaphoric, they are the inability of people to connect with each other. Uninvited contact is impossible. Any contact made is deadly.

The ghosts are given an explanation of sorts: The world of the dead is full – lonely spirits look to the human world for some kind of connection. But the mood is more important than the details, and as always with Kurosawa, ambiguities are deliberate and hard to crunch. Ghosts, we are told, can be found in rooms locked with red tape – but is the red tape a warning, or an invitation? As the film goes on, more and more people disappear, until Michi and the student wander Tokyo alone, unable to hold on to those with whom they have a real connection.

In the end, Kurosawa arrives at the ultimate metaphor: a ship sailing the ocean, not knowing where to dock, because any contact is contaminated. But even the ship isn’t safe. Kairo is the apotheosis of Kurosawa’s horrific viewpoint. After this, he couldn’t go to a darker place, so he went the opposite route. Bright Future, the follow-up, is almost a repudiation of this film’s negative outlook. There, connectivity is still poisonous, but better than the alternative. In Kairo, there is no alternative.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email kentc@explodedgoat.com