Ghosts in the Machine: An epidemic of existential loneliness in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse

The glory days of modern Japanese horror, perched right on the dawn of a new millennium, reflected an era of technophobia; a world of immediacy, isolation and the ghosts that thrive on it. Sadako Imamura in Ringu manifests her pain into the widely sharable format of a video tape. Mimiko Mizunuma in Takashi Miike’s One Missed Call uses the voicemail platform to spread her evil in quick succession. Even the nebulous blackhole of Kayako Saeki’s rage in the Ju-On franchise, while not directly tech related, envelopes any and all who come close – a figurative summation of a fear of close connection in the modern age. However, one film most perfectly encapsulates this particular zeitgeist, with its relevance only increasing with every passing year, its tendrils of dread coiled around the roots of all Internet horror since. Over two decades since its release, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse is more terrifying now than ever before.

In Pulse, turn-of-the-century cultural anxiety spirals into full-scale global invasion when the souls of the undead osmose from their confines in cyberspace and into our corporeal reality. Two plotlines run parallel as plant-shop working Michi Kudo (Kumiko Asō) and Economics student Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) respectively unravel the mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths and disappearances of those who come into contact with the Internet’s ‘forbidden room’ and its spectral occupants.

In an interview with Reverse Shot, Kurosawa weighed in on the enduring discussion of why many consider Japanese horror films to be more frightening than their American counterparts. Of the ghosts in his films, Kurosawa said: “I find the idea that one just has to live with this thing much more terrifying. You have no chances of running away or fighting it; you’re stuck with it forever.” It is this sense of ‘forever’ that makes Pulse one of the most existentially terrifying films of the modern age.


A woman rests her head on her companion's shoulder in Pulse (2001)

Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) and Harue (Koyuki Kato) find somewhere safe in Pulse (2001)


The Internet is full of ghosts. Those of us who lived through social media’s infancy will remember – with an ache of nostalgia – the fledgling platforms of LiveJournal, MySpace, MSN or AIM. Like never before, in the early 2000s, contact across countries and continents was instantaneous, leading to relationships conducted almost entirely through a screen. Friends known only as screen names would be lost to the ether if they one day decided to – or could no longer – log back on. In one of Pulse’s most emotional moments, Harue – a young woman who eventually falls victim to Pulse’s pandemic of existential dread – theorizes that the ghosts of the Internet do not want to kill, but instead immortalise their victims, trapping them in ‘eternal loneliness.’ Even 20 years ago, Pulse theorised that even after death, our self-made Internet tulpas remain as monuments to eternity, preventing the absolution of our cyber souls.

After a globally devastating pandemic left millions of us isolated in our homes with nothing and nobody to turn to but the ever-present hum of the world wide web, Pulse’s existential loneliness feels even more poignant. Once human contact became a potential death sentence, we moved even more of our lives online. For many of us, a return to ‘normality’ is a terrifying prospect, the irony of course being that the easier it is to communicate, the harder we find it to do so. How many of us regularly ignore calls in favour of texting? Or groan when we’re invited to a Zoom meeting that could instead be a series of emails?

In Pulse’s most infamously terrifying moment, one of the ghosts of the Internet approaches Kudo’s friend Yabe, slowly walking across the Forbidden Room, a weightless free-float through cyber space. As an audience, we are bound and enraptured to Yabe’s slowly impending doom. We cannot run. We cannot hide. The encroaching spectre of existential depression may be slow; but it never stops. When the apparition finally reaches the young man, after what feels like an agonising eternity, we finally see what peeks over the top of Yabe’s hiding place – nothing more than a normal, sad human face. At this reveal, Yabe screams. Because, after all, in a world where we shield our vulnerability behind a series of screens, what is more terrifying than being actually seen; and truly known?


A haunting figure in Pulse (2001)

Facing fears in the digital and physical worlds.


Pulse’s technology may be outdated, but its themes of loneliness and a contradictory fear of connection are not. The film carries the same slouching heaviness of spiritual decay as clearly now as it did in 2001.

Pulse depicts a world that very much ends not with a bang, but with a deep shuddering sigh, a world where the dead confirm our fears in no uncertain terms that ‘death is the eternal loneliness’, and though the body may rot in the ground, the cyber self will live on forever in code, forever searching for a connection that never comes.

If you’ve ever used the Internet as distraction from your own demons, you’ll know the feeling all too well. It’s the comforting anxiety that urges you to stay awake long after your eyes burn dry in the dark, scrolling page after page, piece after piece. While the whole world sleeps, uncaring, and you have the vast expanse of the digital unknown to soothe or destroy you – it’s here where we feel at our most isolated. The contact of a billion humans at your fingertips, yet utterly, inescapably alone.

We tell our stories to the Internet in the hopes that someone, anyone, will reach out to us, and with every upload, share or comment we leave a little bit more of ourselves behind as proof that we were here, and that we existed. As far as Pulse is concerned, this is the true, existential terror of a restless eternity. Because just like the dregs of Pulse’s despondent victims, your stories – and therefore your self – will remain stained on the walls of the Internet long after you have logged off.


Amber T

Amber T

Writer and expert

Amber T is a UK-based film writer with a passion for the bleak and brutal. Her work and words can be found at various publications including FANGORIA, Ghouls Magazine and Grimoire of Horror.