I don’t, to coin a verb, “horror movie” very often. It’s not because I do not appreciate the art in the form and genre, and neither is it that I am fragile in the face of life’s more morbid elements. It is more that I find no pleasure in the experience of submitting myself to voluntarily induced fear. If anything, I have enough fear and anxiety over the most basic chores intrinsic to my daily life. When I encounter a horror movie my disposition has me collapse and fold in upon myself. The suspense, the sound, the scare, or the false scare—in essence, the entire edifice of horror—breaks me.
I say this because I demand, obnoxiously of course, that people understand the trial that it was watching the two films I want to discuss in this article, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001). For, if, as an inexperienced viewer of horror films such as myself might venture, there are horror films and then there are horrific films. There are films that begin, attempt a jump scare, and then end; and there are the films that make one quake, that rupture and disturb, that provoke deeper fears that the structure of things isn’t simply indifferent but malevolent.
That might be an offensive binary to more experienced viewers of horror, and as such I won’t begin to defend it; it’s simply a useful—if totally arbitrary—organizational tool to describe that which I believe to be present in these two films: which is to say, two parallel, if philosophically distinct, ontologies of human despair and loneliness and that which forms them. These films are not simply about horror, but horrific ontologies raging against humanity.
Both are films structured around the social—human life together—and both see that social sphere collapse entirely in on itself. Cure imagines this collapse from a philosophically materialist perspective. It is focused on the human actors that are barely holding back social collapse and who, indeed, for the film at least, may malevolently instantiate it. Pulse locates this agential evil elsewhere, in a trans-dimensional plane trafficked by inter-dimensional beings, in a metaphysics of all consuming terror that is in the process of ripping existence apart.
Kurosawa furnishes each film with a distinct aesthetic, with Pulse being the film both constructed in the classical “horror” mold and the more daring technically. Its heightened concept is performed in blocking, framing, textures, colours, and camerawork that capture its ambitions. It crafts an omnipresence of and in fear, an inescapability of “pixelisation” and “in-screenment” that creeps into the fibre(-optics) of each and every thing. It aims to communicate the unending, abyssal nature of society’s falling apart and from that abyss the abyss-of-things does not simply gaze back, but reaches out and destroys reality itself.
Cure, on the other hand, is almost aggressively banal and flatly composed. Its imagistic indistinctiveness becomes distinctive and performative precisely because this flat visual grammar is the articulation of our own disconnection. The horror of society’s hatred toward itself is, in Cure, shockingly ordinary. The effect is one of a bland objectivity, a documentary quality that presents a catastrophic and inescapable field of dislocation and social self-harm that perpetuates and deterritorialises social ressentiment, feeding back upon itself in the process.
With this aesthetic and ontological overview proposed, and all rookie horror movie viewing qualifications given, I will now proceed to a further discussion of these films and their ontologies of despair and loneliness.
* * *
Cure begins following a wandering man, Mamiya (Hagiwara Masato), a seeming amnesiac, who, as he interacts with people, has conversations that appear to quite spontaneously inspire the person to murder someone close to them—leaving, in the process, no memory of the deed, the amnesiac, or a rationale for the killing. He is pursued by a police officer, Takabe (Hashimoto Kōji), a man defined by his profession, who lives with the additional—and quite symbolic—stress of a wife suffering from dementia. The film, with these basic narrative characteristics in place, sets about testing and ultimately breaking the assurance implicit in the social function of a job such as Takabe’s. The police hold society together, yet Takabe finds himself chasing a physical instantiation of the very forces that tear it apart—and not simply an instantiation, but a being able to summon and unleash these forces.
Yet, what are these forces? Cure, perhaps to some viewers, and certainly to myself for a time, appears to gesture toward an external force that possesses and summons up the need in Mamiya’s conversation partners to kill. Is it a darkly mystical capacity seizing Mamiya? The feint may have been there. Yet, the revelation of the film is that the forces unleashed are entirely internal to all humans in contemporary society. People, the thesis might go, possess, deep inside of themselves, premeditated, on the most libidinal of levels, the desire to rip themselves or others from the relational and social bonds and contract society demands contemporary subjects submit themselves to. The means? Mesmerism and hypnotism.
The forces are entirely embedded in the world and the people that live on it. Nothing entirely external enters to manipulate the humans and their environment, the forces are but the expression of the deep internal antagonisms and resentments fostered by the social environments humanity has constructed for itself.
Indeed, it is here the film gains its legs as a theoretical piece, for it establishes in itself a dialectic between a number of positions and conceits. This dialectic operates between the poles of Confidence in Social Position + Clear Memory (abstract) / Lack Of or Anxiety Regarding Social Position + Amnesia (negative). Society is riven with contradictions, contradictions that instil ressentiment, and it is only a clarity of mind that represses this ressentiment that holds one’s chaos at bay. One’s confidence in one’s position and role is a perfect condition for this repression, it is indeed why Mamiya is unable to mesmerise Takabe—Takabe fully defines himself in terms of his role in society. Indeed, he lives every day with a person he resents for having no knowledge of a need for a role or function in society, his wife; and to compound matters he is required to chase a jester who exacerbates this very condition in society. He is at all times living with and mobilized against his negative, this is his abstract position.
The negative operates through amnesia and forgetfulness, with unconscious and repressed anxieties felt toward one’s assigned social position being let loose without the restriction of memory. It is this temporary suspension of repression and the role of forgetfulness in it that forms the very structure of the film’s murders (e.g. murdering a male colleague because of work place sexism, a co-worker for competitive reasons, a spouse for the unfreedom that comes with marriage etc.). The constraints of the abstract fall away and rage floods the social field, tearing and clawing it apart. None of this emerge above the material ground of our being in Cure, memory and forgetfulness, repression and release, each rises out of and returns to the social body; and all serve to define the third position of the dialectic that is composed as the concrete.
Takabe struggles the entire film against Mamiya’s capacities, against the forces of ressentiment that he unleashes. Yet, systemic problems have systemic solutions, one man cannot hold at bay society as a totality. What occurs over the course of the film is a fusing of Mamiya’s abilities with his own. Yet, this is not the traditional negation of the negation, in which the abstract is elevated in its movement toward a new concrete position, the negation cancelled out. The movement here is downward, to evoke a somewhat limp visual, underlining the negative. Takabe changes only himself, and he does so by eliminating the need for amnesia, real or feigned, that Mamiya exhibited. He takes on Mamiya’s role, but in a more singular form.
The film concludes with the vision of a harrowing subject, a figure resigned to the forces of ressentiment, who unleashes them, remembers, and does not blink. This horror stems entirely from its materialist ontology. Nothing escapes the human level, our contradictions are our own and we are not overtaking them. The film is defeated before our contemporary neoliberal socio-economic structure and posits a downward movement toward oblivion, in which those who, at one time, vowed to protect society take on positions of sheer indifference toward society and decide to more confidently initiate its collapse. The horror stems, ultimately, from the banality; the despair from its familiarity.
* * *
If Cure is Kurosawa’s materialist performance of social fracture and descent into monadised self-destruction, then Pulse is a similar concept played out with metaphysical sweep. The ontology of Cure assumes no outside to humanity and its economic and social organisation, the destruction is borne in this field and nowhere else. Pulse’s ontology descends into the very atomic and spiritual structure of reality’s fabric, into the overlap of the planes of life and death; where both exhibit agency—only one more than another.
The film spins around several symbols and objects of terror: rooms marked with only red tape on the doorframe, blackened marks on walls, and a strange computer- and internet-based programme. Each is at the certain of an ever-increasing epidemic of disappearances that the main characters Kudo (Aso Kumiko) and Ryosuke (Katô Haruhiko) are affected by and try to understand. Proceedings become more insidious and terrifying as our characters come to understand that the dimensions of life and death are merging and humanity is capitulating to death. Death’s mode of moving through and occupying space is realised, it transpires, by means of the internet. Its omnipresence bleeds the supernatural, material, and digital into an expanse that is all-pervasive and colonial in its perversity.
The threat, indeed, becomes redoubled because the internet’s subjects and users present themselves, per the film, as the most perfect and impressionable of victims: those disaffected and osteracised from society, those lonely and seeking connection. If it sounds like a social commentary, well, it probably is; but it is also more than that—Pulse’s interests are not limited, for it is working out an ontology after all. Intrinsic to this ontology is the character of humanity’s social being, as—yet again, per Cure, it is known in its being rife with alienating contradictions, contradictions that rip social life apart—people are driven from corporeal to digital connection, but this becomes little but a deepening of the fracture and monadisation we seek to counteract. Indeed, this is a material-digital monadisation, the metaphysics making the omnipresence a deterritorialised trans-pixelisation; where the mode of death’s movement, in its screens, reaches out and becomes matter and matter collapses as pixel-death—in this way, we see characters surrounded by screens, leaving from and going to, entering and never escaping, their beginning and end.
Humanity, in this way, tries to marshal itself in its being represented by a single character Ryosuke—a near Luddite in his technological incapacity—who comes face-to-face with an embodiment-as-agential-force of the emotional characteristics that comprise and define this humanity. What the meeting makes clear is that what society produces in itself extends all the way down, without escape, and unifies with and ultimately extends out from the abyss of things. Humanity is monadised, pixelated, and destroyed, not simply by society but by this malevolent force implicit in the structure of the universe itself. It is unilateral, it is coming, it folds all into itself, and despair and loneliness are its Real, its force, its modus operandi.
Pulse’s ontological ambitions are spelled out in a conversation over a computer simulation. The simulation tells of, but never confirms for a fact, a theory that imagines atoms that rarely touch, but when they do sees only one survive. Life versus death, and as life moves irrevocably toward death, the winner is clear. Indeed, following the expounding of this theory, the film moves into its immensely abstract third act, which presents the very fabric of reality coming apart as death accelerates itself—death-qua-digitality destroying matter corpora-digitally as and in digital image—as the remaining characters race through this apocalypse protesting an ontological order that is defined by and organised around the ever-expanding despair, loneliness, and death.
Ontology, understood as that which is the ground of being, discourses with determinate reality in Pulse and determinate reality loses. The movie presents an order fully and completely organised against both humanity and that which creates it. Nothing escapes, all extends from and returns to death, all is captured by it. Despair is the only universal emotional register, loneliness the sole viable mode of being; metaphysically death consumes, operating as a seething abyss determining and moving against the material realm without concern. Humanity loses, it vanishes before its own eyes, voluntarily riven from the inside out, as it capitulates to the ground on which it stands alone and hopeless.
* * *
I have been at pains to spell out the ontological ambitions of Kurosawa’s two masterpieces. Both operate on different realms, one material and one inter-dimensional and all-consuming; yet the effects of fragmentation and destruction are identical. The despair is diagnosed in just how unchanging and opposed to humanity’s life together the underlying structure of our existence is. In Cure the socio-economic alienations faced provide the context for our exploitation and capitulation into ressentiment fuelled modes of being; while in Pulse, death as the ground of things is a violent abyss that extends itself against all reality, indifferent and invasive, colonising every particle it may in its necro-digital extension.
To return to and conclude upon my simplistic binary, in Pulse and Cure we have films of the horrific. Each aims to rupture us and leave us aghast, aghast at the omnipresence(s) of a despair that saturates reality. Our fracture and loneliness is identifiable in its material form and cause in each, and the social/universal consequences are identical too—we fall apart and die in isolation—our impotence only redoubled and augmented. In banality and hyper-reality, we are broken and despairing, shattered, and sentenced to death. These are the ontologies of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure and Pulse.