Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 April 2005
Source Universe Laser and Video DVD
Hikikomori is a Japanese term meaning “social withdrawal.” A number of years ago, toward the turn of the millennium, it began to stand for a phenomenon that caused great concern among Japanese families. Their adolescent children, mostly boys but sometimes girls, were locking themselves in their rooms for weeks, months, or even years and refusing to leave, losing themselves in television, manga, and the internet. One boy locked himself in the family’s kitchen, forcing them to build another one. As close-knit family life is central to Japanese culture, this sudden withdrawal from society and from the family was as shocking as it was unexplainable. Some blamed the high pressure to succeed in both school and work; others blamed social awkwardness made worse through bullying. Whatever its causes, hikikomori claimed and continues to claim an average of 1 million victims in their late teens and early 20s.
Many sufferers come out of their isolation, unable to explain their withdrawal, and gradually rejoin society. A few, unfortunately, turn violent, emerging from their rooms only to attack their own families or to explode with violence among strangers. As much as continued school shootings in the United States, the causes of hikikomori remain mysterious as doctors, psychologists, and sociologists struggle to find answers and approaches to treatment.
Equally troubling yet perhaps unrelated is the extraordinarily high and still growing suicide rate in Japan. In 2003, a record 34, 427 people took their lives. This rate equals about 100 people each day (in a country of 128 million) and is about twice the per-capita rate of the United States and most of the countries in the European Union. Another disquieting recent development is the “suicide club”—groups of people, often teens, who meet via the internet and gather to take their own lives en masse.
If depression and isolation are epidemic in Japan, one cannot help but think of ways in which technology, often thought to facilitate communication, has had the opposite effect and has possibly contributed to the problem. Personal stereos, cell phones, internet use, video games, television, video and DVD players—all work to splinter and fragment the traditionally close relationships between family members and to drive the user further away from basic, face-to-face human communication.
All of these social problems are addressed in Kurosawa’s film (in his own inimitably abstruse fashion), but it is not in the scope of his project to preach or even to offer solutions. In fact, the film is successful as a horror film even when the social considerations that inform it are unknown. Despite its generic conventions, Pulse may be just as effective an exploration of the nature of loneliness and isolation in contemporary Japanese society as any number of well-informed documentaries on the subject.