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Tuesday, February 9, 2021

‘Kairo’ at 20: The Digital Horrors of Social Isolation Resonate Now More Than Ever

The dawn of the new millennium was rife with both anticipation and apprehension. For some, the internet was the Wild Wild West: a promised land of new ideas, globalization, and connectivity. For others, it was a haunted house, with untold terrors lurking beyond every virtual corner. Exacerbated by the new technologies infiltrating society, many viewed the digital as The Other—a frightening, perpetually unknown and omnipresent force of change in our lives. 

Suddenly, AIM chat rooms connected faceless strangers in intangible spaces, stoking parents’ fears that their children might be engaging with sexual predators or anonymous psychopaths hiding behind computer screens. Meanwhile, the Y2K bug, a much-dreaded computer programming flaw, brought to public consciousness the possibility of certain digital doom as the clock ticked closer to midnight on December 31, 1999. (A pervasive fear was that computer networks all over the world would abruptly crash, sending airplanes plummeting to the ground, among more nuclear horrors.) Even Furby, the holiday season must-have robotic toy of the late ‘90s, wasn’t immune to suspicion

Released in 2001, Japanese horror film Kairo captures the anxieties of the time with unnerving precision and slow-creeping dread. Set in an unusually desolate, overcast Tokyo, the Kiyoshi Kurosawa-directed film follows the converging stories of Michi and Ryosuke, two young adults, strangers to one another, whose friends and loved ones are slowly disappearing, seemingly off the face of the earth. As Michi and Ryosuke begin to unravel the mystery behind these disappearances, they discover that malevolent entities are using the internet as a portal to enter our world. 

All who encounter the unsettling cyber-spectres of Kairo (known as Pulse in English, though not to be confused with the 2006 Western remake of the same name) develop an inescapable feeling of existential despair. As each character in the film is exposed to the phantoms, they, too, eventually become ghosts of a sort, fading away until nothing is left but a black, mildewy stain where they last existed in the corporeal world. Some victims of this ghostly computer virus die via suicide, while others simply succumb, losing their will to live and vanishing from the physical plane altogether; unable to live with the deep, unavoidable loneliness they’ve been infected with. 

It’s a scary premise, outweighed only by the deep melancholy it inspires. Kurosawa’s bleak cyber-J-horror juxtaposes the spooky uncertainty surrounding the era’s burgeoning technologies with the sorrows of social withdrawal and emotional disconnect in the face of a paradoxically lonesome, hyperconnected world. And yet, the film’s thought-provoking allegories may be even more relevant to society now than they first were two decades ago. 

Kairo’s central themes — loneliness, social isolation, and interpersonal withdrawal online — parallel the state of the world and the internet today to eerie effect. We’re connected more than ever, much more than when Kairo was first released: on our touchscreen smartphones, our Twitter accounts, our Zoom video calls. Technology has made human interaction more instantaneous and convenient, bypassing the limitations of time and space. In others ways, it’s made communication more synthetic, even compulsory—something that has become more apparent in recent years.

Kairo is especially timely in the context of social distancing. While the coronavirus has kept many of us holed up in our homes for our safety and the safety of others, newer, more complex anxieties have emerged. For many, the lack of face-to-face interaction and social haptics amid stay-at-home orders feels dystopian and unnatural, while the mounting pressures to constantly interact, make ourselves available, and manage interpersonal relationships using tools like social media and video conferencing can be overwhelming. Our technological overdependence has become the abnormal new-normal, much like the tech-apocalypse that takes place in the film.

The toll of this predicament on mental health, a topic that looms over Kairo like the static whirring of a dial-up modem, has been monumental. Last year, the CDC reported that American adults were experiencing “considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19,” resulting in “increased substance use and elevated suicidal ideation.” According to the Washington Post, suicide rates have increased among certain groups over the course of the pandemic.

Suicide is a recurring element that intensifies the unrelenting gloom of Kairo. Within the first ten minutes of the film, Michi, concerned about Taguchi, a friend who has been missing for a week after promising to deliver a disk to her place of work, goes to the young man’s apartment, where she finds him in a despondent state following an encounter with a disturbing presence on his computer. While Michi is distracted, Taguchi casually grabs an ethernet cable and hangs himself, setting into motion the events of the film. Here, the gruesome tragedy of suicide represents the tangible impacts of social isolation’s effects on mental health, as well as serves as a metaphor for internet users’ withdrawal from society—a social death, if you will.

Simply existing in the digital sphere is fraught with its own unique cultural perils, not so unlike the lost souls Kairo presents. Our increased digital connection has made relationships more delicate and tense. Much like the spectral virus in Kairo, the social infection that is online harassment causes decay in digital communities. Misinformation spreads like virtual wildfire, making individuals on the web volatile, distrustful, and constantly on the defense. Others feel totally abandoned by society altogether, cast out or discarded via the trash chute of unforgiving cyber-social rejection. Young social media users and remote workers feel alienated the most, according to recent research studies and polls—ironic, considering the technologies meant to connect us may be pushing us further apart in the long run. 

The crushing weight of hopelessness in the face of perennial loneliness weighs heavily over Kairo’s near 2-hour runtime. In one of the film’s saddest scenes, Junko, a friend who has come into contact with a particularly horrifying ghost, somberly asks Michi if she’s “just going to die like this.” When Michi cheerily responds, “Of course not,” the answer is too unbearable for Junko. “That’s right then, I’ll just keep on living, all alone,” Junko quietly laments. She then silently walks off and, when Michi’s back is turned, fades away into nothingness against a wall in Michi’s apartment. 

An oppressive sense of unabating aloneness imbues Kairo with an air of unending woe—a feeling not all that different than what someone might experience after “doomscrolling” for hours on their phone late at night. In more than one scene, characters log onto a strange website that beckons, “Would you like to meet a ghost?,” where solitary, anonymous netizens linger on webcam, seemingly trapped in the dark prisons that are their own homes. It’s no surprise that everyone in Kairo lives alone, in their own isolated little apartments where even neighbors seem to have evaporated. 

“People don’t really connect, you know. We all live totally separately,” muses Harue, a computer science grad student and new friend of Ryosuke, not long before she too falls victim to her own angst. Indeed, our world is more crowded than ever, and so are our servers. Somehow, though, we feel so very alone

Twenty years later, Kairo remains one of the preeminent cyber age horror movies, having undoubtedly paved the way for films such as CAM, Unfriended, and Host. A profound digital ghost story about interpersonal connections, isolation, and social withdrawal in the 21st century, Kurosawa’s prescient film lingers long in the mind, haunting viewers much like the tragic spectres it conjures on screen. Viewed through the lens of our modern world and collective online experience, however, Kairo appears to reflect us back at ourselves—a lone, mirrored image suspended in the artificial glow of our screens, reminding us that we are the ghost in our own machine. 

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Hotline website or call 1-800-273-8255.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3651483/kairo-20-digital-horrors-social-isolation-resonate-now-ever/

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