Difference, Repetition, Disappearance, and Death: A Deleuzian Consideration of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo

Jeanne Marie Kusina


Gilles Deleuze begins the preface to his first volume on Cinema by asserting that: "This study is not a history of the cinema. It is a taxonomy, an attempt at the classification of images and signs. But this first volume has to content itself with determining the elements, and the elements of only one part of the classification" (Deleuze 1986 C1: xiv). Indeed, it is but a launching point, for what follows is Deleuze's tracing of a shift from the cinematic time of the movement-image to that of the time-image; and by the end of his second volume he has provided a completely new toolkit with which we might not simply approach cinema but also reconsider its generative possibilities for new configurations and visualizations. In many ways, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's film Kairo ("Pulse" or "The Circuit," 2001) appears to be a film which would be difficult to reduce to strictly categorical elements. Yet it is also similar to films which can ostensibly be placed within the horror genre and which are often met with just such a taxonomic approach to their interpretation. By exploring the film in this article, my aim is to consider what a Deleuzian approach to the film might look like as well as what it might potentially offer in terms of its ability to challenge its audience to rethink and go beyond the assumed boundaries of the everyday human condition. I argue that Kairo presents a singular opportunity in its own right to consider Deleuze's ongoing aspiration to rescue difference through a mode of repetition.

I. Do not enter the forbidden room: approaching horror in a Deleuzian light

[1] A principal aim of Gilles Deleuze's deeply Bergsonian, two volume project on cinema is to argue that, through film, subjectivity can be displaced from its privileged position as the locus through which one experiences an objective world. In Cinema I: The Movement-Image, Deleuze describes an early cinema in which films can be understood as being rooted in the spatialization of time as informed by movement. Particularly in Hollywood productions, these films put forth narratives which are driven according to the decisive actions of characters as well as their reactions to various events. [1] Yet through the use of montage and other editing techniques, it is also possible for the movement-image of the cinema to diverge from its more traditional narrative precedents and to take experimental risks. The film thus functions as a transformative fissure, an opening for the indirect experience of time as an impersonal duration. That is, time is not perceived solely according to the viewer's subjective experience of it. Rather, the cinema releases viewers from their reliance on a single, narrowly construed point of view by presenting a non-linear plurality that demonstrates a multiplicity of perspectives and rhythmic patterns that compose a temporal whole which can no longer be considered as always, already given.

[2] Moreover, as Deleuze contends and then develops further in Cinema II: The Time-Image, following the Second World War the relationship between time and movement in cinema continues to undergo an increasingly radical transformation that is seemingly reflective of post-war socioeconomic factors, not the least of which includes a pervasive sense of disillusionment and an incapacity to continue to view the world as an indissoluble unity. In the wake of what many perceived as the declining myths of modern life, filmmakers begin to take leave of the movement-image patterns by instead displaying a series of disinterested images with dramatically fractured narratives and passive and, at times, helplessly immobile characters. The new cinema breaks free from the cliché, or the partially glimpsed "sensory motor image of the thing," Deleuze asserts; and the movement-image gives way to that of the pure optical-sound image (Deleuze 1986 C2: 20). Crystalline as opposed to organic, this image stands as a self-referential testament to virtual potentialities, a "whole image without metaphor" that "brings out the thing in itself, literally, in its excess or horror or beauty" (1986 C2: 20).

[3] In the post-war transition from the movement-image to the time-image, time is no longer dependent upon movement and instead emerges as its own virtual reality as the past and present are interwoven with the possibility and fluidity of memory in dream states, déjà vu, and amnesia alongside anamnesis. In so doing, the traditional boundaries between subject and object become blurred, ostensibly collapsing the dichotomy of the observer and the observed. Freed from the constraints of metaphoric representation, every aspect of the film is simultaneously liberated and challenged.

[4] Hauntingly disturbing, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo provides a compelling gateway through which to explore Deleuzian cinematic theory. The film chiefly revolves around two protagonists whose storylines intertwine as they attempt to come to grips with a series of inexplicable suicides and ghostly encounters. The featured character Michi is introduced through her concerned but somewhat distant relationship with her co-workers, one of whom hangs himself at home while working on an office-related computer project. Although no direct explanation is provided, the disk he leaves behind displays a series of disconcerting images that appear to have recorded his lifeless face in the computer's monitor. As the film progresses, it is made evident that he is but one of a growing number individuals who print out a set of mysterious instructions for cordoning off a "forbidden room" with red tape that, once entered, appears to be a space of disappearance and deathly encounters.

[5] Ryosuke, the other primary character, is shown attempting to familiarize himself with the Internet when he inadvertently stumbles upon what looks to be a cyberspace portal in which sallow, ashen-faced figures give rise to a text message on his screen asking, "Do you want to meet a ghost?" Terrified, he hurriedly unplugs the machine. Later, he seeks advice about the strange experience at the university computer lab, but instead of answers he only uncovers more questions and he finds himself being pulled deeper into the ever more intense and increasingly frequent occurrences. At one point, speculation is made that the after-world has reached a critical mass and the dead have somehow begun to utilize the Internet as a passageway for solving their capacity problem, although their exact means and ends remain unclear. As the suicides become more prevalent and open, Michi and Ryosuke's paths eventually cross when they attempt to navigate through the formerly crowded city of Tokyo as it gradually grows more desolate and devoid of all signs of life.

[6] When considered as a genre, the horror film occupies a precarious place in film theory. Should Kairo's plot, for example, be deemed too ridiculous to be given serious critical consideration; or is there a way in which we might we approach such a film in terms of Deleuze's challenge to discover how cinema can tellingly reveal excess, horror, or beauty in a visionary way? Although I will present a case for the latter, I also acknowledge some of the difficulties that a film like Kairo might pose for the theorist.

[7] In many respects, Kairo echoes the format of the conventional Hollywood horror film. One way of considering films of this ilk is according to themes that commonly address the human by counterposing it with its alleged opposite, the inhuman. There is an implicit value judgment here, as it is the inhuman which threatens and evokes fear, and so is not simply non-human but perceived as an attack on humanity itself. In this regard, in order to evoke a response of revulsion in the face of such a threat, the inhumanity must be made monstrous as though potentially devastating to humanity in some respect. Confronted with sounds and images which are difficult to rationally conceive of or respond to, the audience is repulsed by the horrific. However, it is fair to say that the horror genre largely owes its much-maligned reputation to the fact that disgust is a cheap substitute for revulsion and all too often gore and gratuitous violence serve as low-budget stand-ins for truly horrific content. The irony of this is that the attempt at horror becomes ridiculous, at times to the point of comedy.

[8] Kurosawa, fortunately, avoids this mistake. To the contrary, he does not want the audience to look away but to remain transfixed by the images on the screen. Kurosawa employs very little gore and only brief glimpses of death. Alternatively, he obtains chilling effects through the use of shadowy outlines and splintered profiles. In addition, the film's most unsettling moments are accompanied by neither realistic noises nor mood-evoking music, and instead occur in eerie silence. By being unwilling or unable to turn away, it would seem, the audience is forced to continue to reflect upon the ways in which inhumanity can be made manifest.

[9] As such, Kairo distinguishes itself from the traditional Hollywood horror film by exhibiting specific characteristics of a sub-genre known as Japanese horror or "J-horror." Often, it is placed alongside films like Hideo Nakata's Ringu ("The Ring," 1998), Hideo Nakata's Honogurai Mizu No Soko Kara ("Dark Water," 2002) and Takashi Shimizu's Ju-On ("The Grudge," 2003) as exemplary of a filmmaking paradigm that employs certain elements of the horrific but perhaps more strongly resembles a psychological thriller which emphasizes suspense and psychic states over action and logical plot development.

[10] At the same time, despite the frequency of disjointed plots and the prominent placement of contemporary technology in a number of these films, the spectral world of J-horror is, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, often associated with the narratives of yurei, the centuries' old ghosts of Japanese folklore. Kairo is no exception; and the film's realistic yet disheveled and jarringly dark apparitions seem to bear the marks of the traditional yurei. [2] Possibly, then, there is another way to approach Kairo which will avoid the critical travails of its more traditional Hollywood counterparts. Yet it remains to be seen what a Deleuzian interpretation of the film might look like and what, if anything, might be gleaned from such a reading.

[11] In her book, Deleuze and Horror Film, Anna Powell argues that a Deleuzian approach to certain horror films can be beneficial to understanding the experience of the horror aesthetic as a distinct "embodied event" (2005: 110). [3] For Deleuze, she contends:

approaches film aesthetics as a special form of embodied thought particular to the movement-image. For the unified assemblage of film/viewer, thought is light, movement, sound, framing, and editing. (2005: 110)

Moreover, she asserts that the act of engaging in fantasy when one watches a horror film is an embodied event that can corporeally affect the viewer watching it (2005: 205). Indeed, even in all its absurd impossibility, Kairo has been touted for its ability to rouse sensations of spine-tingling suspense and the sweaty palms and rapid heartbeat of genuine fright in the audience members who view it. Exploring the dimensions of this affective power may be, according to Powell, a useful supplement to socio-cultural narrative or psychoanalytic approaches to horror films. [4] I agree that Powell's approach can be a unique way of attending to aesthetic factors which are often overlooked or summarily dismissed and believe that it can be a means to lending more legitimacy to horror films in general. However, I question the degree to which a film such as Kairo should be interpreted as either a genre film or a particular narrative form, each of which seems to run the risk of sacrificing its singularity to the process of categorization. Thus, while I will by no means be claiming to put forth one "true" reading of the film, I will nonetheless propose to step away from such approaches in order to focus more intensely on the possibility of viewing Kairo less according to what it might show us in the negative terms of the movement-image and instead move to consider the film for its positive possibilities as a time-image. In doing so, I will argue that there are characteristic features of the film which appear to be very much in alignment with Deleuze's aims in Cinema II as well as in connection to his earlier work, Difference and Repetition.

II. Would you like to meet a ghost?

[12] Although Michi and Ryosuke both solicit empathy, from what can be discerned of these characters there is little to establish either of them in the hallmark role of hero as defender-of-humanity. Furthermore, although the threat of annihilation is felt throughout, the film also lacks a clearly defined villain or identifiable enemy. Certainly the "ghosts" of the Internet are involved in what transpires, but how to interpret what exactly is happening is far from obvious and left open for further discussion.

[13] On a graduate student's computer-simulated model of the universe, phantom blips on a screen appear to slowly gravitate toward each other, only to repel just at the moment they come into close proximity to one another. The more time passes, the more frenetic the simulation becomes. Also, as the film continues, it seems as though it is becoming progressively more difficult to distinguish living characters from ghosts or the virtual from the actual. Is the eternal pouring into the present or pulling the present into an eternal future? Within one of the forbidden rooms a ghost cries out for help and declares that death is "eternal loneliness." In another scene, the character Harue voices her fear that the afterlife is no more than an infinitely extended present, "right now, forever." Might we hear traces of Nietzsche's demon whispering of the eternal return of the same?

[14] Deleuze contends that one of the markers of post-war cinema is the emergence of a crisis from a place of banality (Deleuze 1986 C2: 3). Here the emphasis is not on the extraordinary as that which interrupts the mundanity of everyday life so much as on the depersonalization that occurs as individuals fade into vague backgrounds which threaten to make life unbearable (1986 C2: 3). This is why, for Deleuze, the film must make the "necessary passage from the crisis of image-action to the pure optical-sound image" (1986 C2: 3). It must continue to extend beyond its function as a description of events or reality and become referential only to itself, for herein lies its transformative power to not only enable us to think differently but also to rethink difference.

[15] Deleuzian notions notwithstanding, it may be objected that there is a quite literal and obvious interpretation of Kairo available: namely that it can be viewed as neither more nor less than an allegory on the ills of technology. Kurosawa makes no secret of this theme, and he regularly suggests the failures of communicative technologies to halt an escalating trend toward loneliness and isolation. From the news being shown on television, the audience is informed of a message in a bottle which, having taken ten years to travel four-thousand miles, was finally found and hence communicated to another human being. This can be contrasted with numerous instances in the film which demonstrate the inadequacy of infinitely faster and more readily accessible communication technologies to connect humans with one another in any meaningful sense. When Ryosuke makes his rather half-hearted and ill-fated attempt to connect to the Internet, for example, it subtly hints that the Internet is only a pseudo-social network that cannot come close to living up to its promise. In many respects Tokyo, as well as the world at large, appears to be getting smaller and more densely populated; and yet, human relations seem to be moving farther apart as individuals recede further into obscurity and personal oblivion. Yet while it would certainly not be out of line to interpret Kairo as Kurosawa's attempted denial of technology, roughly analogous to Ryosuke's attempted denial of death in the form of ghosts, it does not seem necessary to set a limit at such a metaphoric reading. Rather, there do seem to be ways in which the film can be viewed as extending beyond mere representation.

[16] Undoubtedly, it seems as though many of the characters do indeed disappear and are already ghosts in a social sense long before they commit suicide. It is worth noting that, all technology aside, even when the characters are presented with opportunities for genuine interpersonal connections, they seem inert and incapable of acting on them. While the initial impulse might be toward some sort of restoration, Deleuze points toward another possibility in cinema which is tangentially different. That is, he asserts that:

Sometimes it is necessary to restore the lost parts, to rediscover everything that cannot be seen in the image, everything that has been removed to make it 'interesting.' But sometimes, on the contrary, it is necessary to make holes, to introduce voids and white spaces, to rarify the image, by suppressing many things that have been added to make us believe that we are seeing everything. (1986 C2: 21)

According to Deleuze, there are times in which the only means to rediscovering the whole is to first make it vanish or disappear. Deleuze's curious juxtaposition appears to hearken back to Difference and Repetition, a text which is largely informed and structured by the competing demands of completeness and forgetting. In this work, he contends that completeness is the dream of philosophy, and so philosophy clings to the notion of identity as that which makes it whole. For Descartes, a malleable piece of wax disturbs him to no end for he seeks a clear presence of mind that is troubled by the seeming non-identity of a candle and its shrinking, melted incarnation (Deleuze 1994: 133). Deleuze, however, neither seeks to ground a foundational knowledge nor attempts to lay bare a continual unmasking of identity that brings us closer to the truth. Rather, he warns that all such efforts lead merely to generalization and substitution. For as soon as we recognize something in its generality, such as a candle or a cup on a table, it is immediately subsumed by the concept and becomes substitutable, as one cup or candle is readily exchangeable for another.

[17] Similarly, the appearance and representation that Plato rails against in the Republic as a false path to a true reality is biased, Deleuze contends, in its privileging of a certain way of representing or getting closer to a perceived actuality (1994: 59-63). Yet why should the idea of reality be opposed to representation, illusion, or images? Do they not all, in some sense, comprise our knowledge and common understanding of reality? Forgetting inhabits and animates representation; it is no less significant than affirmation or recognition. For Deleuze, the real becomes artistic, constituted in and by simulacra which no longer presuppose a separate reality that is somehow "more real" or self-identical with an absolute truth. What Deleuze begins to construct in Difference and Repetition and which appears to continue as a thread throughout his cinematic theory is a discourse through which one can affect representation but only through the powers and forces of work and not as a mystical transcendence. In the case of the cinema, there is no absolute horror or beauty to be achieved or unmasked. The crystallized time-image in which the virtual is indiscernible from the actual, thus giving rise to a singularity that is not tethered to the limits of the subject-object distinction, discloses that human subjectivity is itself a manifestation of representation (1986 C2: 277).

[18] Moreover, Deleuze is not attempting to recodify or reestablish some form of representational reality. He instead poses a way of thinking that he describes as dynamic as opposed to static by which he means to refer to a general sense of knowledge construed as though it had the stasis of an object that one could somehow possess. Instead, we might think of the eternal return of the same posited by Nietzsche. The eternal return, Deleuze maintains, is the dice throw that is utterly different every time one plays the game (1994: 6). Even if the same dice are thrown exactly the same way each time, yielding exactly the same numbers, it is nonetheless a different roll over and over again each time that they are gathered and re-thrown. Hence, repetition is not generality but its opposite, and it is repetition which becomes the key to a mode of recognition that dispenses, not with all common sense, but with the old assumptions we once too readily conferred upon the notion of identity. Ultimately, Deleuze's goal is to rescue difference through repetition, and he will return to this basic notion time and time again.

III. "Am I just going to die like this?"

[19] On one hand, Kurosawa's Kairo is a work of vanishing and disappearance. Each individual life is not shown to be especially distinct, and so the subsequent deaths are not especially distinct either. A few are slightly more memorable than others: the first, the tallest leap, or a somewhat perplexing choice of weapon or timing, perhaps. Yet for the most part we know little of the characters that we come to watch printing out instructions, rolling out the red tape, and vanishing forever into the forbidden rooms they have erected. Eventually, there is no one left in all of Tokyo and as the film revisits a sailing ship that was introduced in the first scenes of the film, it becomes apparent that there are only weak and distant signals indicating a slim possibility of life anywhere else on earth. There is no singular interpretation on which to hang one's hat and attempting to ground one commits the same error as a false reliance on the concept of identity. For, as Temenga Trifonova succinctly encapsulates, "[r]eplacing a thing with its description does not constitute the triumph of the subject, but its disappearance" (2004: 145). Regardless of our efforts to interpret the film, we cannot adequately explain the intentions of the characters by enforcing our own subjective conceptions of rational agency upon them.

[20] Moreover, it raises the question as to whether or not by "becoming ghosts" the characters truly vanish entirely. What happens in Kairo does not seem to follow the narrative of the traditional Japanese yurei ghosts that return to the world in order to seek revenge upon the living. It also does not seem to fit the model of the more action-oriented Hollywood horror film, which often not only assumes that the ghosts threaten the future of the world and humanity itself but that the other-worldly spectres can somehow be fought off and eventually conquered by human methods of retaliation. Aside from a number of outrageous images and other assorted tropes, it seems that the true horror in Kairo lies not in what the ghosts do, for in fact they are shown doing very little, but rather in what the living become and the simple fact that they will never change or for that matter, ever completely cease to exist.

[21] Nonetheless, the disappearances within the film do not inevitably lead to the position of irreversible pessimism, resigned technological alienation, or a state of existential anguish. On a Deleuzian reading, Kairo also poses the possibility of envisioning how the inhuman need no longer be viewed as necessarily monstrous or anti-human but can instead suggest a different potentiality altogether. Similarly, and in a more ethical vein, our preconceived assumptions may be erased; and hence, the inhuman as the abnormal need not be weighted down with value judgments that assume what we encounter as abnormal must evoke repulsion. For on the other hand, Kairo is also a work of repetition. The repetition of death, the shifting shadows cast against the walls, and even the phantoms' repetitive cries of "Help me! Help me!" that make their way through telephone wires and computer portals, all give rise to a new singularity which, somewhat paradoxically, ultimately seems to call to mind the uniqueness of life even if this is initially made evident in the negative of life-lost.

[22] In the end, we are left with a vision of our two protagonists, both of whom have appeared to reach the proverbial "end of the line" at various points in the film yet nonetheless continue to exceed these perceived limits. Ryosuke, who had attempted to avoid death by refusing to believe in it yet was touched by a ghost all the same, is shown flickering in and out on the screen in what appears to be a subdued and unresponsive, semi-ethereal existence. Whereas Michi, who perhaps is the only character in the film to ever take a genuine interest in the welfare of others, seems to be the only person to have escaped a visit to a forbidden room unscathed. "Now, alone with my last friend in the world," her voice is heard to say in the final sequences of the film, "I have found happiness." One ghostly and one human, one who is compelled to move closer and the other equally compelled to pull back, they appear as a pair whose fates are uniquely intertwined within a perpetual throwing and gathering of the never-ending dice-roll.


[1] I acknowledge that my use of term "Hollywood" here and throughout this article is a generalized shorthand for a rather stereotypical notion of the Westernized commercial film venture intended for wide release. It is not meant to be thoroughly inclusive or precise in definition.

[2] My description of the yurei is informed by Laurence C. Bush, Asian Horror Encyclopedia: Asian Horror Culture in Literature, Manga, and Folklore (San Jose, New York, Lincoln, and Shanghai: Writers Club Press, 2001): 208.

[3] For an informative review essay on the strengths and weaknesses of this work, including insightful comments on the role of representation in relation to affect, see Don Anderson, Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge, 11/12, Fall 2005/Spring 2006, «http://www.rhizomes.net/issue11/anderson/review.html».

[4] Powell clearly states that she is not intending to propose that her model should become be the sole approach to horror.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles. (1986). Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, Trans.) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. (1986). Cinema II: The Time-Image. (Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, Trans.) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. (1994). Difference and Repetition (Paul Patton, Trans.) New York: Columbia University Press.

Kairo. (2001). Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Writer and Director. Magnolia Pictures. In addition to textual references, all images are from Kairo and remain the property of Magnolia Pictures.

Powell, Anna. (2005). Deleuze and Horror Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Trifonova, Temenga. (2004). "A Nonhuman Eye: Deleuze Cinema." Substance 33(2).