As Carl Gustav Horn has pointed out, in sharp contrast to The Matrix, which offers the “Gnostic revelation of a life revealed to be a dream, to be escaped into reality,” for Oshii “there is no difference between dreams and reality, and escape is a concept without referent; a wish that is a waste of time, for… there is no outside.” Indeed, Oshii has gone out of his way to distinguish Avalon from Hollywood films about virtual reality, such as The Matrix, which always reinstate the metaphysics of reality in the end: “Hollywood films about reality always end with a return to the real world. However, because those real worlds exist inside film, they themselves are lies. Reality is a questionable thing. I didn’t want to do a movie where the characters returned to reality. The reality we experience is an illusion inside the heart of each individual…. For me personally, Ash’s imaginary world is not really any different from what i conceive as my real world. I don’t make any clear distinction.“
— Tokyo Cyberpunk, Consensual hallucinations and the phantoms of electronic presence, “Welcome to Class Real”
When Kawashima returns to the computer lab to consult Harue further, she shows him a computer-generated model of social interaction. Harue advices Kawashima not to stare it too long, explaining that if two dots get too close to one another, they die, but if they get too far apart, they are drawn closer. Back at Kawashima’s apartment, Harue sugests that, like the computer simulation, humans may try to connect, but they do not really connect, living separately: “Each of us is living in a disconnected manner [Hitori hitori barabara ni ikiteiru].”
Later, in her apartement, Harue continues this line of conversation, offering strong social commentary on the disintegration of the Japanese familly structure, by telling Kawashima that she feels “no connection [kankei nai]” since she is always alone. The fact that we barely see any traces of familly in the entire film (the only exception being a brief scene involving Michi’s mother who scolds her for making no attempt to contact her father, despite living in the same city) underscores the lack of connection felt by the characters. In this scene, framing and composition are used to good effect to underscore the gulf that seperates Harue from Kawashima. As is the case in many of his films, Kurosawa uses doorframes and window frames to differentiate the spaces inhabited by his characters and to emphasize “the isolation of his characters, their distance from one another.” Harue continues her reflections on the death of the social by telling Kawashima that she fears one might be all alone in death, just as one is essentially alone in life. The possibility that nothing changes in death, that one is always alone, wether in life or death, Harue finds the most terrifying ideal of all. Harue Wonders if the eternal now of loneliness—this incessant isolation and sollipsism in life and death—is what it means to be a ghost. […] Harue points to all the solitary Internet users appearing like digital monads via Webcam on the array of computers monitors situated around her apartement and asks how they are different from ghosts: “Are they really alive?” she asks. She concludes that people and ghosts are the same, whether dead or alive. In her view, the plethora of aimless, isolated Internet users demonstrates that ghosts are not just a metaphor for the dead, they are also a metaphor for the loss of human connection, for the desperate attempt to make contact but the eternal impossibility of fully doing so. When Harue looks at the ghostlike, solitary individuals who appear like empty shells via Webcam on the “Would you like to see meet a ghost?“ Web site, it is clear that she also sees herself reflected on the screen.
In interviews, the director has suggested that, in addition to their lack of connection, ghosts are also distinguished by their lack of emotion: “i’ve never seen a ghost [yurei] first-hand, but i don’t believe that ghosts are full of hatred or resentement or anger. They’re commonly portrayed to be filled with emotion, but i think that ghosts are beings that lack human emotion and personality. They’re human-like, but all the emotional elements of a normal person are missing. They’re empty shells. That’s what scares me when it comes to ghosts.” In this way, Kurosawa offers of conception of “yurei” (ghosts, specters, apparitions, or phantoms) that is worlds away from the representation of ghosts as “evil spirits” purveyed in Hollywood.
Harue does not believe that ghosts are setting out to kill people because they would simply create more ghosts. Instead she suggests that ghosts may be trying to make peple immortal “by quietly trapping them in their own loneliness.” The fact that Harue later commits suicide in the film right before Kawashima’s eyes underscores the nihilistic feelings of isolation and lack of connectin that she expresses in this scene.
The electronic circuit (kairo) is not only a metaphor in the film for the technological means by which ghosts pass into the world of the living but also an allegory for our loss of connection with one another in an increasingly technological world. However, rather than simply offering a retread of Nakata Hideo’s Ringu (1998), Kurosawa raises techno-horror to another level by underscoring its sociological subtexts, situating the narrative of Kairo in terms of a social disorder known as hikikomori (literally, a combination of “pull away” and “seclude onself”) that is plaguing contemporary Japanese society.
Those affecter by the disorder often cut off communication not only with the outside world but also with familly members, even going so far as to eat meals alone in their darkened rooms. When Harue tells Kawashima that she feels no connection to her familly and that she is “living in a disconnected manner [barabara ni iketeiru],” broken apart from others, she uses the language and expressions of a hikikomori.
And Japanese novelist Murakami Ryu, who has written a novel and numerous essays about the problem of hikikomori, agrees:
So maybe Japan’s socially withdrawn kids are a harbinger of a new way of life, one forged by the vast changes in the country has undergone in recent years. Japanese society is caught in a paradox: it is concerned with the increase of socially withdrawn kids, while at thte same time it applauds the gizmos like the new Sony PlayStation, which comes equipped with an internet terminal and a DVD player. Technology like that has made it possible to produce animated movies and graphics, as well as conduct commercial transactions, without ever stepping outside the house. It inevitably fixes people in their individual space. In this information society, none of us can be free from being somewhat socially withdrawn…. “Socially withdrawn” people find it extremely painful to communicate with the outside world, and thus they turn to the tools that bring virtual reality in their closed rooms.
Although it is too simplistic to suggest that technology alone is to blame for the current plight of the hikikomori, there is no question that the “the TV’s and computers and videogames that hikimori rely on to fill out the tedious hours” are serious enablers of their self-imposed seclusion.
Hikikomori experts have speculated that modern Japanese society has sown the seeds of its own social disorders in many ways, due to a compounding of multiple factors. First, Japanese working conditions have effectively cut off a father from inteacting with his child, thereby creating the conditions for codependency with the mother (know as amae). Second, Japanese society puts extreme pressure on young people to succeed academically and perpetuate the status quoi. Third, the recession that has plagued the Japanese economy since the 1990s has undercut the expectations of lifetime employment most commonly associated with postindustrial ideals of Japan’s status quoi. Whatever its causes, the silent epidemic of social withdrawal is wreaking havoc on the social fabric of Japanese society and creating a “lost generation” of shut-ins that will place enormous stress on Japan’s health and welfare systems in the years ahead.
— Tokyo Cyberpunk, Consensual Hallucinations and the Phantoms of Electronic Presence in Kairo and Avalon, Letting In Ghosts, Shutting Out The Sun