Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Stars: Kôji Yakusho, Masato Hagiwara, Tsuyoshi Ujiki
Few films of late have gotten under my skin like Cure. I watched it thanks to the recent Eureka! edition released here in the UK under their Masters of Cinema imprint. Bought-to-see. And it hung around me for the longest time, playing on my mind, drawing me in addictive circles. Rare are films that manage to not only sustain dread but project it into our everyday lives. We’re used to Japanese horror films drawing much of their power from nuanced atmosphere and the calculated dolling of information. Cure terraforms otherwise uncontaminated climates, making them toxic. Ironically, it is its own virus. It infects.
Made in the tense and paranoiac run-up to Y2K (remember the millennium bug? Kurosawa sure did for his subsequent Pulse), Cure is a film steeped in unspoken apprehension. Opening like a Se7en inspired crime thriller, but evolving into something far slipperier, Kôji Yakusho stars as Detective Takabe, already investigating a spate of seemingly unconnected murders. In each case the perpetrator slashed an ‘X’ into the throat of someone close to them – a partner or a loved one – without motive or particular memory of the event. All have been easily apprehended though unable to explain their actions, and still the incidents persist. An incoherent societal disorder.
It transpires that they all came into contact with the same wandering amnesiac named Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara). Young, cardigan wearing, slow-moving and aloof, Hagiwara’s Mamiya abuts standard expectations of a scary movie antagonist. Yet, he is as chilling as any. Mamiya seems unable to maintain a conventional conversation, losing the thread of his surroundings, driving lines of questioning in loops. He describes himself as ’empty’ and frequently asks others to tell their stories, despite his inability to follow a narrative. Hagiwara’s woozy performance is phenomenal, never over-playing the strangeness, just allowing it to emanate from him.
It seems as though Mamiya can influence the people he talks to via an acute hypnotic suggestibility. With the aid of either fire or water he mesmerises those he comes into contact with, setting them up like dominoes ready to fall, continuing the murders. In doing so he spreads the horrific dispersal of self. Cure panics with its unnerving suggestion that who you are can come apart and disappear, that identity isn’t set and can be manipulated and even destroyed.
The eerie idea of degraded personality is asserted early. In a sequence that feels at odds with the tone of the remainder of the film, we witness an example of an abrupt, brutal domestic murder set to an inexplicably jaunty soundtrack (a jarring choice never again repeated). A man kills a woman with a piece of pipe he found on the way home from work. Afterwards he takes a shower, but Kurosawa presents him as nothing more than a dark smudge against the shower curtain; now just a spectre of a person; a ghoul.
Our own first encounter with Mamiya starkly inverts horror expectations. Cure introduces him wandering on a beach where a schoolteacher, Mr Hanaoka (Masahiro Toda), gets drawn into his circular line of questioning; his fate set. Kurosawa allows his characters space. They are small and centre frame. The world is large and empty around them, creating a subtle agoraphobic discomfort. Horror often presses on claustrophobia, but in keeping with its theme of dispersion, Cure often employs portentous distance. His characters inhabit spaces, but often feel disconnected from them, as though they might become transparent or float away. A later shot of Takabe viewed as though spying through a fire escape is repeated, giving the vague suggestion of sleepwalking. Perception remains a recurring question.
This especially preoccupies in the second half, once Takabe has interrogated Mamiya (who allows himself to be caught). Viewing the film, we recognise the danger for Takabe in even talking to Mamiya, giving one of the cop movie’s most tired scenes a whole new and terrifying spin. Cure has already set up that Takabe’s wife Fumie (Anna Nakagawa) is vulnerable; sick and struggling with her own degrading personality. Once Takabe has interacted with Mamiya we share in his paranoia. In one of the film’s most shocking scenes, he comes home to find her hanged in the kitchen, only to snap out of what transpires to be a delusion (or fantasy?). Reality has become malleable; the grip loosened.
Hypnosis is a beguiling phenomena in its own right, and Cure picks up on and plays with the power of words. Takabe’s obsession with the case springs from his own need to define it. All he wants is to “find words that will explain these crimes”, acknowledging their power to box-up and resolve uncertainties. But it is Mamiya’s soft-spoken words that have the opposite effect on people, untethering them from self-applied definitions. He is unmaking the world.
The genius of Cure is how it manipulates around the edges. In an early and seemingly throwaway scene, Takabe visits a dry cleaner. In the scene with him is another man who talks to himself. It’s inexplicable and by turns unsettling. And while incidental, it further seeds the idea that others are potentially dangerous or untrustworthy. Mamiya’s effect on the people of Japan breeds alienation; another subject which recurs in Kurosawa’s movies.
This less-is-more approach is best evidenced in the film’s stunning final shot, which made me love this movie and which I want to talk about (so spoilers ahead).
In keeping with the traditions of cop vs criminal movies throughout cinema history, Cure investigates the notion of both being different sides of the same person. Mamiya is just as fascinated with Takabe, telling him that they are kindred. “There is no real you,” Mamiya tells him during the mid-film interrogation, drawing these parallels. He tells Takabe that he isn’t himself at work or at home; they are both empty vessels. Their similarity is given visual baring soon after when Takabe presents Mamiya to a room of his peers. The two sit together, side-by-side, contrasted against the room of onlookers. The blocking infers that they have become two halves of the same person. That there is only one subject.
At the dramatically muted climax – having felt his life disperse – Takabe shoots and kills Mamiya in a derelict factory. After this he goes to visit his preferred cafe; the last scene of the film. The mood is subdued and unremarkable. Takabe talks to his waitress and stares off into the middle distance in front of him. The camera leaves Takabe in his emptiness and observes the restaurant, where the waitress – again, a small figure dwarfed by her environment – talks to a colleague and then fetches a very large knife. Kurosawa plants the realisation that Mamiya has created a successor in Takabe and immediately cuts away to the end credits of the film. We’re left chilled, uneasy, anything but sated.
Can we ever reconcile motiveless murder? What is the definition that Takabe sought for so much of the film? Kurosawa leaves us free to wander and wonder on these questions. Cure is purposefully ambiguous and this ambiguity is precisely why it works so well as a horror film. We question it right down to the title. What is the cure? Is there one? Can we truly settle on the safety of our sense of self? Are we ever complete?
Cure feeds, not just on insecurities but on what if insecurities are limitless? What if we allow ourselves to just… disappear…?
As psychological horror shows go, this is one of the very best bad times you can give yourself.