The late 1990s and the early 2000s were a seminal time for Japanese cinema, specifically in the horror genre. Some of the most influential works of Japanese horror (or J-horror) were released in the matter of a few years including, but not limited to, Ringu (1998), Audition (1999) and Ju-On (2002). These films would reach far beyond the borders of Japan either in their original form or as remakes, which was the case for The Ring (Ringu) and The Grudge (Ju-On). Often the remakes would get the iconography right but would be divorced from the original Japanese culture from which they arose in almost every other respect.
Often mentioned in context of this movement, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure is not nearly as flashy as these other films and perhaps not that scary. In fact, Cure’s plot is basically a police procedural, similar to The Silence of the Lambs or Seven, which Kurosawa has admitted was a major influence on his own film. Takabe (Koji Yakusho) is a detective who is investigating a string of murders, all done by different people who have been caught red-handed. However, every perpetrator has no memory of the event and all the victims had an ‘X’ slashed across their throats. Soon, Takabe manages to capture Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), a college dropout who claims that he has mastered the art of mesmerism, or hypnosis. Yet proving that Mamiya is guilty of murders that others committed is a slippery, Sisyphean task that no one, least of all Takabe, is equipped to handle.
When I suggested this movie to some friends, their main reaction is that they didn’t know what to expect. Their uncertainty was due largely to having little exposure to non-American horror or thriller films. Indeed, Kurosawa, despite copping to his Western and Japanese influences, directed a picture that is unusual even compared to other Japanese genre films. Kurosawa favors medium and long shots and only very occasionally goes in for close-ups. He also doesn’t necessarily signal to his audience how to feel, neither through music nor point of view. In fact, the very first murder we see, a man yanks a piece of pipe off a wall and then later beats his wife with it while upbeat piano music is playing.
Some critics have pointed out that while this scene and this unexpected juxtaposition is common in the works of someone like Michael Haneke, for instance, it actually doesn’t gibe with the rest of the film. Yet I think that this technique is actually quite in line with what Kurosawa wants to convey. The main horror of Cure is the classic debate between fate and free will. With just the slightest contact with Mamiya or others who are gifted in hypnosis like he is, a victim can act against their very nature and hurt people that they love or at least do not want to harm.
When we see these victims, the distance we are apart from them is not meant to be alienating or cold. For example, the young man who killed his wife, who was his high school sweetheart and had a happy relationship, has an outburst of grief in a large, dim room. We see him suffer, but it is a long shot, yet we are still fully aware of his pain. But even if we want to empathize more with a merciful close-up, the camera puts us at this deliberate distance to reflect how the young man feels. That he can never make anyone truly understand his pain and remorse is the real tragedy of him and every other victim’s plight. Circling back to the first, seemingly out-of-place, scene, the music and presentation signal that this will not be a typical thriller or horror picture, because it fully understands the plight of its victims and how thoroughly their world has been turned upside down.
While Kurosawa chooses to only sketch out the details for most of the victims, we get to see Takabe’s struggle in excruciating detail. Koji Yakusho is an actor who can embody angst and grief by merely being on screen. He is contrasted by Hagiwara who plays his Mamiya as a scruffy, shiftless punk with an irritating unflappability. If he had been played by an American actor like Edward Norton, he would have chewed the scenery beyond recognition. Hagiwara’s seeming lack of commitment is just right for a character who thrives on inspiring paranoia.
The very nature of Takabe’s reality is flipped since the scenes in daylight are a little too brightly lit and most of the film’s fantasy sequences take place during the days. He even imagines that his wife has killed herself in a very vivid hallucination, even though she is standing right in front of him. The darkness that characterizes this film literally and figuratively is a much more accurate reflection of Takabe’s mental state. Most of his confrontations with Mamiya take place in dim rooms, and they play like Pinter plays – claustrophobic and loaded with emotional venom.
Kurosawa also sprinkles in hints of his theme of hypnosis and lack of self-control – the dripping of water, the blinking of light – to signal the insidiousness of Mamiya’s hypnotism and how it can easily permeate his victim’s consciousness. Though Takabe seems to resist Mamiya’s influence ultimately, an ambiguous last scene (again shot in long shot and without a clear indication of what we are supposed to be looking for) sparks a whole new series of questions. Kurosawa managed to make Cure far more than a straightforward thriller or horror picture. Instead, he made a film about doubt and uncertainty that is not frustratingly nebulous but rather challenging and evocative, and it will prove far more haunting than most horror movies.