Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a filmmaker with a profoundly idiosyncratic streak that belies his reputation in certain quarters as a “mere” horror director. Consequently, most of his work, outside of 2001’s tech-horror Pulse, hasn’t connected with Western horror audiences the same way J-horror staples like Ringu or Ju-On: The Grudge have. Even some of the country’s more extreme films, like Takashi Miike’s vicious shocker Audition, found their niche amongst gorehounds looking for sadistic thrills and cinephiles hip to the artistic and thematic possibilities of the genre. Kurosawa’s concerns, however, were always more intangible and esoteric. Aside from the fact that a large chunk of his filmography doesn’t deal in horror at all, it’s obvious that even his most clearly identifiable horror work doesn’t fit neatly into the genre’s confines. Recognizing subtext in genre fare is nothing new, and the Y2K-era J-horror canon has been interpreted and pulled apart for more than two decades at this point. Yet, none of its curses, ghosts, or beautiful psychopaths compare to the yawning nothingness at the heart of Kurosawa’s Cure.
In the film, Tokyo is beset by a string of grisly murders, only connected by the large “X” that is carved into the victims’ necks and the fact that the confused perpetrators are all found close to the crime scene, readily confessing to the killings but struggling to come up with their motives for committing them. While investigating the crimes, troubled police detective Kenichi Takabe (Koji Yakusho) and psychologist Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) eventually discover another commonality: all of the murderers came into contact with a mysterious drifter named Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), who seems to suffer from a severe case of short-term memory loss, constantly asking the people he meets for the date, unsure of where he is and unable to recall his own name. When brought in for questioning, he is evasive, responding to Takabe’s questions with questions of his own, strangely curious about the detective’s private life. Takabe grows increasingly impatient with the young man’s refusal to cooperate and explodes into outbursts that grow more violent with each interaction. Upon further investigation, Takabe learns that Mamiya was a student of psychology, with an interest in hypnosis, using the skills he acquired to compel others to commit the ritualistic killings. But as the detective’s obsession with the case grows, his grasp on reality begins to slip, and he falls further down a dark rabbit hole, unearthing his own ugly desires in the process.
If Pulse interrogated the sickness of digital isolation in the early 21st century, Cure cuts to the very core of the malaise of modernity. The film’s horror is nigh-imperceptible, its evil not tethered to technology, the influence of popular media, or, as is so popular these days, trauma. “No one understands what motivates a criminal,” Sakuma says to Takabe. “Sometimes not even the criminal.” While Takabe looks to films, novels, or traumatic childhood episodes for possible explanations, answers largely elude him as the inexplicable violence spreads further and further, seemingly unstoppable. Although it would take until 2001 to see a theatrical release in the U.S. (a release prompted by a renewed interest in Japanese horror), the film originally came out just two years after the 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway, committed by members of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo. The attack left 14 dead and seriously injured dozens more. Partly inspired by that act of senseless violence, Kurosawa throws himself into the abyss and finds only more questions, an even darker void. As Takabe spirals deeper into the case, the barren rooms the story unfolds itself in grow more and more desolate — clinical, cold, harsh, industrial, unpleasant, and, eventually, decayed and uninhabitable. It’s a gloomy descent that escalates into an apocalyptic nightmare, the evil threatening to swallow the world whole.
On the surface, Cure might barely qualify as a horror movie, especially when contrasted with its more famous J-horror contemporaries. Aside from a few brief instances of gore, the film, for the most part, plays more like a psychological crime thriller — another genre that was popular at the time — and even its supposedly supernatural touches aren’t necessarily supernatural at all. However, at a certain point, Kurosawa’s bleak vision becomes so disorienting and hallucinatory as to be fantastical, surreal. The line between the real and the imagined blurs continuously as the editing grows increasingly spastic and bizarre, frames sometimes blinking in and out of existence in a matter of seconds. Like with Ringu and Ju-On, there is very much a curse at work here as well, and as the narrative slowly dissolves, becoming almost hypnotic, that curse begins to rear its ugly head. But Cure‘s curse is different. It isn’t borne of past misdeeds, it doesn’t manifest as ghosts or haunted videotapes, and it isn’t bound to a specific location. Instead, it permeates the world as something that’s not so much seen but felt, an eerie presence hidden in every square inch of the film’s dreary monochrome. It’s the ugliness that dwells inside every human being, erupting suddenly in a society rife with repressed rage, hidden behind a veneer of politeness and civility. Mamiya repeatedly asks the people he meets, “Who are you?” A simple question, asked over and over, enough to reveal the depressive rage lurking underneath the respectable facade of teachers, doctors, and cops. It’s not our computers, it’s not the media we consume, and it’s not the vengeful dead lurking at the bottom of the abyss. It’s just us.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.