Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure conjures up the kind of primal dread that I thought the movies had forgotten about. Its shocks and scares are like sleight-of-hand: the real effects of the movie are only felt long after it is over, and draw you back in for repeat viewings. I have spoken to other people who have seen it and come to the same conclusions, and the first things they all said after it was over were not “Wow!” but “Wait, I think I need to see that again…” Kurosawa has directed many other films since, but Cure is still easily among the best three. If you start anywhere with him, start here.
Dead man stalking
The abstract for Cure reads like the plotline of any number of overheated serial-killer movies that came and went in the wake of SE7EN and Silence of the Lambs. Takabe, a detective (Kōji Yakushō), has been assigned to a case involving a series of murders, each committed by completely disparate people but each with the exact same methodology: the victims have a large X-like mark cut into their necks. Even stranger, the killers seem to have had no rage or particular incentive for the crime: it simply happened, like “the work of the devil”, in the words of the detective’s partner. A young schoolteacher kills his wife, a policeman shoots his partner in the back of the head—all without motive, or even much in the way of caring.
Takabe has problems of his own as well, as his wife suffers from some kind of odd mental disability that disrupts their household routines. Her blankness is, in a strange way, a foreshadowing for the person that Takabe determines may be responsible for all this. His name is Mamiya, a strange, blank-faced young man with no memory. He wanders into people’s lives, unable to concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds at a time. Then he begins to ask them questions about themselves, and the next thing they know they have been sucked dry and compelled to do something they would never have done unless their personalities were unshackled from their impulses. There is also the disturbing suggestion that whatever Mamiya is doing to others, he did to himself first.
When Mamiya locks horns with the detective he finds not merely a victim but someone who might even be worthy of his admiration. It brings to the fore all of Takabe’s existing conflicts about his job and life, which he spits out in a monologue that is as hypnotic as one of Mamiya's nihilistic little speeches. But without those conflicts to guide him in the first place, the movie argues, he’s not much of a human being to begin with, and perhaps none of us are. “Who are you? There is no real you,” Mamiya tells his victims; their personalities are just roles adopted for the moment. Once Takabe swallows that particular pill, all the way, he realizes he’s a liberated man—free, that is, to operate completely outside of the moral strictures of his job of his life as he has lived it.
The other Kurosawa
The director, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to the other Kurosawa) has made a whole slew of movies that are no less maddening and fascinating, although not always wholly successful. Time and again he comes back to the subject of the individual being shaped (maybe better to say shattered) by social forces: the dysfunctional brothers of Bright Future, the alienated detective of Charisma, the doppelgangers of Doppelganger, the inexplicable suicides of Kairo. His movies tend to have simple but controlled surfaces, where the smallest things take on monumental significance. He uses modest images—like dripping water, a J-horror movie staple, or the flame of a cigarette lighter—to cast a foreboding gloom over everything. There’s an unforgettable scene late in the film where Mamiya bludgeons the radiator in his cell with a chair, causing the pipes in the whole building to reverberate: even though he’s locked up, his influence reaches out to all those around him.
Yakushō has appeared in almost every other movie Kurosawa has made, along with a whole slew of other successful Japanese films (such as the endearing Shall We Dance?). He has a straightforward Everyman aura about him that fits neatly into the space at the center of Kurosawa's films; he's our emotional link to the alien goings-on in the movie, and when he begins to crack we feel it. I mentioned his monologue to Takabe, but there is another scene—one where he thinks he discovers the body of a suicide victim—which stands in such stark contrast to his character’s demeanor as a whole that it alone serves as a major clue as to what is really lurking inside his all-too-ordinary skin.
Most genre entertainments employ a worldview that works within the confines of the story's artificial universe but not outside of it. Here, it's the idea that sanity or normalcy is a mere pose, that if you strip enough away from most human beings you find monsters inside. The conceit is factually correct but philosophically bogus: you can drive anyone to despair if you surround them with enough temptations to do so, but that doesn't mean despair is our "true" state. But the movie is more sly than it is outright nihilistic.
There is no easy formula to why a movie like this works where others with the same ingredients might not. Every film is ultimately of a piece, and it is the way the elements hang together that are of the utmost importance. I didn’t find Kurosawa's Kairo (a/k/a Pulse) to be all that interesting—it was the sort of movie that sounded better in the abstract than it actually played—but there is a menace to Cure that outlives any of the constraining details of its story. Go watch it and decide for yourself. Pay particular attention to the last ten or so seconds right before the credits roll, and consider whether you are seeing something that is truly sinister, or something only made sinister by context.