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Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure (1997) is a psychological thriller with no easy answers. A series of murders are occurring around Japan with an X at every crime scene. The killer is always somebody different but they all share one common problem: they can’t remember committing the crime.
Investigating the crimes is Kenichi Takabe, a weary detective with issues of his own. He cares for his wife who has memory issues and struggles to provide her with the help she needs. His home life as a husband is one of quiet fear, trying to keep his relationship stable and his work separated from her.
During the investigation, Takabe discusses the case from a mental perspective with psychologist Sakuma. Together, they unearth clues about the crimes that may be related to hypnotism and suggestion. The deeper they dig, however, the darker secrets they reveal.
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Meaning in Crime
In one of the early exchanges between Takabe and Skuma, there’s an argument over some crimes “just happening.” Takabe admits that sometimes there’s not always a meaning behind a murder. He’s determined to solve this case and won’t accept that it will remain unsolved.
This turns out to be a grim decision for him. Takabe peers into the abyss to figure out who is behind such a string of murders and it begins to affect his mind. He not only starts to grow agitated with the case but starts experiencing horrific hallucinations of wife killing herself.
The prime suspect in the case is the mysterious character of Mamiya. Much like Takabe’s wife, Mamiya also has memory loss. He can’t remember who he is, where he is, or what day of the week it is. Yet he seems to be present around every suspect just before they commit a murder. Something doesn’t add up about Mamiya and Takabe aims to find out what it is.
As the investigation continues, Mamiya grows more fascinated with Takabe while Takabe grows frustrated. He doesn’t believe that Mamiya is faking his memory issues. Even when Mamiya reveals that he’s more of a mastermind than the police think, Takabe only becomes more frustrated because he can’t fully prove that Mamiya is instigating these crimes.
A Personal Struggle
It’s once Mamiya reveals a more philosophical motivation that the crime takes on a more cerebral intent. While we do find some clues about Mamiya’s fascination with psychology and hypnotism, there’s no clear act of revenge or revolution within his tinkering of minds. He seems bound to reveal more about humanity’s ease with suggestions and how to encourage one to break the box that life has dealt them.
It’s interesting how the few crimes we see portrayed on screen are not treated with theatrics. Most of the kills do not feature music or use rather passive tracks for the mood. The murders occur with a passivity that is uncomfortable to watch but intriguing to decipher.
Take the scene of a cop murdering another cop. It’s a bright sunny day and business seems to be going about as usual. However, because one cop has come into contact with Mamiya, he soon resorts to shooting another cop. The shot isn’t built up to tension. It just happens. Within one shot, we watch the hypnotized cop kill another cop, put his gun away, and drag the body inside.
There’s a very telling moment where Sakuma mentions that hypnotism can manipulate people to do things but perhaps not against their own morality. In other words, someone might not be manipulated to do something if there is no will to do it. This brings out a darker aspect that suggests maybe there is violence within humanity that can be easily tapped and hard to deny. It’s an aspect that certainly seems present within Takabe, a man who would wish for nothing more than to strangle Mamiya to death for his crimes.
One of the best exchanges between Takabe and Mamiya is when Mamiya brings up how Takabe are two different people. The person he is at work is much different than the man he is at home. There’s a split person for these roles and Mamiya aims to prove that someone like Takabe is not one or the other. He is neither as he is expected to stick to the roles he feels he is assigned. By bringing this up, Mamiya is tapping into a sense of imposter syndrome, drawing out a desire to be someone more than we appear.
It’s a scary prospect to consider, that humans are meaningless animals bound by instincts that are denied by society. Such dark notions are kept at bay for our own sanity where we try not to think about them. We don’t want to look into the abyss because we’re afraid that we’ll see ourselves in that inky darkness where life holds little meaning beyond the primal. It’s not exactly the easiest of revelations to process, let alone use as evidence for bringing a mastermind murderer to justice.
God Made Me Do It
There’s an interesting element about criminals feeling as though they’re being pulled by someone unknown. One film that came to my mind while watching the picture was Larry Cohen’s 1976 thriller God Told Me To. It holds a similar premise where various murderers confess that it was God that told them to kill.
The film also features a detective who slowly loses his mind the more he investigates. It takes a stranger route by involving odd births and aliens but it ultimately results in a conclusion where the detective falls under the same spell of feeling bound by a certain hysteria for his actions.
The connection between God Told Me To and Cure is that both feature detectives seeking answers beyond the simplistic. They can’t accept that these types of mysterious murders just happen or that God really told them to commit such acts. It sounds too chaotic and unbelievable, but perhaps the unexplainable is more preferable than the truth.
Both detectives are not ready for the truths they unearth. It corrupts them and transforms them into the very villains they were hoping to bring to justice. The part of a person that turns them into a murderer may just be finding the right button to push. Mamiya has found that button and circles his finger around it as he draws out the worst in people, curious if they’ll ever resist.
The David Cronenberg of Japan
Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa has been referred to as the David Cronenberg of Japan. This label seems easier to accept considering the following horror films he would make after Cure. His filmography includes the psychic horror of Seance (2001) and the techno-horror picture Pulse (2001). But even Cure has a lot of Cronenberg’s psychological horror aspects despite not carrying much of the physical grotesqueness.
In the same way that Cronenberg builds on dread, Kurosawa gets under your skin in a very creepy way. Beyond the mystery of the X and the brutality of the thoughtless murders, there’s an unease to the mystery that always keeps the audience guessing. You’re not just trying to connect the dots of Mamiya’s hypnotism but trying to determine where the characters are in this story.
Though the film doesn’t simply drift between the ambiguous nature of dreams and reality, there’s a lot of off-putting elements that make us question what we’re witnessing. Take the scenes on the bus as an example of feeling out of place. When Takabe takes his wife to a care facility, the windows of the bus showcase little more than smoke, almost looking like clouds. It’s a scene that adds to the drifting nature of Takabe’s psyche, unable to hold his composure as the case wears on him. He’s losing his grip and becoming just as much bound by the loss of memory as the suspects.
The Influence of Cure
Cure came about in the late 1990s just before the new wave of Japanese horror was hitting the cinema scene. Iconic Japanese horror pictures of Ringu (1998), Dark Water (2002), and Ju-On (2002) soon followed, relying more on the creepy factor than the grotesque. Cure certainly seemed like a picture to ease horror crowds into these types of films.
Cure (1997) was released to heavy critical praise for all of the allure it holds in such a psychological tale of horror. A.O. Scott of the New York Times took note of how the film has a lot to say about society in ways that criticize our desire for answers to everything. Scott Tobias of The A.V. Club addressed how such a film becomes more fascinating for the distance it keeps from the events being easy to decipher.
Cure would slowly become more of an international hit over time. In 1999, it was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival as a tribute to the director. It would later have a North American release in 2001. By 2018, it was so revered that it became a part of the UK’s The Masters of Cinema Series. And if you really need some influential praise from directors, Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) spoke highly of the film as not only being a great influence on his career but also one of the greatest movies ever made.
X Doesn’t Mark The Spot
The constant iconography of the X on the victims and at the scene of the crime is an interesting part of the narrative. When victims discover the X they’ve painted on walls, they don’t remember painting the letter. They also want to get rid of it quickly. It’s a part of themselves they don’t want to address. When Sakuma falls victim to the curse of losing his memory on his road to death, he gives excuses of the X on his wall being something to help him think. He tries to hide it but he can’t. He rips the wallpaper as he fails to remove the X. The stain is already in his mind and can’t be washed away so easily.
The X could be read in the film as the endpoint on a map, a marker for the final destination to crack the case. But the X is not something so simple to understand as an angry ex-lover, a bitter worker who was fired, or a poor person trying to make money out of desperation. The X is the part of ourselves we fear. It’s that hideous voice that creeps into our mind and fills us with bitterness. Minds of anger and frustration can drift to violence. Rather than handle this dread within ourselves in a healthy way, it seems simpler to cover it up. It’s far easier to just accept that murderers who have lost their minds were just crazy people or evil individuals who want to harm others.
The conversation I keep coming back to in the movie is when Takabe fights back against the notion that sometimes murders just happen without reason. Sometimes they do and our desire to believe there’s something more and to find more can often drive us mad. Sometimes there is no meaning to certain aspects of life, where some actions are bound by random chance or parts of our psychology we don’t always take note of in our lives. Something as simple as the waves of the ocean or the flicker of a flame can entrance us into a different mindset or person. And that’s perhaps the most terrifying part of ourselves being so fluid and unpredictable. One day we could be a detective and the next day a murderer.