(Code Red) In a list of great horror films, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 1997 masterpiece Cure would surely rank near the very top. As might be expected, Cure is a different type of horror film from what we’re used to here in the West; but it’s also rather unique among films of the Japanese horror tradition. True, it has scenes of startling violence, but it doesn’t function in the same bloody realm as the work of Takashi Miike — famous for intense, boundary-pushing films like Audition and Ichi the Killer. Yes, it has a dreamlike atmosphere suffused with dread, but it’s not an out-and-out ghost story like Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (The Ring) or Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on (The Grudge). Rather, it’s its own unusual blend of police drama, suspense thriller, and art-house surrealism that feels like it has something profound to say about the human condition — although that profound thing is never explicitly said.
The film begins with a woman in a sterile room reading aloud from the legend of Bluebeard while an affable lab assistant bustles about. The woman puts down the book, apparently uncomfortable, and the table in front of her begins to shake mysteriously. The lab assistant says, “Enough of the book. Let’s talk about something else,” in an attempt to comfort her. With a haunted look on her face, she remarks, “I know how the story ends.” A jaunty tune begins to play, and we see a man walking home from work through a tunnel. He stops to pull a metal pipe from the wall. That evening, he calmly beats a prostitute to death with the pipe, and then goes into the bathroom to shower off the blood.
The rest of the story follows Detective Takabe (Kôji Yakusho) as he attempts to investigate a rash of unexplained murders throughout Tokyo with a psychologist named Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki). The disparate crimes have two things in common: the perpetrators have all carved an “X” into the bodies after they murdered their victims, and none of them have any recollection of why they did such horrible things.
Any further description of the plot would spoil the bizarre twists and turns of the story, but suffice it to say that Masato Hagiwara delivers a absolutely chilling performance as a man named Mamiya who may be either a depraved genius and master deceiver or a completely blank slate and unwitting pawn of chaos. “All of the things that used to be inside me, now they're all outside. So... I can see all of the things inside you, Doctor.”
The film plays with the concept of agency in human violence: are the atrocities which many of our number commit on a regular basis the product of mental illness, or can otherwise normal and good-hearted people do appalling things given the right suggestions to motivate them? Is violence itself a thing that's ingrained in us, or is it separate from who we are as individuals? Is it a living entity that can jump from person to person – or, worse, is it a dead thing like a virus that can somehow still replicate itself and infect the unwary?
All of this is subjective interpretation. Cure never comes out and says what it's getting at. Rather, it gives us hints. There's the woman in the sterile room who says she knows how Bluebeard ends, and then, several scenes later, remarks with perfect sincerity that she's never seen the book before in her life. There are the terrified faces of the innocent murderers who either repress every emotion they have about their crimes or try to kill themselves as their souls come apart in confusion and grief. There's the deeply unsettling image of a man whose face has faded from his head.
Comparisons can be drawn to Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, with its shocking violence and methodical examination of identity and morality; Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, with its dreamlike atmosphere of suffocating inevitability; Christopher Nolan's Memento, which asks similar questions about guilt and memory; Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, which has a similar deceptively-placid denouement; David Lynch's work, in which violence is personified by symbolic devil-men; and Shion Sono's Suicide Club, in which people do bizarrely violent things for no discernible reason.
None of these comparisons are perfect, because Cure is an utterly unique experience. What's clear is that Kiyoshi Kurosawa is one of the most inspiring writer/directors the world has yet seen. He started out working on “pink films” (Japanese softcore) and low-budget direct-to-video yakuza pictures, but quickly made plain to anyone who saw his work that he intended to pursue his vision into the realms of high art. A good example of this would be his excellent 1999 film Charisma – a kind of sequel to Cure that also stars Yakusho – which takes his surrealist bent to Lynchian extremes.
There is something essentially Japanese about Cure. Maybe it's the stillness that surrounds the events onscreen. Maybe it's the fact that not a frame is wasted, and that every line and gesture contributes somehow to the narrative. The film is reminiscent of the ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) landscape prints and paintings: there's an unbreakable connection to Nature, and a sense of the human place within Nature – but in Cure, Nature seems twisted and wrong, like an evil spirit bound to do us harm. In the climactic scene – and in the almost subliminally quick one that follows – the universe seems literally to fracture, yawning wide to swallow our frail sense of who we are. It seems to say that we are each of us but hollow shells waiting to be inhabited by chaos. What is the cure for this? “Take sword... A man... but dew. Take... in hand... heal.”
For Fans Of: Drive, Suicide Club, Charisma, Vertigo, Memento, Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Taxi Driver
Why We Like It: wrings profoundly disturbing emotions out of minimal elements, a contemplative tone-poem about violence and our ability to evade responsibility for it, one of the great horror films