Cure (1997)
By: Mr Intolerance on May 26, 2010  | 
Eastern Eye | Region 4, PAL | 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) | Japanese DD 2.0 | 106 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Masato Hagiwara, Tsuyoshi Ujiki, Anna Nakagawa, Yoriko Douguchi, Yukijiro Hotaru, Denden
Screenplay: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Country: Japan
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Kiyoshi Kurosawa is one of the world's best horror directors. The reason for this is that he manages to do something that most horror directors do not – he scares you. Two of my very favourite horror films are Kurosawa's Kourei (AKA Séance), and more importantly the bleak, existential nightmare that was Kairo (AKA Pulse, lately having suffered the indignity of being remade, and with sequels, for a thick-headed US teen audience who obviously can't read subtitles). Kurosawa's films are the very definition of the slow burn – they worm their way into your psyche gradually and then, quite simply, they fill you with dread. There's no comedy, there are no gimmicks, there are no boo-scares, there's nothing but a slow descent into a kind of claustrophobic, suffocating hell, from which there is no escape.

As odd as it may sound – I like that.

If I'm watching a horror film, I want someone to scare me, and Kurosawa has scared me better than most other directors, even better than my personal holy trinity of Carpenter, Cronenberg and Romero. With Cure (and what "cure" the title suggests, I'll leave up to you), Kurosawa's most successful film, the director breathes new life into what had become by the late 90s, the fetid and stultified corpse of the serial killer film. The Silence Of The Lambs has a lot to answer for – it seemed that throughout the 90s every week there was a new serial killer flick, each one promising to be more scary than the last, and usually simply being a dull rehash of the clichéd "handsome, troubled investigator with a dark past confronts ingenious charismatic psychopath who kills people using uniquely gruesome methods" plot-line. Seen it all before? Cure offers something different.

Detective Takabe (the reliably excellent Koji Yakusho, a regular in Kurosawa's films) has a problem. The series of murders he's investigating seem to be linked, but the link itself makes no sense. Victims are found with an "X" carved into their flesh, but the murderers themselves are different people, unrelated to the victims or each other – just ordinary folks like you and me – and have no recollection of having committed the gruesome murders they have done.

A confused, amnesiac drifter Mamiya also has a problem. He has no idea who he is, where he is, or how he got there. The name "Mamiya" comes from a tag on his coat, but he doesn't know if that's his name or not. He only knows that he doesn't want the police to become involved in his affairs. His memory doesn't last more than two minutes at best, less than ten seconds at worst. Kurosawa's films usually deal with questions of identity and isolation, and we can see those ideas being present here through this character: with no discernible identity, Mamiya is isolated from society, and once you are isolated from society, you become able to act against it without regret. Mamiya has an uncanny ability – while he himself remembers little, he can remember or see things through other peoples' minds and can suggest things to them. Suggestions of things that they wouldn't normally do – things like brutally murdering their loved ones, or even the motiveless murders of complete strangers.

Part of a detective's job is a search for reasons why something happens – a search for meaning, which is another theme that Kurosawa's films address. Existence is seen as essentially meaningless. We exist because we do, and no reason seems to be given as to why we should continue to do so. It's a lucky accident if we do, and no great upheaval to the cosmos if we don't. What's one soul more or less? Takabe's questioning of perpetrators regularly includes questioning whether or not they were inspired to commit acts of murder by books or films, as though we define ourselves and our actions through imitation only – immortalising ourselves through the words and deeds of others. The randomness of the murders Takabe is investigating simply adds weight to the argument that existence is merely arbitrary at best.

Rather disturbingly, Takabe's psychiatrist pal Sakuma posits the idea that sometimes even criminals don't know why they commit criminal acts, and that to search for meaning or cause is ultimately a futile act. It's the same kind of existential philosophy that permeates Kurosawa's other films, most notably Kairo. Not only is existence meaningless, but to search for meaning in it is even more meaningless an experience. When I'm watching a Kurosawa film, I always feel like I'm seeing things at an even greater remove than watching a film – more like I'm examining things even more objectively on a slide under a microscope – or like the life-simulating computer program in Kairo. It's an unpleasant feeling at times, and one that his camera documents all too well, and all too coldly and impersonally, bordering on the almost inhuman. There is no sentiment in Kurosawa's films, and little sympathy for any of the characters. The universe is depicted as an icy, inhospitable void that is actively trying to destroy you.

I get the impression that Kurosawa is showing us through the characters of Takabe and Mamiya the two different approaches to existence: the struggle to find meaning in the first place, and the acceptance of meaninglessness in the second. Takabe tries to explain things and tries to expand his experience through gaining knowledge in order to help others, whereas Mamiya has no memory, and no understanding of anything outside of the here and now, which obviously is constantly shifting from second to second – and his relationship with others is a purely destructive one. While this is not a particularly comforting world view to say the least, it's examined in a calm and rational fashion, not in the rather more hysterical and histrionic way that David Fincher did in Se7en. Kurosawa's use of the camera is interesting; things happen in the periphery of the lens, rather than in the centre (a murderer hurling himself head-long into a wall in a self-recriminatory frenzy barely gets into shot, and seems much more realistic for the fact that we aren't getting it in a close-up), and quite often the camera is distanced a long way from the action, adding an emotional as well as a literal distance.

When Mamiya "infects" another person, causing them to kill another, often before attempting suicide, he asks them to tell him about themselves. Nobody has anything to say. If you were asked by a stranger to define you life briefly, what would you say? Would you define yourself by your job? By your marital status? How, ultimately, would you identify yourself? And would you find that definition satisfactory? How would you define those closest to you? The despair that Mamiya inflicts on those he comes into contact with seems to come from that very dissatisfaction with existence, the uncertainty of day-to-day life, the arbitrariness of existence, thrown into an uncomfortably sharp relief.

Takabe's interrogation and investigation of Mamiya and his past is really the central sequence in the film, but also the most frustrating at the same time – how do you interrogate a man with no memory? And more to the point, how do you prosecute a killer who hasn't actually killed anyone? Nevertheless, it puts a new spin onto the police procedural aspect of the film, normally something I find deathly dull in such a film. In fact, it's in this last third of the film where things become even more strange and dislocated than before. And the strain of the case is starting to take its toll on Takabe – Nietzsche's two dictums spring to mind: "do not stare too long into the abyss, or the abyss will stare into you", and, "he who fights monsters must take care he does not become a monster himself."

When all's said and done, Cure is a film I engaged with and, dare I say it, enjoyed – but it's not one I walked away from smiling. It made me think, which is always a positive experience with a movie, but it thoroughly depressed me and left me feeling uneasy. The not so subtle sense of dread and hopelessness it conveyed thoroughly ruined my day on one level, but also left me totally satisfied that some directors can still craft a horror film that really works.
The audio is likewise fine. Again, as per Kurosawa's other films, Cure is a very quiet film – gaps in the action (such as it is) are not punctuated with a non-diegetic score, you simply get the realistic sounds of a humdrum existence going on around the characters, which I think is one of the reasons his films work themselves so insidiously into their audience.
The picture quality is fine. As with Kurosawa's other films, the colour palette is a little muted, which aids the understatement of the film.
Extra Features
Rather disappointingly, Eastern Eye have only seen fit to include the theatrical trailer for Cure, and a grab bag of trailers for some of their more recent product: Retribution, Pulse (two excellent films both directed by Kurosawa – if you've not seen Pulse, RUN to your local DVD store and remedy that situation; it's one of the ten best horror films of the last 20 years), Chaw, Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl, and Vengeance.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
A sombre film bordering on the truly grim, Cure is not a film for everyone. It's uneasy, unsettling and unnerving, and that's where it's strength lies. Cure asks more questions than it answers, and the only thing it definitively tells us is that life is most certainly not a box of chocolates. The horror that it shows us is not the loud, splashy horror of a slasher flick (despite the fact that at it's core, that's exactly what it is), but more the quiet introspective terror that we can feel when we question ourselves about the meaning of our own lives. An undisputed masterpiece of psychological horror.

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