Written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

With Koji Yakusho, Anna Nakagawa , Tsuyoshi Ujiki and  Masato Hagiawara

Distributed by Cowboy Films


(Warning: major spoilers ahead. This review is intended for people who have already seen the film.)

One of the most prolific filmmakers currently working, Japanese writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) has already made since seven films in the four years since wrapping CURE, several of which have preceded it in a touring retrospective across the U.S. However, it’s the first one to get a commercial American release, and he cites it as a personal breakthrough after years of impersonal hackwork. (His other recent high point is SEANCE, a ghost story made last year that feels like a long-lost opus from ‘40s B-horror Val Lewton.) Kurosawa  cites ‘70s American films as his main influences, but his  work tends towards a trippy brand of metaphysical  portent closer to Nicolas Roeg or Peter Weir’s THE LAST WAVE. If made thirty  years ago, the oddball 1999 eco-thriller CHARISMA, which mixes together magic mushrooms, New Age ecology  theorizing, metaphorical speculations on fascism and a possible apocalypse, might now be a cult film. Kurosawa’s interested in playing with the boundaries of genres like the vigilante drama and serial-killer thriller, but he’s no slummer.  For all its overt philosophizing, CURE ranks with SEVEN and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT as one of the scariest horror films of the ‘90s.

Who are you? It's a question one of the characters in CURE keeps asking. No one can find a satisfying answer. Judging from Japanese films like Shinji Aoyama's EUREKA (admittedly inspired by CURE, even down to its casting of lead actor Koji Yakusho and theme of cycles of violence) and books like Haruki Murakami’s UNDERGROUND, a series of violent incidents like the Aum Shrinyiko subway gas attack has challenged the nation’s image of itself as one of the world’s safest, most controlled countries. However, the questions raised by CURE about moral and psychological vulnerability are pretty damned unsettling in an American context as well: one doesn’t have to be Japanese to feel that its sense of pervasive malaise rings true. In the days after the World Trade Center attack, I couldn't stop thinking about the film: nothing else so eloquently described the way the world seemed to have turned upside down.

The opening sequence of CURE establishes its twin themes of violence and mental instability, as well as its off-kilter tone. CURE opens with a master shot of a woman reading the fairy tale BLUEBEARD to herself. She’s sitting alone in a hospital, and the camera’s quite distant from her. After a doctor sits down across from her, Kurosawa cuts to a close-up. Her final words - “in the end, the daughter kills Bluebeard” - lead into the film’s first murder, committed with a shocking abruptness and with the camera still keeping its distance from the action. (Given its subject matter, CURE isn’t overly gory, but its depiction of casual, affectless violence is still startling.) After this, a shot of the face of world-weary detective Takabe (Yakusho) appears, with the English title “cure” directly to its right. Even from these  three minutes,  it’s obvious that CURE is no ordinary horror film.

Takabe is investigating a series of murders, which appear to be unrelated except that the victims have all been left with an “X” carved into their chest. Meanwhile, a teacher discovers an amnesiac on the beach. The mysterious man’s name may be Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), but his acid-casualty demeanor and lack of short-term memory don’t make identification easy. Still, the teacher takes him in.  He pays for his kindness: unfortunately, Mamiya turns out to be a genius-level hypnotist who uses his skills to commit serial murder by proxy, beginning by getting the teacher to kill his wife and jump out a window. Eventually, Mamiya’s captured by the police, but Takade and co-investigator Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) don’t find it easy to crack the case when they have to interrogate a Mansonesque mindfucker who baits them by turning their questions back on them. The mental illness suffered by Takade’s wife Fumie (Anna Nakagawa), who dreams of a vacation and has a tendency to suddenly disappear and wander around in a daze,  adds to the atmosphere of unease.

Kurosawa  messes with the rules of the police procedural by turning his detective into a victim and, more subversively,  another link in a chain of violence. I don't
think reading CURE  as a straightforward allegory - with hypnotism as a symbol for, say, the media or moral decay - makes much sense. The film's power lies in Kurosawa's ability to  tap into the spectator's own unconscious. A serial killer is scary, but very few of us will be unlucky enough to encounter one outside fiction. On the other hand, it's inevitable that our  identity’s security will be shattered at least a few times in our lives. What if someone then steps in to manipulate you? Or, even worse, if this process just allows the worst aspects of yourself - like the notion that violence is an answer to your problems - to come to the fore?

If Kurosawa wasn't a masterful craftsman, all this would amount to a bunch of empty Psych 101 blather and hokum. (In his worst films, such as LICENSE TO LIVE, that's  exactly the case.) However, CURE displays a command of framing, camera positioning and sound design that gives it enough surface appeal to make the subtext an added bonus. Kurosawa doesn’t avoid close-ups, but he uses them to emphasize disorienting shifts of scale. His long shots look wider and more distant than those of most directors, often isolating characters into a corner of the frame. He has a knack for making every space he films - even apparently calm exteriors - seem sinister, resonating with either fluorescent sterility or industrial rot. Both Yashuko and Hagiawara give utterly convincing performances, eventually bringing out the slow-burning anger that their characters share but conceal beneath a facade of machismo and spacey passive-agressiveness, respectively.

There’s almost no music in CURE, but in several key scenes, sound effects (especially a washing machine that sounds more like a helicopter) take their place. The domestic space of Takabe and Fumie’s apartment never feels very cozy, because it’s always being invaded by sounds from the next room. In the absence of a score, such drones achieve much the same jarring impact that THE EXORCIST achieved by using dissonant music. Nothing exactly looks out of place, but the sounds are subtly out of synch with the images we see. This surreal approach is reminiscent of director David Lynch, as is the suggestion that the building where the final confrontation between Takabe and Mamiya takes place could be a mental space.

At heart, CURE is a tale of therapy gone awry. The title isn’t ironic: Mamiya probably thinks that he’s really doing his subjects a favor. A psychology student who dropped out,  he offers a bloody catharsis to “cure” the anxieties of his “patients.” He even begins his “sessions” by querying them about their lives and feelings.  (Readers who don’t want the ending revealed should stop here.) Perversely, Takabe finds his way back to the world by killing his wife and Mamiya, thus relieving himself of his failure to function as a cop and husband. The first few murders in CURE seem entirely unmotivated (except by Mamiya’s power), but Kurosawa is careful to gradually show the resentment underlying the seemingly ordinary lives of the next few killers -  a female doctor’s frustration with her profession’s pervasive sexism, a man’s disdain for  his co-worker - and spells out all the reasons why Takabe might fall under Mamiya’s spell pretty clearly.

Does this produce an implicit thesis that everyone is capable of murder if their id is exposed to the light of day? Some of the film’s critics have accused it of this kind of simplistic psychology, but it strikes me as more complex. Its characters’ problems don’t lie so much with their unconscious as with the disjunction between their public persona and their real emotions. Should a man like Takabe lose his identity as a competent cop and loving husband, he has absolutely nothing to hang onto. His morality stems entirely from these socially defined roles. If they vanish, it does too.

Given the social impasse CURE describes, in which a cop can’t express emotions, a husband can’t admit that his wife’s illness has become a burden and a woman can’t complain about the difficulty of working in a male-dominated profession, Mamiya steps into the picture with ease: as false prophets go, he’s closer to the truth than most.The specter of Aum Shinrikyo hangs over the film, although a frazzled Sakuma’s description of Mamiya as a “missionary, sent to propagate the ceremony” is as close as it comes to an overt reference. It’s noteworthy that all the Aum Shinrikyo members interviewed by Murakami - even the most bitter - felt that they got *something* positive out of their participation in the group. The saddest ones realized that the group betrayed its promise by offering little more than a distorted mirror of the capitalist treadmill of mainstream Japanese society.

Mamiya’s “therapy” offers a similarly dubious solution, but it may be a step in the right direction: the tragedy that follows has a lot to do with Japanese society’s failure to offer anything better. At least he recognizes problems that everyone else ignores.   In interviews, Kurosawa has opined that his films’ apocalyptic overtones aren’t really as nihilistic as they seem: there’s the possibility of a new beginning emerging out of them, a potentially positive rearrangement of the relationship between the individual and society. CURE is bleak, but it may not be entirely hopeless:  realizing that “who are you?” is a question worth asking is better than never pondering it at all.