Tell Me About Yourself: On Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Cure”
By Greg CwikFebruary 8, 2023
You say: I am not free. But I have lifted my hand and let it fall. Everyone understands that this illogical reply is an irrefutable demonstration of freedom.
— Leo Tolstoy
IN CURE, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s oracular depiction of the ways we repress our natural inclination for violence, free will is just a chimera. It is a pretty apparition, beckoning with its spurious promise of comfort and control in a chaotic world, and violence is an ineradicable impulse; no matter how hard we try to suppress it, to ignore it, to dominate and control what is an intrinsic part of our ancient nature, the urge to inflict pain and destroy life frees itself from our moral constructs with just a simple suggestion. Violence can be sparked as simply as a lighter.
Cure came out in 1997, at the advent of what would be called J-horror, and Kurosawa was, along with Hideo Nakata (Ringu, adapted from Koji Suzuki’s novel), Takashi Shimizu (Ju-On), and the gleefully gruesome Takashi Miike (Audition), a liaison for Japanese horror to the West. Ringu and Ju-on are the spiritual progeny of classic Japanese ghost stories and cultural lore, tales of lingering spirits skulking in the eaves. Kurosawa’s sustained exercise in existential dread has no whey-faced girls with inky tendrils of hair climbing out of televisions or crawling down stairs, none of that graphic butchering of the human body that Miike relishes.
It is subtler, quieter, modern yet eternal; whereas the horror of those aforementioned films is sensational, rooted in the fantastic (e.g., vengeful ghosts, a haunted videotape), Cure is concerned with the unuttered ills of modern society and their human origins.
In this film, Kôji Yakusho (born Kōji Hashimoto) plays Kenichi Takabe, a detective assigned to investigate a baffling series of murders wherein the victims all have X slashed into their skin and the murderers have no idea why they did it. They were inexplicably compelled to do so — not in a moment of insanity, or in a fit of passion, but in a moment of lucidity. Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), a lanky young man with a big mane of hair like a blackened halo around his head, is the villain, we soon realize, but there has never really been a cinematic bad guy quite like him. He isn’t threatening or violent; he doesn’t even raise his voice. He mesmerizes people into killing for reasons that are never wholly explained. He’s nearly catatonic, with no idea who he is, and we don’t learn much about him. He was a gifted psychology student who found, in his books with their broken spines and many lines of tiny text, a purpose. That’s about it.
Though he is more of a cipher than a character, Mamiya possesses an ineffable charisma, an odd placidity that lulls others into a mesmeric state in which their inhibitions dissipate. He sits stone-faced and slumped, the vague hint of a mustache above his flatlined lips; he lays his head on a desk, curls up on the floor, moves and speaks with the languor of a somnambulist, hypnotizing teachers, cops, a doctor. One couple finds him ambling around the beach, brings him home, and, like all the other people who try to help him, are seduced by his soporific intonations.
Sinisterly slow and deliberate, Kurosawa and Mamiya both take their time, and the film calmly, gradually reveals itself to be something more elusive, more insoluble than the many bastard spawn of 1990s Hollywood thrillers like The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en, with their sagacious psychos intoning erudite explanations for their evil deeds. There are no diabolical diatribes here, no pontifications or grandiose acts of iniquitous ego. If Kevin Spacey had to use a sledgehammer to get people’s attention, Kurosawa’s killer only needs gentle conversation. Violence is like a disease that passes from person to person, an endless ouroboros of murder. Hannibal Lecter is an exceptional killer, an eloquent and intellectual madman, and Anthony Hopkins dines on scenery with the relish of a fine meal. Spacey’s John Doe claims that he’s not special, but his nefarious stratagem is clearly the work of a man of undeniable, awful genius. The villain of Cure isn’t particularly interesting; he’s just an example of a greater ill. He is the product of innumerable systems and machinations, like all of us, just one of many. He is the offspring of humanity’s unmitigable corruption. “There is no document of civilization that is not also a document of barbarism,” as Walter Benjamin wrote.
Unlike much of its contemporaneous ilk, Cure has never been remade by Hollywood, has never been Americanized, even though its ideas, its ontological anxieties, are not bound to any one time or place. “I know that it’s not really the movie’s job to just comment on social issues,” Kurosawa told Film Comment in 2017, “but certain universal values transcend countries.” But that does not mean Hollywood’s influence is absent. Kurosawa once listed Steven Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds as his favorite film of the aughts; here is a man who is concerned about the apocalypse. Like a lighter sparked in a darkened room, his films illuminate as well as obscure, the flicker of flame casting shadows that hide what the light cannot reveal. Memories collapse into darkness, and the world is inevitably swallowed by a great maw.
In Cure, the misanthropic menace is human, the violent inevitability of Japan’s repressed id. Meanwhile, in Pulse (2001), Kurosawa’s other best-known effort, anguished apparitions emerge from purgatorial cyberspace, human-shaped entities from a malicious internet realm enshrouded in despair as they linger in caliginous corners and move with awful slowness, unsound spirits sleepwalking in standard-def shadow. These beings live in the haunting permanence and tragic fleeting of the world wide web, with its global ghosts, that sibilant dial-up static sound like the crying of a ghoul, traversing the gaps of time and space. Both films are steeped in quiet desperation, a slow gathering of disquieting sounds and trembling quietude (has there ever been a noise as horrible as the discordant hiss of dial-up?) that channels Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964) in its loneliness. Cure and Pulse are at once intimate and small, yet vast in their implications of our propensity for violence.
“Tell me about yourself,” Mamiya says, sotto voce. You always hear people complain that no one listens to them; they only wait for their chance to talk. Well, here’s a guy who listens. Mamiya’s serene chitchat exhumes the violent inclinations of people who, beneath the droll demeanor they put up as they go about their mundane lives, are simmering with anger, with violence, even if they don’t acknowledge it.
Kurosawa’s films are imbued with an elliptical, enigmatic quality, a Delphic approach that recalls Claire Denis, and he composes his shots with an economy and architectural assiduousness that hearkens to Yasujirō Ozu. Kurosawa’s careful, unflashy style favors static shots from medium or far-off distances, often flush to the background, as though the film is listening as closely to its subjects as Mamiya does to his own. The first half of the film is mostly shot with natural sunlight splashing over everything, with minimal shadows, nondescript rooms and hallways that appear banal in their whiteness, an odd aesthetic for a horror film. But once Kenichi and Mamiya meet, in the dark basement laundry room of a hospital, the gentle intelligibility of day becomes consumed by Stygian darkness, the only source of light coming from the smoldering tip of a cigarette. Mamiya uses his lighter to put people into a trance, the saffron flame undulating, swaying back and forth like a lambent metronome. “No one can understand what motivates a criminal, sometimes not even the criminal,” the psychiatrist Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) explains. “No one understands.” Appropriately, Sakuma himself proves to be just as susceptible to Mamiya’s phlegmatic persuasiveness as everyone else.
Kenichi’s home life, which he doesn’t talk about (again, what is repressed must resurface), is difficult. His wife Fumie (Anna Nakagawa) is mentally unstable, though her specific malady is never named. She acts erratically, seeing things that aren’t there, turning on the washing machine without putting any clothes in it, and we can see from Kenichi’s unruffled reactions that this is normal for them. You understand why he feels exasperated, why he, too, is susceptible to the taciturn influence of the mysterious Mamiya. At one point, Kenichi comes home and hallucinates that his wife has hanged herself in the kitchen, and, as crestfallen as he seems when he sees her, a ghostly feeling of relief haunts his grief. If only he didn’t have to constantly worry about her, have to take care of her … By the end of the film, he just might get his wish.
Kurosawa has a geometric eye — faces in the thirds of the frame, a talking head on a static-laden TV, the obnubilation of plastic tarp on half of the screen, axial cuts, shadows seeping into dilapidated buildings and screen aglow with that awful early-internet sibilance. The air is foul, foreboding. Nothingness and open spaces have rarely felt so claustrophobic. When Kenichi and Mamiya talk in the interrogation room, surrounded by four white walls, we get a rare close shot/reverse shot, each character obscuring the other. These two have some kind of connection, share some kind of tacit bond, and Kenichi doesn’t like it. At least, not yet.
As it turns out, it’s all too easy to nudge someone else’s sliver towards oblivion. It does not take magic or even charisma, just patience, the ability to listen and wait. But it’s more than that; the ending is the key. Kenichi, having killed Mamiya and ostensibly brought the cycle of murders to a close, sits at a brightly lit cafe, alone, the night listless behind him. He chats with the waitress, and we see her — for just a moment, don’t blink — walk away steadily, pick up a knife, and, with the rigor of inexorable resolve, stalk inevitability.
Greg Cwik has written for Reverse Shot, Mubi Notebook, Slant, The Brooklyn Rail, Vulture, and elsewhere.
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