Japan (1997) Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Over the past 20 years, Asian cinema has proven a dab hand at psychological horror, while Hollywood was already making their own in the guise of serial killer flicks, with the likes of Silence Of The Lambs getting things off to a notorious start. A year before Ringu blew the doors open for J-Horror, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa made a film which could be argued was the real catalyst for the movement’s beginnings.

A man returns home from a walk along an underground passage where a naked woman waits for him in the bedroom. Suddenly the man produces a metal pipe and bludgeons the woman to death, cutting an “X” across her throat. When the police arrive, the man confesses to the murder yet doesn’t remember doing it, making this another in a line of recent incidents with the same pattern.

Stressed police detective Kenichi Takabe (Koji Yakusho) is trying to keep his mind on the investigation but the deteriorating condition of his mentally ill wife (Anna Nakagawa) is adding further pressure on him. When further murders occur, Takabe learns that the perpetrators all came into contact with a man named Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), who claims to have short term memory loss and is far more dangerous than he looks.

The problem with doing something first then having your ideas, or variations of them, surface in subsequent and more successful books and films, is that your work then seems like the mimic and not the originator. Cure didn’t break internationally until 2001 by which time Ringu, The Grudge and Kurosawa’s other films like Pulse were now seen as the standard bearers of the genre, the former two films more supernatural in their make-up.

In fact, one can find traces of DNA in Koji Fukada’s Harmonium in Cure – both have a quietly unsettling antagonist with a philosophically askew motive driving their actions, both provide shocking punctuations of gore, and both leave you in fear of being mentally manipulated by strangers. Cure however, differs in one significant way – the lack of resolve in explaining Mamiya’s actions.

Don’t worry, I’ve not spoiled anything in that last sentence because Kurosawa achieves something quite rare with his refusal to explain himself – he turns the attention from Mamiya to the people he manipulated and has us questioning who the real villain is here. This ambiguity was always there, we just didn’t realise it, leaving us, the audience, as easily susceptible as the people Mamiya manipulates.

Kurosawa’s script bucks the trend of making the inadvertent murderers weak minded people on the edge of psychotic precipice in need of a push; he targets veteran police officer Oida (Denden) and hospital GP Dr. Akiko Miyajima (Yoriko Doguchi), two pillars of the community and a symbol of public trust. One earlier victim was a well-meaning teacher (Masahiro Toda) who slaughtered his wife in bed before jumping out of the bedroom window.

Takabe enlists the help of psychologist friend Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) to help piece the clues together and they suspect hypnosis might the key but how Mamiya pulls it off without being so blatant is another mystery. Kurosawa bravely reveals all at the 30 minute mark although we wonder if this was just Mamiya teasing until we next see Oida casually shot his co-worker in the head.

Mamiya hits a temporary road bump when trying to influence Dr. Miyajima with his usual method so he relies on an ingenious alternative instead. It is here we finally get an idea of Mamiya’s motives, and that this isn’t actually about inciting murder for the sake of it but something much deeper. It is also Miyajima’s act of murder that provides arguably the film’s most horrific scene, largely through her imperturbable demeanour.

When Mamiya asks “Who are you?”, he isn’t being flippant or suffering from amnesia, he is asking a philosophical question. Because Mamiya’s smarmy supercilious attitude obfuscates the meaning of his quest, he is framed as a typical, psychotic megalomaniac hell bent on causing personal hurt and discord because he can, smugly disavowing any culpability since he hasn’t committed any crime himself.

Obviously, Mamiya could have met his objectives in a more philanthropic way if he was genuine but somewhere down the line his own psyche was irreparably damaged leading us to where we are at this juncture. To that end, he is a dangerous sociopath but here is where Kurosawa smuggles in the true horror behind the story – it can’t be snuffed out, like the curse in Ringu (the novel came out 6 years before Cure) because it is in us all.

Unlike Ringu et al, there is no supernatural twist to this with the possibility of this occurring in real life feeling very possible. With no musical score at all, it is the eerie silence that dictates the mood, whilst long, single take shots and distant camerawork keep the pace moderate and natural. Tension is built from not knowing what will happen rather than quick edits building to the moment, a more effective way of shocking us.

Kōji Yakusho has the look and grizzled gravitas for a tired and edgy Takabe, yet can suffuse his character with an empathetic side when dealing with his ill wife. As the unkempt, lethargic and shifty looking Mamiya, Masato Hagiwara is neither a devil nor an enigma but a frustratingly compelling antagonist through being a blank canvas upon which the crimes of others are projected.

Recently reissued on Blu-ray in the UK by Eureka, Cure could finally find its place among the elite of Japanese psychological thrillers after a twenty year wait as new audiences discover it, but might also incur raised eyebrows because of how Kurosawa revisited some themes and elements in his later works like Vital making this feel dated.

It would be a shame if this was the case as Cure still has the power to shock, pack a provocative punch and cause sleepless nights after all these years.

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