DIRECTED BY: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
FEATURING: Kôji Yakusho, Masato Hagiwara
PLOT: A detective with a mentally ill wife seeks to solve a series of murders committed
by ordinary people, each of whom has come into contact with a strange, amnesiac man.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: There’s no doubt Cure is a weird one, what with its unexplained creatures tied to shower rods, its ambiguous antagonist, and its head-scratching ending. It’s also a good psychological thriller, but it doesn’t quite throw the knockout punch needed to give it an undisputed place on the 366 weirdest movies of all time (although I admit the general critical consensus disagrees with that position). Cure does seem like a movie that could well age into an outstanding vintage if it’s left to ferment in the cellar of the viewer’s subconscious for a time, which is why I suspect I’ll be returning to sample it again someday.
COMMENTS: Cure is a movie that seeks to sink into the lowest, darkest depths of the human subconscious and wallow there. It’s no doubt an intriguing, and a weird, movie, but I found it somewhat unsatisfying by the end: it pulls itself apart by moving in too many different directions. The premise is that ordinary people commit atrocious murders, using the same modus operandi, an “X” cut into their victim’s chest. Their reactions after they’re apprehended vary from maniacal bereavement to calm detachment, but the perpetrators uniformly report that their horrific actions seemed normal at the time. The tie that binds these unwitting criminals together is that they’ve all encountered Mr. Mamiya, an amnesiac young man who has a short-term memory span somewhere between thirty seconds and one minute, and who answers almost every question put to him with the same response: “Who are you?”
On one obvious thematic level, the film deals with the question of identity, although it does so superficially (i.e., “who is” Takabe, really: the single-minded professional, or the devoted husband selflessly caring for his mentally ill wife?) Much more interesting than those speculations is the mysterious dynamic between Mr. Mamiya and those he encounters. With no memory or personal history, Mamiya is a blank slate, but he manages to reflect the darker impulses of whatever unfortunate he talks to. Strangely, Detective Takabe seems to be the only one who’s able to resist Myami’s baleful influence: but of course we ask ourselves–can he really? Takabe’s explosive confrontation with a chillingly calm Myami in a strangely lit hospital cell is the dramatic, and the dreamlike, highlight of the film. Myami’s character is more interesting in the early reels, when he seems an innocent bringing destruction instinctively, without intent or reflection; as his character grows more obliquely sinister, he loses some of his power.
A late-blooming subplot/possible red herring involving a Japanese cult of mesmerists offers a possible solution to the mystery for the literal minded, but distracts from the more interesting psychological angle. After building a pleasantly sickening tension, I found that Cure let me down in the curiously rushed climax that ends with a notoriously ambiguous final scene. I don’t mind the ambiguity in the ending per se: it works on Kurosawa’s intended thematic level. I wasn’t grabbed by the director’s invitation to muse about what “really” happened on the plot level, though there’s ample room for argument on that score for interested parties. But I felt let down, even cheated, on a dramatic level, because the movie suddenly snaps to the credits unexpectedly, without a chance for any real emotional closure or reflection.
It’s worth mentioning that this movie was released only two years after the sarin gas attacks on Tokyo subways. The idea of seemingly ordinary people manipulated by a mystical, cultlike figure into committing horrific crimes would have had a much greater resonance with a Japanese audience viewing the picture in 1997 than it would to a DVD audience lacking that immediate subtext.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Cure delves ever further into abstraction as it goes along, casting its own hypnotic spell and inviting as many interpretations as a Rorschach inkblot. Kurosawa approaches the story—and, in effect, his country’s existential crisis—as a mystery to be pursued but not resolved, at least in any conventional sense. It may take several viewings to come to terms with Cure‘s loose ends and psychological intrigue, but the film is seductive enough to warrant them.”–Scott Tobias, The Onion A.V. Club (DVD)