Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a fairly prolific director and, at the time of writing, I have only seen four of his many films. His work seems to be getting some new attention here in the UK with a slew of releases from Arrow Video and Eureka! Masters of Cinema. The latest entry is Cure (1997), a crime thriller with a strong undercurrent of horror. It stars Koji Yakusho (Shall We Dance?, 13 Assassins) as Detective Takabe, a haggard cop following serial copycat crimes. In each case, the killer carves an X into the victim’s throat, but no one can work out why the killers are choosing this very particular methodology when that information was never made public. Along with psychologist Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki), Takabe pursues increasingly unusual explanations for the phenomena.
Early in the film, in a parallel storyline, we are introduced to the enigmatic “Mamiya”, a young man exhibiting extreme signs of amnesia. Unable to remember his own name, where he came from, or what day or month it is, Mamiya seems to struggle to recall answers to his constant questions mere moments after receiving them. He’s evasive and even rude, unable to give any answers to the various characters who try to help him, but also asking searching questions of his own – questions, of course, that he almost immediately forgets the answer to. It’s a strong performance from Masato Hagiwara who infuses the role with an uncomfortable energy, at once intriguing, frustrating, and unsettling.
The problem is, Cure plays its hand too early. It’s readily apparent that Mamiya is key to the serial copycat murders, even though we are shown right away that he himself is not the actual perpetrator. Instead of trying to unlock the mystery there’s more a sense of frustration that the police are so far behind. The mechanism behind the killings is foreshadowed and then made explicit remarkably early on. Of course, other films and crime stories have worked successfully by following both the criminal and the police – the crime-horror Hannibal Lecter films, particularly Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon, and the later Hannibal TV series do this very well – but there’s something off about the way it unfolds in Cure.
It seems that Kurosawa has a penchant for this kind of crime story given the similarities to his more recent Creepy. Visually, Cure looks a little rough around the edges, coming off as perhaps a little older than a film from 1997 (or, perhaps, it is simply that the film is now twenty-one years old and shows its age, being as distant now as late ‘70s movies were to me as a kid at the end of the ‘90s). Still, there are some wonderfully put together scenes, and Kurosawa does great work with sound: the overwhelming mechanical noise in Takabe’s apartment, the shocking roar of a junkyard furnace, the rush of waves, and pouring rain all build an atmosphere fraught with tension. At times, the audio work is so unsettling it feels as if the film threatens to tip over into actual, supernatural horror.
Cure doesn’t fail to hit a few typical Japanese thriller tropes, particularly in the partnership between Detective Takabe and the psychologist Sakuma. It brings to mind other investigator-academic duos, from the journalist and philosopher of Ring to Keigo Higashino’s Galileo series. It works so well because it gives the protagonist someone to bounce his ideas off and allows the two of them to collectively have more knowledge than would be realistic for one person, without them coming across as all-knowing, Sherlock Holmes-like figures.
Grounded by strong performances and a wonderfully foreboding atmosphere, even a sense of predictability cannot completely ruin Cure. Still, for a film so highly lauded in both the Japanese cinema and horror press I couldn’t help but come away somewhat disappointed.
Cure / キュア
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Japanese Release Date: 27th December 1997
Version Watched: 110 min (Eureka! Masters of Cinema)