The characters in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films seem dominated by their environments. They loom, awkward and ill-suited, in their drab, underfurnished apartments, dim and flatly lit; otherwise, they wander the dreary winding streets of the nameless cities where they live, labyrinthine mazes of concrete and glass that blur every face into anonymity. We seldom see them head on and close up but instead through doorways, smeared windows, down corridors or through narrow apertures. A predominance of icy wide shots emphasize the empty space in any given location, and the camera movement—generally scroll-like lateral shots that lend an oddly theatrical, distant atmosphere to these scenes—merely brings us up against the limits of whatever area we happen to find ourselves in. Even with multiple characters in a single scene and location, there are numerous fracturing devices that section the actors off from each other, stranding them, solitary, in the frame. Whatever the visual strategy, wherever the location, the message is clear: these people are alone.
Such is the bleak landscape traversed by the filmmaker in his 1997 international splash, Cure, a deeply unsettling detective procedural-cum-occult thriller that uses its vacant rooms to reflect equally abandoned souls and minds. Like Kairo, Kurosawa’s famous 2001 ghost story, Cure is an uncommonly nihilistic and despairing horror movie, using the generic tools of its established cinematic tradition to express deeper anxieties relating to loneliness, contagion, and the human condition. Where Kairo pivots, however, on the dual poles of both the eerily modern dread of Internet-augmented isolation and the elemental fear of death, Cure takes as its central subject an altogether more complex and possibly more human terror: the great abyss of meaning that lies beneath our daily lives.
Initially, the film takes place along something of a dual-narrative track. On the one hand we have the story of Kenichi Takabe (played quite compellingly by Kōji Yakusho), a detective fruitlessly investigating a series of gruesome murders committed over the preceding two months. The murders are carried out in a strikingly similar fashion—most notably, a gory X was carved into each of the victims’ faces—but have nothing in common otherwise, including a perpetrator. The different killers are easily caught and willingly confess, but can never provide Takabe with a motive, and have no clear connection to each other. The frustratingly futile progress of Takabe’s investigation is intercut with enigmatic scenes following the visits of an affectless young man we come to know as Mamiya (a chilling Masato Hagiwara) to several disparate individuals, each one of whom leaves a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Further complicating matters, we’re occasionally ushered away from the main action to observe puzzling vignettes of a woman with amnesia or some other psychological disorder either being treated in a hospital or wandering the streets of the city. We later come to learn that this woman is Takabe’s wife (the late Anna Nakagawa), and that their marriage is strained from her progressively worsening mental illness. Just what are we to make of this tangle?
Well, these threads eventually begin to coalesce, approaching a strange logic that never fully resolves, but Kurosawa keeps his hand hidden a long while. That first hour is a memorably opaque one. The audience is placed in the position of the detectives, blindly groping for some sort of structure or even a hint as to the nature of what is going on. The film steadfastly refuses consolations, preferring instead to immerse us in an icy atmosphere of slow, gnawing dread and uncertainty. Cure’s narrative itself becomes a crime scene, a fractured, incomprehensible set of incongruous misconfigurations and mystifying suggestions suffused with an air of impenetrable terror and melancholy. Only with time and close attention can the patterns become clear.
One thing is never in doubt: it is Mamiya who lies at the nexus of this mystery. His presence in the film is like that of a black hole, an absolute emptiness toward which the characters and the audience alike are drawn by inexorable degrees. We first see him wandering a lonely beach in Shirasato, encountering a seated stranger and asking him for their location. A few moments pass and he asks the same question again. Shortly later, he is wondering what the date is, then for the location again (for he has already forgotten), and finally, with a disquieting casualness, he asks the other man if he knows who he is.
Throughout the film, Mamiya is defined by such queries; indeed, most of his dialogue is nothing more than an endless stream of questions, exhibiting no interiority or even a clear sense of personhood. His strange interactions are characterized by an incessant questioning that inevitably assumes an almost aggressive, interrogatory quality; his words become an assault. His eternal refrain, “Tell me more about yourself,” comes to sound like the lure of a predator, and the hypnotic manner with which he draws these individuals’ words from their reluctant lips holds more than a hint of vampirism. When paired with the darkly evocative symbolism of the lighter he pulls from his pocket (it both illuminates and destroys), or the nightmarishly amplified dripping of a tap in the low, humming sound mix, things become more sinister still.
It comes as no surprise that Mamiya is the driving force behind the killings, nor is the reveal of the “device” being employed—a mystically-inflected version of mesmerism—a particularly shocking one, for the film gradually and delicately leads us to this conclusion after a long buildup of subtle indications. What is a surprise, at least in a film of this type, is Mamiya himself: his complete lack of personality, of motive, of any individually distinguishing features at all. What we might initially take for opacity or mystery on his part—a riddle concealing his hidden depths—ultimately reveals itself to be mere blankness, a total void. The revelations of his past and of the method in which he influences other human beings hardly tell us anything; they show us how he does things, but they don’t serve to explain why he does them, because, it finally seems, there is no explanation. Mamiya has nothing to hide, nothing of consequence at all, and it is this that shocks us more than anything else: more than the occult nature of his uncanny powers, more even than the murders themselves. The film slowly brings us closer and closer to the center of its crimes before revealing that there is no center at all—just an empty cavity.
Which, I’d wager, is precisely the point of the film. Cure is about the absence of meaning, our clumsy and incompetent attempts to process a world that constantly refutes and baffles us. It’s a sneaky trick of Kurosawa’s to encase such a nihilistic statement within the narrative structure of the detective film. After all, we expect tidy resolutions and satisfactory explanations in the detective genre more than anywhere else. But Cure mocks this anticipation on every level. Mamiya isn’t the psychopathic or opportunistic antagonist we might expect from a serial killer film, and he constantly frustrates any explanatory framework we might impose on him. The law, so ineffectual and helpless in the face of the killings, is also subject to ridicule. Mamiya doesn’t recognize the police as an authority; “Who?” is his only response when Takabe announces himself during his arrest. When Takabe, in a particularly intense and extended scene, explains the roots of his inability to express his emotions, Mamiya offers little more than sarcastic dismissals: “Oh, so society’s to blame.” Society as a whole seems something utterly alien to Mamiya’s understanding of the world. As he’s uselessly interrogated, he gets up and walks around his cell aimlessly, beating his fists on the walls of the room, as if confused by the spatial restrictions his fellow humans have placed on him.
Mamiya is simply someone who has found a way, through mesmerism, to dissolve his personality completely into the incoherent texture of the universe; his hollowness is a form of enlightenment. His victims temporarily experience the same thing, although they ultimately prove too weak to attain the powers Mamiya wields with such terrifying clarity. When they tell their life stories to him—pedestrian, inconsequential, drearily ordinary lives—it is as if they are rambling gibberish into a vast abyss. And it is the dawning awareness of this meaninglessness, as embodied by Mamiya, that overwhelms them more than his hypnotism. They’re like the caged monkeys we see outside of Mamiya’s apartment around the midpoint of the film, ignorant animals that have suddenly become aware of their limitations. And once their illusions are stripped away, all they can do is murder, completely without motive, entirely arbitrarily, for a pointless murder is the ultimate expression of purposelessness that can be enacted by human beings. An X is a symbol of absolute negation. The bleeding crosses carved into the victims’ skin stare us dumbly in the face like a rejection of every social institution, of psychology, of reason itself. The X serves as a cruel wall human endeavor inescapably comes up against.
Why Takabe should prove stronger of will than the other victims is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it is because he is more intimately aware of life’s haphazard disasters than the contented schoolteacher or the simple policeman or bored hospital nurse that commit the murders. He has, as he tells Mamiya, always repressed his emotions, and this problem has been aggravated by the exhausting condition of his wife, for whom he experiences mingled feelings of tenderness and resentment. He certainly loves her: that much is clear following an exceptionally harrowing hallucination he experiences after returning from Mamiya’s apartment, during which his face collapses into a haunting mask of grief. And yet the many years of caretaking, minor aggressions, and constant stress have obviously taken their toll. “We’ll take that trip,” he reassures her after one of her episodes, alluding to the vacation they’ve been meaning to take. “Definitely.” But he doesn’t sound convinced, and his composure only weakens from there. The tension between his duties as a social creature—a husband, a detective, an inhabitant of the world—and the nihilistic abandon represented by Mamiya begins to grow intolerable. In Mamiya he sees a freer, less constrained version of himself, as Mamiya himself points out on multiple occasions (note too how their hairstyles are subtly paralleled), and this vision both horrifies and enrages him. “Lunatics like you have it easy while citizens like me have to go through hell,” he wails at one point, revealing just how much of his contempt for Mamiya is rooted in an envy of his freedom from obligations, from even the burdens of selfhood. But his struggle is ultimately a short-lived one: he is too angry, too intelligent, and finally too hopeless to resist the tug of the void.
By the time the film reaches its climactic scene—not only anti-psychological, but almost anti-narrative—Takabe has had his wish granted. In a room dripping with water and cold morning light, he undergoes the metamorphosis that finally frees him from the shackles of meaning and human order. It is an unbearably horrific transformation, but also a liberating one. In becoming like Mamiya, “happy, empty,” he attains the grim enlightenment that will allow him to wander selfless and untroubled through the chaotic atrocities of the world. This is why the first murder in the film is set to such curiously jaunty music, and why there is the slightest hint of a strange smile on Takabe’s face in his powerfully chilling final appearance. Contentment, this remarkable film suggests, might be the most terrifying thing of all.
by Brian O’Connell
Brian O’Connell is a writer living in New York. He has been published by Plutonian Press, Muzzleland Press, and Planet X Publications. He regularly cohosts the podcast Celluloid Citizens with Sean M. Thompson.