Film Review: Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1997)

by Jason Suzuki

It’s almost twenty years since Kiyoshi Kurosawa emerged with his first true masterpiece. While I do hold a special place in my heart for The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl (1985), Cure is most assuredly where the promise of his genius is maintained in every single frame. Even his two V-cinema films made in the same year of 1997 don’t play at the same level, which in the spirit of fairness the production conditions of V-cinema titles are at least in part, most likely to blame. From there Kurosawa has had quite a few other largely undisputed masterpieces for his relatively short career that began in the 80s. There’s Pulse (2001), Charisma (2000), and Tokyo Sonata (2008) as well as fan favorites like Doppelganger and Bright Future (both 2003).  Despite winning best director at Cannes for his film Journey to the Shore (still no US distribution…), many longtime fans now watch his recent films (Real, Seventh Code, Penance) and declare it’s “more of the same.” This description certainly applied to a great deal of Ozu’s work, but also to his best. And regarding a director with such a command of mood as Kurosawa, more of the same might not be such a bad thing. Since he’s not as insanely prolific as Miike or Sono, his misfires have the greatest potential to turn out to be just misunderstood.

Back to Cure and its depiction of a detective searching for clues to a bizarre string of related murders. Detective Takabe is played by Koji Yakusho who you might recognize as the shy salary man who takes up ballroom dancing in Shall We Dance? (1996) or perhaps in the realm of fantasy as the gun-owning father to Rinko Kikuchi in Babel (2006). With Takabe he plays a character type, the determined yet fragile and burdened detective. This character type he has since both revisited and warped as seen in Kurosawa’s Charisma and the more recent World of Kanako respectively. Detective Takabe is the only one capable of figuring out the cause of the murders, and at the same time is the one most susceptible to becoming the next victim as he is stressed by the divide between his private life and his work; he wears two masks at odds with each other. Identity is at the core of the horror in Cure, characters are asked who they are and they are defined by their occupation, through their choice. The person each murderer kills speaks to a pent up frustration. For the man Mamiya meets on the beach it is his wife. For the police officer it’s his by-the-books partner. For the doctor it’s men in general, who have looked down upon her despite her profession. For Mamiya when he was still a student, it was his studies, taken out on the monkey test subject his paper was on. And for Takabe, we get the most obvious clue: as his wife reads the story of Bluebeard during her visits to the doctor.

There is no slack in the film, each scene serving its purpose to further the film’s message, or to further the detective narrative, sometimes both. Two scenes taking place at a laundromat come off as prime cutting room floor material until we realize these scenes introduce the idea of bottled emotions, and what Kurosawa suggests is the cure for these is the most haunting element of the film, made even bleaker by the fact that our hero uses the knowledge of the cure to not stop the killings, but to continue them. And with much greater ability than Mamiya had.

Cure is so much more than the easy comparisons to Seven and Silence of the Lambs as it is the closest we will ever get to seeing a horror film by Tarkovsky or Hou Hsiao-Hsien in terms of Kurosawa’s command of atmosphere and the subtle blocking of his wide shots. It’s this style of unsettling static camerawork that leads us to believe we can catch how Mamiya takes hold of his victims, and gives the film its own power of hypnotism over the viewer.

According to Third Window Films’ Facebook page, the materials for Cure are not so hot. And the Spanish Blu-ray release of the film is nothing to write home about 25 interlaced frames per second for some reason). Janus has the rights to the film, and it’s up on Criterion’s Hulu Plus page in what looks like a straight rip of the now out of print HVE DVD. So at this moment the likeliest company to release a proper edition is Criterion, since Kadokawa has no restoration plans. But each October passes with no Cure announcement from Criterion.

Cure plays October 14 at 2pm and 7pm at the Landmark Chez Artiste.

Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.