Kiyoshi Kurosawa peers into the abyss of human impulse in his nerve-shredding psychological thriller
A series of bizarre murders are spreading across Japan, where seemingly rational individuals slaughter those close to them by carving an “X” into their necks. The perpetrators have no memory of committing their crimes, and no discernible connection links them. With no other plausible motives, world-weary detective Takabe (Koji Yakusho) suggests these people were hypnotized by someone still at large. His colleague, psychologist Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki), rebuts that hypnosis doesn’t warp anyone’s moral compass; no one can be compelled to murder if they don’t want to. While an initially comforting sentiment, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure slowly peels back this societal veil like skin from a corpse to reveal the festering implications underneath.
Framed like a police procedural before descending into the repressed depths of human behavior, Kurosawa explores a world that buries murderous impulses under social niceties and deference to societal roles. His antagonist, the amnesiac Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), rebuffs the norms of 90’s Japan at nearly every turn. He shuns a suit and tie for a schlubby cable-knit sweater; he doesn’t wait for the authority figures that help him to answer his meandering questions before repeating them ad nauseam; and when his inquisition stops, it’s to bluntly point out harsh emotional truths raised by his singular demand: “tell me about you.” It’s a seemingly innocuous question that reveals itself to have far-reaching existential potency for its recipients, a demand weaponized against a society that Kurosawa depicts as quickly willing to give up individual identity in exchange for a comfortable hierarchical role. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a salaryman, a teacher, a police officer, a nurse, or a detective–even as an audience member, Mamiya’s question worms its way under your skin to surgically separate you from the role you choose to play. And it’s in that void where Mamiya’s power of suggestion manages to pry free your most murderous desires.
In that same vein, Kiyoshi Kurosawa uses his skill as a director to interrogate the ever-evolving relationship between his audience and his film, using Cure’s imagery and the cuts between them to diabolical effect. The film’s jaunty opening is one of fiendish narrative economy, telling the story of a random stranger’s murder of a woman–as well as the possible suggestion of why–in only seven shots. Kurosawa’s cutting of the action deftly illustrates the effectiveness of the Kuleshov effect, or the way we derive meaning from two images joined together; likewise, his framing of the action provokes certain emotional reactions. The jarring brutality of the sex worker’s murder is underscored by the banality of the music, the sudden closeup of a pipe wrenched free from its place in an underpass, the distance of the camera, the sudden reveal of what role the pipe has to play, and finally both actors’ hypnotic lucidity in being perpetrator or prey to the crime. In only seven shots and six cuts, Kurosawa slaughters our expectations for what Cure might be–and for the rest of the film, he proceeds to use both cinematography and editing as weapons of violent subversion.
Across his filmography, Kurosawa is ever conscious of what we can and can’t see–and uses the reveal of unseen objects or characters to reveal new information in his scenes. Mamiya’s first appearance, for example, seems alien or supernatural in origin, appearing seemingly out of nowhere in between reaction shots of a teacher sketching a desolate, empty shoreline. The reveals often provoke further, charged questions about the characters, their actions, and how we feel about them–despite the fact that, if we remove ourselves from our solipsistic perspectives, these unseen elements were always part of the world we inhabit. Kurosawa’s languid, roving camera captures the gradual reveal of truths hiding in the world outside of his frames; likewise, to cut to a new angle feels like a sudden release of information or shift in perspective, often upending the balance of informational power. This is even outside the many jump-scare cuts Cure can have to the most mundane things, like a clattering hospital meal cart or a toppled glass of water. Moments like Mamiya suddenly acknowledging the teacher’s wife in a lurid way after minutes of frustrating cluelessness or his gripping stonewalling of an interrogatory police panel each highlight the power Kurosawa’s cuts can have.
As Takabe realizes just how Mamiya’s power of suggestion has infected his seemingly infallible perspective, we also realize just how powerful Kurosawa’s visual precision truly is in Cure. Images invade from outside character’s perspectives–be it memory, dream, or something else entirely–and we’re forced to reckon their casual relationship with what we’re told is real. With an evocative atmosphere of dread that feels like an omen for Ring, Ju-on, Kurosawa’s own Pulse, and the J-Horror boom to come, Cure forces us to reconsider what terrors might be possible underneath the mundanity of everyday life. What’s more, by doing so we must confront our own capability in conjuring such demons from the darkness of our imaginations.
Cure is my bar-none favorite film of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s, and should certainly be considered one of the best films ever made. Ever since it first appeared with Criterion branding during their brief partnership with Hulu, I’ve been chomping at the bit for a packed disc release. Criterion’s new Blu-ray exceeds expectations, with a reverent 4K restoration as a centerpiece among new interviews with Kurosawa, Yakusho, and Hagiwara, in addition to archival and modern promotional materials.
Criterion presents Cure in a 1080p transfer in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, sourced by a 4K restoration of the 35mm original camera negative conducted by Kadokawa and supervised by cinematographer Tokusho Kikumura. The accompanying 2.0 Stereo track was remastered from the production’s DAT recordings. English subtitles are provided for the feature and supplemental materials, with burnt-in English subtitles on the archival Kiyoshi Kurosawa interview.
Cure made its Japanese theatrical debut in the wake of many direct-to-video V-Cinema crime films made by Kurosawa; in that same vein, I’d been used to Cure having a grimy, low-resolution look to its home video releases over the last 20 years. This new restoration repairs decades of technological shortcomings, with a vibrant yet dark transfer that’s rich in insidious detail. Kurosawa’s love for repurposing abandoned locales for his films is on emphatic display like never before here, with the chipped paint and rust of urban decay viscerally manifesting the inner rot of his mild-mannered characters. Previously unintelligible details like in the enigmatic portraits and cobwebs within the film’s climactic warehouse are finally discernible here. This is the best Cure has looked in many years–and this transfer’s place as a definitive reference point cannot be understated.
The Stereo audio track deftly showcases the film’s complex sound design, which sonically immerses audiences in the same upending of reality during key sequences of the film. Gary Ashiya’s sparse yet effective score plucks at viewers’ nerves with judiciously used echoing tones and synths.
Note: while the Koji Yakusho and Masato Hagiwara interviews can also be found on the recent Japanese release of Cure’s restoration, the feature-length making-of documentary Core of CURE by director Mari Asato is tragically missing from this release for unknown reasons, as is a commentary by Asato. If fans of Cure don’t mind missing subtitles, this release can be found on Amazon Japan.
- No Boundaries — A Cure Conversation: Writer-Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa sits with Director and former student Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car) to discuss Cure’s origins, production, and lasting legacy both personally and internationally. In a refreshing departure from more traditional interviews between filmmakers and critics, Hamaguchi asks probing thematic and technical questions of his former mentor, whose answers range between cryptic, jovial, and enlightening.
- Koji Yakusho: A candid interview by Cure’s lead actor reflecting on his initial approach to his role, physically manifesting the complexity of Takabe’s psychological burdens, and adapting his acting methods to Kurosawa’s camerawork.
- Masato Hagiwara: Hagiwara opens up about the pressures that came with taking on the role of Mamiya, letting go of his predispositions in order to play an “empty” character, and the lasting effects of playing such an enigmatic character.
- Kiyoshi Kurosawa: A 2003 archival interview with Kurosawa sourced from the US DVD release by Janus subsidiary Home Vision Entertainment (RIP). This wide-ranging interview features Kurosawa delving more into the thematic underpinnings of Cure as well as musings on his social commentaries at large across his films to that point.
- Trailers from Cure’s original theatrical run as well as for Janus Film’s U.S. theatrical presentation of the 4K restoration.
- Booklet featuring an essay by author and critic Chris Fujiwara on the historical context and societal critiques of Cure.
Cure is now available on Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection.