Blu-ray Review: Cure

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Kiyoshi Kurosawa | CAST: Masato Hagiwara, Kôji Yakusho, Tsuyoshi Ujiki, Anna Nakagawa, Misayo Haruki, Yoriko Dôguchi
10/18/22 | PRICE: Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES: New conversation between director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi; interviews with actors Masato Hagiwara and Kôji Yakusho; 2003 interview with Kurosawa.
SPECS: NR | 111 min. | Thriller | 1.85:1 widescreen | stereo |

RATINGS (out of 5): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Police procedurals are a dime a dozen, but 1997’s Cure was and is a cut (way) above the usual “police detective hunts a psychotic killer” saga. First of all, it is a tightly scripted affair that brilliantly sketches its police detective antihero and involuntarily murderous characters, while cloaking its true villain (whose identity is revealed early on) in a web of mystery and supplying a unique “weapon” for his crime, namely hypnotic suggestion.

The film is also masterfully constructed on the level of its visuals and sound mix, as unsettling camerawork and editing are underscored by a disturbing barrage of ambient sounds that further signal that the universe inhabited by the lead detective is upside down.

The plot respects all the norms of police procedurals as it subverts them. Our police detective antihero, Kenichi Takabe (Kôji Yakusho), has a mentally ill wife who causes him great stress. The unnervingly calm killer, Kunio Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), hypnotizes his victims to fatally stab someone close to them by asking them repetitive questions about their identity and showing them his cigarette lighter (and in one clever variation, a glass of spilled water), thus focusing their attention as he programs them to kill.

Mamiya, whom Takabe first meets midway through the movie (when Mamiya is in a detention center), becomes aware of Takabe’s impending nervous breakdown. In a big showdown in Mamiya’s cell he incites the detective to lose it emotionally by tormenting him about his resentment toward his wife. It’s unclear who will win this battle of wills, but Mamiya is still able to ensnare more victims from his cell, leading to a quite brilliant conclusion.

Filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Wife of a Spy, Penance) concocted a script so involving that one doesn’t  have a qualm when supernatural elements enter the picture. The hypnotist seems to have other elements at his command—including, in the cell “showdown” with Takabe, the elements of nature itself. As the detective tries to turn the tables and hypnotize Mamiya with his own lighter, rain begins to drip into the prison and put out the flame.

Cure was Kurosawa’s first theatrical feature after more than a decade of making “V-cinema,” crime thrillers for the home video market. (The longest running series had the colorful title in English Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself.) Those films were made to order, and so Cure stands as the first time that Kurosawa could follow his instincts and create what could be called a more “immersive” crime thriller.

The visuals lead down a very noir path—there are daytime sequences (including a sudden murder committed in bright sunlight), but Kurosawa clearly wanted to depict the victims’ minds (and Takabe’s) by emphasizing darkness. He also utilizes hand-held camera shots at key moments, including a scene where Takabe is in his kitchen, just about to snap over his wife’s odd behavior. (She wants the washer-dryer to remain on, even though there are no clothes in it.) Physical violence is mostly left offscreen but when it does appear, it usually explodes and is cut away from shortly thereafter.

Kurosawa’s sound mix is calculated to subtly fray the nerves of the attentive viewer. Ambient sounds are audible throughout but are most effective as we await another act of violence, or Takabe seems to be in a trance (which is the case even before he encounters the hypnotist). These low, insistent noises—ranging from David Lynch’s favorite, fluorescent lights, to traffic signs, to jangling hospital trays—also signal Takabe’s impending breakdown.

The other profoundly effective aspect of the film is the acting. One of Kurosawa’s favorite themes is man’s alienation from society, and no actor has better incarnated this for him than Kôji Yakusho (Doppelganger, the original Shall We Dance?). Here Yakusho walks a delicate line between being an assured, no-nonsense detective and harboring massive resentment toward his sick wife. His performance grounds the picture and makes it all seem believable, even when supernatural elements crop up in the third act.

And while Yakusho plays the voice of “reason” (or, more properly, curiosity), Hagiwara gives a magnetic, low-key performance as the hypnotist behind all the murders. The fact that he looks so youthful disguises his ability to manipulate his victims, who are all either older than him or of a higher social class.

The age difference between the two performers (Yakusho was 41 and Hagiwara 26 when the film was made) informs their characters, as Takabe is a dedicated figure who hides anger and bitter resentment beneath his business-like exterior; Mamiya, on the other hand, is frightening because he is so laid back in his manipulation. The fact that Hagiwara picks his victims at random and then soaks up their secrets to use against them makes him an even more unusual and compelling villain. He likes playing the puppetmaster and damaging minds, simply to see if he can carry it off.

Onscreen supplements in the release include a 2003 interview with Kiyoshi K. In this piece, he declares that Cure began as a thought he had after seeing news stories about murderers who were all called “nice, normal people by their neighbors and friends.” He also maintains that he cast Yakusho in the lead role because they both are in the same age group, and he believed that the actor could depict the “uncertain and indefinite” character of their age, which culminated in people born in the mid-Fifties having “an ambiguous sense of values.”

He also discusses the meaning of the film’s title (that Takabe goes through a purge in his confrontation with Mamiya). When asked about his influences, he speaks about seeing many films in the Seventies and being most impressed by the works of unconventional action directors like Peckinpah, Aldrich, Richard Fleischer, and Siegel. He notes that “confusion and sophistication” was blended in their films, and he hopes to make movies “in which confusion and sophistication coexist.”

Kôji Yakusho is interviewed in another supplement, this one from 2020. A very serious fellow, Yakusho respectfully calls the maker of Cure “Director Kurosawa” throughout the talk. (He does remark upon Kurosawa having the demeanor of a schoolteacher and being “a little hard to approach” when he’s thinking while alone in a corner of the set.) He praises the film unabashedly, noting he’s seen it more times than anything else he’s acted in and that he considers it “my magnum opus.”

He remembers seeing the film for the first time with an audience when it opened in Japan. The screening was sparsely attended, but, he notes, “The empty screening intensified the horror.” He also maintains that the film works among other reasons because “the people who live in this world never question its strangeness.”

Hagiwara, on the hand, is quite jovial during his 2020 interview. He looks nothing like he did in ’97  but notes right at the start that “Cure still resonates with me.” He says that, while he expected to be told to watch crime or horror films, Kurosawa instead told him to watch Kiarostami’s And Life Goes On (1992), in which a seemingly passive film director goes on a trip with his son.

Kurosawa kept him on-edge by telling him he had “a tic” and each time he displayed it they’d have to do a retake. The director never revealed what that tic was, but Hagiwara says this practice ended with Kurosawa “[transforming] me into Mamiya without me knowing.” As for his iconic character, he says “Those [people] who you can’t figure out can be the most frightening.”

The sole supplement made explicitly for this package is a new interview with Kurosawa, conducted by filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car), who studied with him. In a cordial chat, Kurosawa notes that he kept the same crew for Cure that he has been using for his V-cinema crime pictures. He also cites Silence of the Lambs as being an influence on the film but even more so And Life Goes On.

Kurosawa notes that he mildly lied in previous interviews (which includes the one from 2003 found here), making up answers that he only became aware of after the film was completed. The notion of Cure being related to news interviews in which people reflect on the “normal” natures of murders was an “answer I gave in interviews, but it’s a retrofitted response. The truth is that I didn’t shoot [the film]  while having such refined thoughts. But it’s not a lie either….”

The most interesting and yet saddening thing Kiyoshi K. leaves us with is the idea that he now has to be concerned when he makes a movie about the budget and box-office success. (Surprising, given that his telefilm Wife of a Spy was an international hit in 2020.) Thinking back to ’97, he says, “It was a blessed period where I didn’t have to think about [that] at all. As long as we completed it, as long as we didn’t go in the red, if we stayed within the budget I could probably do everything. I didn’t think anything about how the movie would do….

“I sometimes wonder if I could go back to that era now…. it might end up the worst thing ever. But that’s okay if that’s the case. Because 25 years from now, putting aside whether I’m alive or not, they might say, ‘What a weird movie this is.’ That’s why I’d like to do that kind of moviemaking again now.”

Buy or Rent Cure

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”