In 1999, Hideo Nakata’s gloomy horror masterwork, Ring, popularised a wave of horror films from Japan that took the world by storm under the banner of J-Horror. J-Horror, like any genre or movement, has its line-up of standards and tropes, with the harsh digital look of muted Grey’s and Black’s and an apocalyptic nihilism born from the uncertainty of the economic crash that claimed the 1990s as the lost decade. Of more direct stock, there was the ubiquitous long black hair, a fear of technology and children turned into horrific apparitions as a mode of subtextual guilt. All that is true, and they also happen to rank among the creepiest films ever made. Before all of that was Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, a film long unavailable in the UK despite its massive reputation and a swarm of high-profile fans. Enter Masters of Cinema to save the day.
Ostensibly a murder mystery, Cure cuts far deeper than its affiliation to that tired genre suggests. This spate of graphic murders are unrelated yet they share an M.O. – a group of unrelated people kill someone in their life with a frightening, detached lucidity and carve a cross into their chest. They know they killed someone but none can give a compelling reason why; it just felt like “the right thing to do”, they say. When a suspect is eventually cornered, it is a twenty-something man with an inability to make memories or remember his past. As the case develops it is established that a genius of hypnotism motivated these bloody murders. Through this, Cure deconstructs the id, invokes occultism and explores the work of Franz Mesmer – the etymological source of the word ‘mesmerise’. So, NCIS this is not.
Coincidentally, mesmerising is the exact word I would use to describe the film. A key force in that is the atmosphere. Whether he can be credited for creating this style of atmospheric horror remains to be seen, nonetheless, Kurosawa establishes an oppressive atmosphere through those compressed digital visuals, greys and the dark corners that he would later go on to mine in Pulse (2001). The introduction of hypnotism as a means for evil (long before Get Out) is what makes all those constituent parts sing. Like Jordan Peele’s breakout debut, the idea that your mind has been compromised and is being bent to someone else’s will is a terrifying notion. Kurosawa achieves this through elliptical editing; avoiding explanation, removing key moments or playing them with a sneaky non-linearity where even if it is explained it makes little sense and, finally, the planting of abstract, contorted images. There’s a wooden simian statuette with its limbs crossed in the same shape of those savage and gory slashes on the victim’s bodies, an image that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
While the monkey ‘thing’ is being discussed, you have to look at the fate of the psychologist. The scene in question may end up with something as simple and anti-action as a man frantically trying to remove a giant cross from his wall, but the way it arrives there is both a warmup and better than anything achieved in his later horror masterwork, Pulse. Kurosawa has an innate ability to make your skin crawl through the smallest of motifs.
Cure’s status as a preeminent J-Horror title may set some up for disappointment. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s genre work is far more still and slow in its build up, there are no moments like Sadako crawling through the TV or the ghostly girl in Dark Water (to stick with Hideo Nakata). The equivalent marquee scenes are built upon gestures and patterns – asking questions over and over or manipulating light are the chosen tools. Just like Get Out turned rotating a spoon around a teacup into a source of abject horror, Kurosawa does the same for lighting a cigarette. Now, I am fully aware that on paper that doesn’t really sound like much but seeing what is wrought by such small motions, it turns the unassuming Masato Hagiwara into the single most intimidating icon of the latest golden age of Japanese horror. The simple question of ‘who are you?’ has skin crawling ramifications, especially when Hagiwara delivers it in such a nonchalant, disinterested and blasé way. His evil is not grandiose but subtle and insidious.
The investigator of these horrific murders is Koji Yakusho, who, as the film begins, is a patient detective who merely wants to solve this spate of crimes so he can take his wife on holiday, maybe to Hokkaido or Okinawa. But like Brad Pitt in Se7en, his is a story where the investigation is a losing battle with his own sanity the victim. Detective Takabe (Yakusho) has visions of death and that horrible monkey statuette in a descent into psychological hell scratching away the inner walls of his mind until it asks us why the film is called Cure. Who is in need of this titular remedy and what is it? A question that would never work without a performance as those by Hagiwara and Yakusho. This is psychological horror at its finest, a mashup of Larry Cohen’s 1976 film, God Told me to, crossed with an intellectually challenging and horrific show of the idea that to build something new we have to tear down what we already have. And in doing that, Kurosawa has usurped the final scene of John Carpenter’s ever-underappreciated In the Mouth of Madness as the ultimate display of evil’s absolute power to indoctrinate.