The cross on the wall signifies a murder in ‘Cure’

MUBI recently offered a Kurosawa Kiyoshi mini-season and I managed to catch Cure, Kurosawa’s international breakthrough film, just before it fell off the 30 day rolling programme. It is available on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK from Eureka and possibly on other streaming services. Kurosawa is a major filmmaker who hasn’t been seen much in UK cinemas but he’s a firm favourite with festivals and is very highly regarded in France. In the UK he became known around 2000 with some releases in the ‘Tartan Extreme’ DVD series. I was very impressed by his 2008 prize-winner Tokyo Sonata which did get a very limited run in UK cinemas. Although it does have links to the earlier films, Tokyo Sonata seemed to many critics to be something different. The issue here (or perhaps just in the UK) is that Kurosawa began his career in what were seen as exploitation genres – ‘pink films‘, then V-cinema films (low budget, straight to video) and finally J-horror. Cure appeared in Japan just a few weeks before Nakata Hideo’s Ringu which has often been acknowledged as the film which launched a series of remakes and similar titles in South East Asia and Hollywood. (Ringu was a literary adaptation that had already been adapted for TV.) Cure does share something with Nakata’s film but in other ways it is even more complex and disturbing.

The suspect (Hagiwara Masato) tries to intimidate Takabe while the psychologist Sakuma (Ujiki Tsuyoshi) watches in the background.

In outline, the story appears to be a familiar serial killer format but one in which gruesome murders are committed by dazed killers who don’t know each other and who seem almost unaware of what they have done. Somebody or something has caused seemingly ‘ordinary’ people to kill someone they encounter or someone they know. The detective in charge of the investigation is the lead character who has his own problems in the form of his wife who seems to have a form of amnesia. She is prone to getting lost when she goes shopping and she acts oddly in attempting to keep house. Yakusho Kôji plays the detective ‘Takabe’. He is one of the most successful Japanese actors of his generation and in 1996 had a major international success with Shall We Dansu? He has worked several times with Kurosawa Kiyoshi. In this film he wears a long gaberdine coat and his demeanour switches from complete calm to bouts of rage. He himself is overworked and getting close to a breakdown. Like the the best J-horror films there are also moments of possible hallucination and the progress of the investigation is disturbing in several ways. The narrative does not end when the suspect is caught and interrogated. Instead we move into a dénouement which includes another element similar to that in the Ring series – a scientific experiment dating from the turn of the 20th century which continues to create a ‘disturbance’ nearly a hundred years later.

Takabe finds an ‘Edison phonograph’ in an abandoned laboratory.

I’m not going to spoil the narrative in any way – and indeed to do so with any certainty would be very difficult since the events, especially in the closing section, are presented elliptically. Instead I’ll just mention some of formal ideas and possible references. A link to Ringu is the addition of a second investigator. Whereas in Nakata’s film, the principal investigator is a female reporter who is aided by her ex-husband, here the detective is aided by an academic psychologist who is eventually able to track down details of an 1898 criminal investigation and the scientific research that became part of that investigation. The suspect is a young man who is able to compel ordinary people to kill. Why does he do this? Takabe the detective seems drawn ever more deeply into the case and we begin to worry that he might not have the mental strength to pursue it to its conclusion. The narrative is set in the Tokyo area and ranges from the beach to offices, cheap hotels, a police hut, a hospital ward etc. The final sequence almost felt like a Tarkovskian stumble through an abandoned world (I’m still mulling over Stalker) – see the image above.

J-horror was a Japanese genre that achieved significant international distribution. Kurosawa is clearly at one end of a spectrum with a heavy shading of arthouse/auteur sensibility. I do wonder how much the success of the genre is down to the general feeling of malaise in Japan during the long period of economic stagnation during the 1990s. Does this connect to the return of ghost stories? There is a suggestion of a ‘return’ of 19th century fears in Cure and a feeling of desperation and despair about contemporary society. With this film Kurosawa was hailed as a new ‘master of horror’ and I found the film extremely affective in its power to disturb. I must try to watch more.