Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Cure

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

CURE

8/10

Kyua : Kiyoshi Kurosawa : Japan 1997 : 111 mins

Fearsome heart of his healing hand
Road of healing not a long
Take sword. A man but dew.
Heal, O water-grass!
O winter falls snow.
That heal snow.
Take in hand heal.

These haiku-like words emanate tinnily from an ancient Edison phonograph machine at the end of Cure, Kiyoshi Kurosawas tantalisingly metaphysical version of the serial-killer thriller. Though impenetrably enigmatic at first glance, they in fact pretty much explain everything that’s gone before if anything in this startling, fascinating film can be explained at all. Because the bare bones of the plot, while sufficiently original to have attracted Hollywood attention (remake rights were bought in late 2002, one year after the films belated US release) are only the starting-point for the bizarre journey that is Cure.

World-weary detective Ken-ichi Takabe (Koji Yakusho) is having problems at home and at work: as his wife Fumie (Anna Nakagawa) seems to be succumbing to mental illness, he’s assigned to a nightmarishly difficult homicide case. While the victims are killed in identical fashion and marked with a distinctive X-shaped wound the perpetrators are all different: ordinary people suddenly overtaken by a murderous rage. Takabes investigations eventually lead him to Kunio Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara) a mysterious, characterless drifter with an intense interest in the theories of hypnotist Frans Mesmer

That Kurosawa is a director of astonishing confidence and technical skill is apparent from the first scenes in Cure which also showcase the impressive contributions from cinematographer Tokusho Kikumura, editor Kan Suzuki, production designer Tomoyuki Maruo and Gary Ashiya, the man responsible for the music. This includes the jaunty theme that plays over the opening titles, accompanying an especially brutal and unexpected eruption of violence as a woman is beaten to death with a metal pipe which we’ve seen ripped off a subway wall in distinctly Argento-ish style. As the letters of the films title slide into view from different sides of the screen, we see Takabe for the first time, at the wheel of his car as he drives to the crime-scene. He sighs, quietly but audibly a tiny sound-effect integrated with Ashiyas score in typically virtuoso style.

Throughout Cure Kurosawa pays at least as much attention to the sound design as he does to the visuals this is a film which deserves to be seen either in a cinema or through stereo headphones. Like Michael Mann, he has a precise eye for the environments in which his characters exist: all are precisely placed in the widescreen frame among a low-key series of buildings, rooms and urban architecture. And just as Mann re-imagined Los Angeles in Heat, Kurosawa transcends the basic thriller aspects of his material to accumulate a wide-ranging exploration of the Tokyos residential and industrial cityscapes: the end titles feature a static image of a suburban back-alley that wouldn’t look out of place in the acclaimed portfolios of master urban photographer Naoya Hatakeyama.

Every dark, ominous frame seems haunted by the doomy spectre of the Aum cult whose sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo underground convulsed a society already jittery at the prospect of the (then-impending) new millennium. This is a society whose fanatically well-ordered surface is, we see, a very brittle shell indeed: as Takabe waits to collect his dry-cleaning at the local laundry, he hears a fellow salary-man muttering in what sounds like a boiling frenzy. There is psychosis in the very molecules of the air, it seems and the film makes just as much sense whether Mamiya is or isn’t the mesmerising monster he appears to be.

The aggressively enigmatic final scenes, while appearing to unravel the mystery, on closer examination pose even more questions. Has Mamiya somehow transferred his magic to Takabe? Are the killings over, or have they only just begun? Is Japan about to be plunged into the full-scale apocalypse to rival that unleashed at the end of Kurosawas previous film, Charisma? The very long last shot which starts, innocuously enough, with Takabe in a diner supports any of these interpretations. But it is, in terms of the manipulation of sound and image, and the deployment of split-second editing, a dazzling, frustrating, wildly controversial coup de cinema.

26th December, 2002
(seen on DVD, 27th July)

For the original shorter version of this review click here.

by Neil Young