Cure (1997)

Written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Are we just the devil’s playthings? Frail creatures mortally susceptible to the whims of evil? With normcore aesthetics and bad, bad vibes, Kiyoshi Kurosawa says “yes!” with Cure. 

Because how else do you explain a string of gruesome murders of random civilians only unified by their innocence and the fact their killers were people close to them? People who then are unable to explain why they would massacre partners, colleagues and friends, but did so nonetheless, carving an X across their victim’s chest and then falling into a stupor? 

Detective Takabe (Kôji Yakusho) is tasked with finding out, however, and together with psychologist Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) they try to collect the pieces and mold it into something to be explained and not fall into despair over. Best first guess: “Did the devil make them do it?”

Answers become hard to come by, and even if a suspect materializes, understanding how and why proves even more difficult in this fog of human insufficiency where detectives and their belief in the explainable can only paw at conclusions. 

Cure does more than paw at you, though; it closes its fist around your heartstrings and pulls you down into the abyss. It’s bleak to behold, but it draws you in nonetheless, distinguishing it as a standout thriller and misanthropic joy, however oxymoronic that may sound. You too will feel disoriented and despondent, but grudgingly curious, because you’re just as desperate for a killer to be caught and answers to be found. 

The Japan of Kurosawa is a sea of steely gray as well. Fog and concrete spreads out before Takabe and Sakuma, and interiors are equally myopic, with walls close and rooms packed tight. The mundane morass is complete with baggy earth-toned fashion, seemingly designed for characters to disappear in, almost shadows in this wasteland. 

All of this belies the almost supernatural evil that’s occurring in front of your eye and nothing makes sense. Kurosawa tricks you early, showing you the first murder in long shot with plunky piano music playing over it, like some twisted Buster Keaton routine. Like Takashi Miike’s Audition, released two years later, you think Cure is going to be a very different film from what it is. When it reveals itself? Sits you right on your ass. 

It’s engaging enough on its own as a simple murder mystery, but what grants Cure it’s lasting power is the unease and greater sense of hopelessness. The specter of mental illness casts long shadows over Takabe and Sakuma’s investigation as inability to fully comprehend the headspace of others deadens any hope for progress. Similarly, the idea that their own headspace cannot be trusted makes Cure a slow-moving knife dragging itself across your stomach. 

So why subject yourself to it? Likely the same reason we clamored to True Detective’s first season like it was life-giving water despite its impossibly bleak view of the world and the animals in it. While well-acted, it was also an atmospheric masterclass, capable of inducing stomach-tightening chills as well as the odd chuckle leading you to curse yourself for what feels like a wicked reaction at the time. But that’s what Cure is. Wicked. 

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