Welcome to Screams Heard Around The World. In this monthly column, I’ll spotlight a horror movie from a country outside the United States that has flown under the radar. The goal is to showcase the talents of horror filmmakers around the world and make sure their voices don’t go unheard.
Movie: CURE (1997)
Watch if You Like: Pulse, Se7en, Serial Killers, Dark Brooding Films, Psychological Thrillers
I am always hesitant to use the word perfect when describing a movie. But I’ll make an exception for Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 1997 serial killer film, Cure. From a moody detective to perhaps the best serial killer I’ve ever seen, Cure checks all the boxes for a life-changing cinematic experience that will chill you to the bone.
While he has directed a wide range of films, Kurosawa (no relation to famed director Akira Kurosawa) is known particularly for his work within the horror genre with films such as Pulse, Creepy, and, of course, Cure. His horror works often grapple with the ever-changing Tokyo and the ramifications such rapids changes have on society. These films are bleak, stark, and unrelenting. He reaches deep into the corners of your brain to retrieve what scares you the most and translates it to the screen in such unnerving ways.
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“Cure checks all the boxes for a life-changing cinematic experience that will chill you to the bone.”
Cure follows police detective Takabe (Kôji Yakusho, Charisma) as he and psychiatrist Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki. Four Days of Snow and Blood) try to solve a series of strange murders. But at first they would seem unconnected, as each murder was committed by someone different. However there are two key factors that indicate this is more than just coincidence. First, each murderer seems completely sane and had no motive for murder; they all just seemed to have snapped. Second, each body is marked with an X cut from neck to chest. This consistent imagery leads Takabe and Sakuma down a rabbit hole darker than they could ever imagine.
Unlike most serial killer films, we are introduced to the killer, Mamiya, almost right away. This is not about a game of cat-and-mouse, but about embodying multiple perspectives to somehow achieve a deeper level of understanding. Mamiya is a serial killer but in a very unique sense. He uses hypnotic suggestion to implant ideas and images of violence into his victims’ minds. He himself does not commit murder, but essentially forces others to do so through repetition of words, the sound of water, and the flicking of a lighter. He is perhaps the scariest type of killer as he can commit these crimes so sneakily—until he meets Takabe of course.
It is not just Mamiya’s method of killing that makes him unique. It is his entire attitude about his crimes and the world around him. So often, serial killers have a grand statement they wish to make about humanity and often a large amount of ego is at play while they toy with the cops that chase them. Mamiya, however, is completely detached, which makes him all the more terrifying. He is so nonchalant about the accusations against him, which he never really confirms or denies. He is an empty shell, a vessel for something else, a person who has been hollowed out and filled with some greater purpose. He is almost cold, yet hauntingly charming as he lights cigarettes and finds ways to pry information out of people. There is even an uncomfortable chemistry between Mamiya and Takabe as they orbit each other like two dying stars. This is not uncommon in these types of films as mutual obsession and fascination create a strange attraction.
But in Cure, while Takabe is furious with Mamiya, he cannot stay away. He is disgusted but infatuated, revealing his true feelings to only Mamiya, not his friend Sakuma or even his wife. Takabe sees something in Mamiya, just as Mamiya sees something in him. Mamiya cannot make Takabe kill, which makes him believe that Takabe is truly something special. Takabe wants to understand what is truly driving Mamiya’s crimes as if he wants to somehow access his “power.” Again, this is not a film about a cop chasing a bad guy, culminating in a stand-off. This is a film about a cop and a killer becoming intimately entwined through violence and mutual destructive obsession.
But it is not just the central dynamic that makes Cure an arguably perfect film. Kurosawa also creates a film about the concept of memory and the struggle to preserve the past. Mamiya feigns extreme short-term memory loss to hypnotize his victims, while Takabe’s wife is struggling with actual memory loss. Every day, Takabe is fluctuating between the infuriating evasiveness of Mamiya and the slow degradation of his wife’s mind. These parallel looks at memory illustrate how delicate our memories truly are and how easily they can be manipulated. Memories are often are our only ways to access the past and even without manipulation, our grasp on memory is so tenuous. Can we trust our own brains to preserve the total truth or are memories just wishful constructions of what we wish once was? Of course there is no actual answer as memory is such a fluid and subjective experience. But in Cure, Kurosawa digs deep into these questions to illustrate just how fragile and malleable the human mind is.
This degradation of the mind and examination of memory is set in a decaying Japan devoid of color. In some ways, the setting is reminiscent of David Fincher’s Se7en as the cities of each seem to be collapsing in on themselves. But Cure has a much wider scope as it covers beaches, cities, hospitals, and the countryside, each bathed in a grey light that seems to drain the life and color out of everything. Kurosawa shoots much of the film from a distance that makes the surroundings feel so close and claustrophobic as if they are going to swallow everyone up. Every hallway feels like a labyrinth and every city street seems sinister. It is an oppressive, almost suffocating portrayal of a Japan on the verge of destruction.
“[…] this is not a film about a cop chasing a bad guy, culminating in a stand-off. This is a film about a cop and a killer becoming intimately entwined through violence and mutual destructive obsession.”
While I would never spoil an ending, Cure’s ending is again pitch-perfect, striking the perfect amount of dread, shock, and ambiguity. Kurosawa would never deliver a perfect ending for the sake of audience satisfaction, and Cure is no different. It leaves you feeling as hollow at Mamiya and as tense as Takabe, with a head full of terrifying possibilities.
Cure is a film that will stay with me for a long time. It is a film that will pop up in your head when you least expect and haunt you for a while before slinking back into your subconscious. Its killer is off-putting, its cop is relatable, and their relationship is like a toxic slime you can’t help getting sucked in to. Cure is an absolute must-see for those who love serial killer films, as well as those who wish to expand their knowledge of Japanese horror films. Kurosawa is a master of horror, particularly one that addresses an uncertain and changing world.