Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Cure,” which can be described as mesmerizing in terms of both its plot (which involves hypnotism) and the swirling mood it creates, might be called, only a bit flippantly, “Se7en” with a Japanese accent. The atmospheric police thriller shares with David Fincher’s 1995 smash a plot centering on the search for a depraved serial killer and a grimly downbeat, deliberate tone. It’s less concerned than its Hollywood counterpart, however, with logically tying up loose plot threads; Kurosawa is far more interested in suggesting rather than explaining, and at the film’s close more than a few viewers will be scratching their heads. Even those who decide that “Cure” makes little sense, however, will hardly be unmoved by its deeply unsettling images and the fears and uncertainties it cleverly plays upon.
“Cure” stars Koji Yakusho, memorable as the staid businessman who finds release in ballroom dancing in Masayuki Suo’s wonderful “Shall We Dance?” (1996), who here plays Takabe, a dour Tokyo detective leading the investigation of a series of strange, brutal murders in which the victims all have an “X” carved onto their chests. In each case a different killer is apprehended, but all are bewildered and unable to explain their actions. Eventually the episodes are connected to Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), a rumpled wanderer who apparently has total amnesia but is finally identified as an erstwhile graduate student who had been delving into the secrets of Franz Mesmer, the eighteenth-century hypnotist-healer. Takabe and his associate, the psychologist Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki), become convinced that Mamiya has somehow developed the power to “infect” people with an unconscious urge to kill; but proving the theory is an entirely different matter, especially because Takabe’s wife Fumie (Anna Nakagawa) is afflicted with a mental problem that affects her memory, too, and Mamiya is able to use knowledge of the detective’s difficult domestic situation to toy with him.
This description of the picture’s plot, it should be noted, smooths out the jagged, dreamlike shape that Kurosawa has imposed on the narrative; we’re introduced to the various characters and story threads in a series of vague, hallucinatory episodes (beginning with a weird depiction of Fumie’s visit to a hospital), and the enigmatic approach continues to the close, with a denouement that suggests that the cure which Takabe finds for Mimiya’s murder spree may have effects worse than the original disease. The viewer has to be willing to work to connect the dots, and even then he might wind up feeling that there are still a few pieces of the puzzle missing. That will probably be frustrating to many in the audience, but the fact is that the allusive, deliberately opaque style of the film allows it to transcend the fundamental absurdity of its premise–which, if it were played simply straight, would have resulted in something akin to one of Dario Argento’s hysterically baroque exercises in mayhem–the ones that inevitably wind up in some wildly implausible psychological explanation. “Cure” is really just as silly as Argento’s movies, but its moody, languid surface and deliberate, elliptical style give it at least a feeling–whether justified or not–of intellectual depth.
The result is a fascinating cinematic exercise which woozily suggests the fragile underpinnings of modern rational life by craftily employing genre conventions in unexpected ways. It might not entirely add up in the end, but it takes us on a remarkable ride along the way.