Sunday, 3 June 2018

CURE (1997)

When the boom in Japanese horror took off in the West during the early 2000s it apparently arrived fully formed, attracting attention largely on the back of the landmark statement made at the time by Hideo Nakato’s Ringu, its various sequels and offshoots, and the franchise created with Takashi Shimizu’s extensive roster of Ju-On (Grudge) movies. But, from very early on in the critical discussion surrounding the distinctiveness of the J horror scene, it became de rigueur to refer back to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s unnerving 1997 psycho-thriller Cure as the ground zero of the phenomenon; a template that set the style and tone for what was to follow despite very marked differences to most other entries in the sub-genre. Oddly, though, given its importance to the development of this branch of horror, the film always remained quite hard to see. Devotees of Asian genre cinema had to actively seek out region three or region one DVD releases in order to view it. And UK fans had a particularly hard time of it when it came to the availability of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s work in general. Only in the last year or so -- with his award-winning films such as Tokyo Sonata having by now acquired the director some measure of arthouse respectability -- have Kurosawa’s career-making horror masterworks from the nineties and early 2000s started to filter into the UK market; and this new dual-format Blu-ray/DVD release of Cure (definitely the director’s career breakthrough) from Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema imprint, marks the film’s debut in this country … a bewildering state of affairs for a film that stands up now as well as it ever did, and which can also be said to have transcended its original role as midwife to the J horror explosion and become just as essential to any consideration of the emergence of the modern form of what, these days, might be referred to (for better or worse) as arthouse horror. In a new interview included with the Eureka release, Kurosawa himself muses on why the film has endured and concludes that it is “a unique combination of art film and genre film”, before going on to compare it in style to the work of David Cronenberg.   

Cure does not deal in overtly supernatural phenomena like most of its J horror cousins: there are no wronged, long-haired female ghostly spirits here, spreading unstoppable curses passed along through the conduit of technological communications. If anything, it’s far more profoundly disturbing on a philosophical level for being much harder to pin down just what exactly is supposed to be going on during large chunks of this picture’s narrative, precisely because we are not afforded the luxury of being able to label any of it supernatural. Although suggestive allusions to ‘occult ceremony’ are made near the end of the film, they are all the more unnerving for remaining speculative and poetic in their nature. The narrative seemingly operates on a mythic/symbolic/metaphoric plain, despite being grounded in a series of identifiable, familiar urban locations. And Kurosawa achieves his effects by refusing to be pinned down to logical explanations, evoking instead a sense of loneliness and emptiness by his choice of settings: anonymous, semi-industrial sites on the edges of cities. Abandoned or decaying, they have often been cleansed of significant historical markers in a process of constant renewal and permanent redevelopment suggestive to viewers of a modern malaise of the psyche, as pictured in landscapes nurtured in the aftermath of the bubble economy of 1990s Japan.

The film has a quirky, tangential style, full of narrative ellipsis and ambiguous, hard-to-read occurrences much in evidence from the opening scenes and continuing throughout. Even so, it also seems at first to be a pure exercise in neo-noir rather than straight horror, essaying a mix of story elements that refer to then-recent developments in the genre such as Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs and David Fincher’s Se7en, rather than to contemporary Japanese ghost stories. Thus, the film appears initially to be defined by the conventions of the detective genre: a few minutes in, and we are presented with the familiar figure of the rain-coated detective, here played by Kurosawa regular Kôji Yakusho. Detective Takabe is introduced to us in a scenario straight out of a standard police procedural: he has been called to the scene of a crime in which the mutilated body of a prostitute has been found by a cleaner in a blood-splattered Tokyo hotel room … So far, then, so familiar. Forensics is being gathered by a team at the site, and clues are being amassed in the usual manner as it is established that the woman has been knocked senseless with a blow to the head from a piece of lead water pipe, then left to bleed to death from an injury to her neck caused by a large letter ‘X’ carved into her throat with a knife. It doesn’t matter if a handful of disconnected scenes or images don’t quite add up, because we expect the fragmented pieces to get slotted into place as the film progresses, and as the detective starts to match motive with suspect to reach the end of a process of ratiocination that will result in all becoming clear to us, as well as to him, at the end of the picture. Or, as Takabe puts it himself at one point “All I want is to find words that will explain the crime … that’s my job.”

Solving crime for Takabe, then, is as much about uncovering, understanding and assigning motive as it is about the identification of a perpetrator. Yet Takabe’s psychologist friend Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) sees things rather differently; he assumes that people invariably go about their lives without awareness of what truly drives their actions, then concoct a narrative afterwards to explain their behaviour to themselves as much as to anyone else: “No-one can understand what motivates a criminal,” 
he asserts; “ sometimes, not even the criminal.” This notion militates against the very idea that criminal acts can be slotted inside a full logical system to explain human behaviour: “People like to think a crime has some meaning,” Sakuma later states … “but most of them don’t.” Instead, Sakuma assumes that we must stick to matching specific crimes to identified perpetrators, and be content with that.

This first act tension between two opposing philosophical outlooks represented by the investigative leads might be assumed to drive the thematic underpinnings of the film’s events for the rest of the narrative -- but Kiyoshi Kurosawa makes it the point of the picture instead to undermine from the start both identity- and motive-based methods for arriving at any firm conclusions. Takabe and Sakuma are dealing with a case that defies all approaches to understanding; indeed, one that doesn’t play ball at all with the very assumptions that define criminal investigation. It’s this undermining of the intrinsic ground rules of the genre that he is nominally supposed to be working within that enables – indeed forces -- Kurosawa to send his characters off instead on an experimental journey that becomes an abstract investigation into the psychological foundations of (Japanese) identity itself.

We find out early on that what has been so perplexing Takabe and Sakuma about this case comes down to the fact that the prostitute’s murder is the third killing they have investigated in the last two months to exhibit the same modus operandi, which suggests the work of a single serial killer. Yet, each time, there has turned out to have been a different perpetrator responsible, each one unconnected to and unaware of all the others and despite a news blackout being put in place on the details of the crime wave ruling out the possibility of copycat killings. The prostitute’s killer is also picked up, still at the scene, hiding naked in a service hatch in the corridor just outside the very hotel room in which the murder was committed. Like all the others, he vaguely remembers carrying out the crime but can offer no explanation for his actions. Takabe is faced, then, with the conundrum of being expected to bring to an end a continuing and escalating wave of identical murders, but with no single suspect to focus on apprehending and no motive whatsoever to explain any of what has been happening!

Eventually, Takabe comes up with a solution that appears to provide him with a way out of this head-spinning impasse, and also a means of providing closure to the case while still maintaining a rational investigative framework. A suspect is apprehended who seems to have a connection to several of the bewildered perpetrators. (Throughout the film, the viewer has also been following this man’s interactions with these various persons who later go on to kill in an unpremeditated fashion.) Takabe latches onto the idea that this man, known as Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), has somehow hypnotised all of these previously upstanding, conscientious, law-abiding citizens and one-by-one turned them into an army of killers. All that now remains to find out is how and why.

This idea recalls the central concept behind Fritz Lang’s sequel to his 1922 film of Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr Mabuse, the Gambler) where, at the end of the original story, inspired by Norbert Jacques’ novel, the German criminal mastermind Dr Mabuse -- who has exerted such dominance over an entire nation by personally presiding over a vast network of fraud and conspiracy -- goes insane and is confined to an asylum indefinitely. In the sequel, made ten years later, Das Testament des Dr Mabuse (The Testament of Dr Mabuse), Mabuse is still quite mad and has by now become totally incoherent. He continues to be confined to his cell and has no access to the outside world. Yet, his criminal network seems to be back up and running, and Mabuse’s identifiable personality seems to be all over a series of crimes that are once again sweeping the German capital. Halfway through the film, Mabuse actually dies, yet his crimes continue unabated -- as though his will has somehow transcended his physical form. It transpires that during the course of his obsessive study of his patient, the director of the asylum has taken on Mabuse’s characteristics through a process of transference akin to possession, and now continues to carry out the Mabusian program of destruction in his former patient’s place. Lang was tapping into the mood of his time as German democracy collapsed into fascist tyranny, and predicting how the will of a strongman leader could corrupt an entire nation by shaping and distorting the zeitgeist. In the end, it doesn’t matter if that leader is even around anymore: the environment and the culture he shaped continue to impose his will without him. The main difference with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s formulation is that at the centre of all the criminal activity in Cure, there appears to be the very opposite of a Mabuse-style dominating personality to impose his personal will on others through overpowering charismatic force and mesmeric influence. Instead, Mamiya appears to have no personality at all; no identity or recall of his own past, and barely any short-term memory.

While Mabuse captures the notion of powerful ideas turning into social contagions that can take on a life of their own, Kurosawa’s more ambiguous, abstract take on the concept strips out all sense of their having an origin in a personality or personal doctrine, and jettisons any ego based foundation that might ground such a contagion in a firm sense of continuing identity. It seems a specifically Japanese take on the subject: the approach of an anonymous, modern but conformist consumerist society that ranks cohesion of community above the needs of the individual. The film was made against the backdrop of the Aum Shinrikyo Sarin subway attack, not long after Japanese society had experienced a profound moment of existential crisis that led it to ask itself how so many educated graduates and apparently stable citizens could have been drawn to a doomsday cult espousing the mass slaughter of its own people. In the mid-1990s, the Japanese Government’s Cultural Affairs Agency registered 183,470 groups as religious corporations (reported in Damian Thompson’s The End of Time: faith and fear in the shadow of the Millennium, published in 1996). Yet these were essentially home-made religions – or what in the West we would dismiss as ‘cults’ -- which were springing up with such frequency precisely because Japan had become the type of society where, as Thompson reports, ‘there was no stigma attached to joining them.’ Indeed, sociologists of Japanese society have apparently identified four waves in the expansion of interest in such doomsday groups and small-scale religions, each one associated with a period of social upheaval caused by rapid industrialisation, natural disaster or war.

So, in Cure, we have what appears to be a detective story. But it is a detective story in which we are presented with a crime wave that has no explanation reducible to individual psychology, merely an endless series of perpetrators with no motive, and the correlation each of them has with an amnesiac who has no sense of self and no understanding of the social setting in which he exists. Takabe repeatedly attempts to progress his investigation by conventional deductive means, but each time he appears to be making progress in uncovering a piece of information that might be used to build a psychological profile of the blank space that is Mamiya, all he actually ends up doing is highlighting the ambivalences that underlie his own sense of identity, emphasising the double life he leads as a carer for his young wife (Anna Nakagawa) while being forced to watch powerlessly and to accept the consequences, as her identity slips away due to some sort of early-onset dementia. His stoic existence outside of work is contrasted with his persona as a cop who, as a requirement of his job, is under constant pressure to establish identity, forge motive … in short to produce meaning. “The detective or the husband; which is the real you?” Mamiya taunts, at one point, as detective and suspect play out a tenuous variation of the prison cell confrontation scene so familiar from countless examples of the genre Kurosawa is experimenting with here: “neither one is the real you … There is no real you.” The two incompatible sides of Takabe’s character are constantly being brought into conflict by the very interrogation process on which Takabe must rely when assessing Mamiya’s involvement with the case, causing an internal existential crisis of Being that can only be soothed with the ‘cure’ Mamiya’s solution offers to all those he encounters.

Takabe’s interactions with Mamiya put him in the same perilous situation as the perpetrators we have seen committing terrible crimes after they also have encountered this anonymous person, in a variety of earlier contexts. The feeling of unease and the mounting sense of dread Kurosawa establishes throughout the film, as Takabe is being inexorably drawn towards an indefinably disturbing new understanding of himself and the world around him, is achieved with a technique dependent on Kurosawa’s masterful formal control of compositional elements, and a suite of visual components all working together to bring about a profound effect on the viewer that seems far more than the sum of its parts, and is almost impossible to put into words. Key to Kurosawa’s method is how he completely marinates all aspect of his visualisation of the narrative in a soup of Jungian archetypes, to such an extent that the movie doesn’t just reference them in passing but is dependent on a fictional landscape completely constructed out of them. During the film, a breakthrough in the case with implications for the development of Takabe’s attitude towards both his job and his wife’s condition, comes when he discovers Mamiya’s decaying apartment on the grounds of a run-down construction site: it’s stuffed with text books on the treatment of personality disorders and works by Carl Gustov Jung, and appears to bear out Takabe’s theory concerning how Mamiya may have influenced the spate of crimes by confirming that he was indeed once a psychology student who at one time studied the animal magnetism of Franz Anton Mesmer. The astute viewer might feel at this point that they have also been made the subject of an attempt by a master of suggestion to bring about a trance-like hypnotic state of mesmerism, this time carried out by the director. The film is suffused with Jungian symbols, particularly those of fire and water, all suggestive of the idea that the surface personalities of the perpetrators of the various murders Takabe has been tracking are indicative of the eternal narratives of the unconscious, built from an intertextual web of character types, images, story structures and genre types that constitute the stuff of all storytelling. As, of course, Kurosawa’s own narrative itself demonstrates in its own construction.

Mamiya’s first appearance in the film occurs on a desolate beach, where he encounters a polite teacher, who takes him back to his beachside house after becoming concerned by Mamiya’s amnesia and apparent confusion. Kurosawa positions Mamiya in the beach landscape in such a way as to frame him standing alone against the backdrop of the ocean, which stretches away into the horizon. The ocean in Jungian semiology stands for an undifferentiated pre-conscious primal state, while the horizon stands for the limits of the conscious mind. Water is fundamentally a symbol of the unconscious in Jungian thought, while fire stands for the light of consciousness, but also for its more passionate emotions related to fury and to sex. Another important Jungian symbolic motif that recurs constantly throughout the film is that of the cave or some kind of darkened enclosure that can stand for a womb-like space. Takabe’s first fraught encounter with Mamiya takes place in the unlighted basement of a hospital, and the first murder of the film is preceded by an image of water gushing after the killer breaks off a piece of water pipe in an enclosed darkened underpass. This is followed by the image of a flashing electric light made faulty by a short in the circuit caused by the sudden outpouring. It's as if Kurosawa is setting out at the start the symbolic alphabet from which the rest of the film’s narrative will be composed. After he has murdered the prostitute with the pipe, the killer washes off in an overflowing shower and hides naked in an empty service hatch in the hotel corridor, where he is discovered later by Takabe, curled up in the foetal position.

Mamiya seems to be a personally blank manifestation of the unconscious forces that shape human behaviour and give rise to wider epidemics of mass hysteria that shape the cultural reaction to vague psychogenic maladies, given credence when they’re packaged into medical syndromes and disseminated throughout our culture. In the teacher’s beach house, the pulsing sound of the tides sets up a drowsy, rhythmic, hypnotic effect and reinforces this idea of a womb-like space that will bring forth a new consciousness leading to murder becoming a casual activity that, as one killer explains it, “seemed like the natural thing to do.” A flickering flame from a cigarette lighter is Mamiya’s hypnotic cue that allows him to bring to the surface the buried passions and resentments of his previously placid-seeming subjects-cum-murderers: the educated teacher who viciously murders his wife; the policeman who suddenly calmly shoots dead a colleague; a young female doctor who walks into a men’s restroom and murders a former patient, then performs an impromptu autopsy on the corpse as though re-living the circumstances of her time as a medical student, when she suffered from the institutional sexism of the medical profession.

How does Mamiya exert such control over these people? Here, Kurosawa foregoes logic and allows the narrative’s content to be shaped by the abstract Jungian idea of the collective unconscious: “All the things that used to be inside me … now they’re outside,” Mamiya tells the young female doctor. “I can see all the things inside you, doctor. But the inside of me … is empty.” Mamiya has no internal self but is the external manifestation of the suppressed emotions that exist collectively in all of us. Water overflowing a sink basin in a restroom, the spread of a pool of liquid across the floor when a glass is spilled in a hospital clinic or the sudden appearance of a damp stain on the ceiling of the cell where Takabe interviews Mamiya, denote this permeable state of consciousness – no longer confined by bodies but percolating through the culture at large. Takabe himself lives near a harbour; his sick wife sometimes gets lost on the bridge that spans it: a metaphoric representation of the slippage in her sense of identity and of Takabe's futile efforts to preserve it. There is no way of escaping or of existing outside this symbolic system of self-identification, not even for him. Kurosawa allows Mamiya to weave his spell on the viewer as well, to a certain extent: a scene in which he is put before a hearing of officious Japanese authorities at police headquarters is played for broad absurdist comedy as Mamiya’s blankness unravels the pomposity of his interrogators in a way that leaves them completely flummoxed and allows us to feel, just for a moment, a measure of sympathy towards him.  

Kurosawa suggests an origin for this peculiar state of affairs in the practices of a nineteenth-century clinic that, like so many of the locations seen throughout the film, is now disused and has been left in a state of permanent dereliction. Naturally, when Takabe and Mamiya meet there in the final Act of the film, the old building is letting in rain and has become semi-flooded, as befits a centre for Jungian tropes. An old scratchy piece of film has led to this site, discovered by Sakuma before he committed suicide to prevent himself succumbing to the syndrome that he and Takabe have now inevitably been exposed to because of their interrogations of Mamiya. It shows an unseen clinician hypnotising a female subject called Suzu Murakawa, who was institutionalised for murdering her son by also carving the ‘X’ sign, found carved into all of the bodies of the recent victims, into his neck. Not only does Kurosawa anticipate a popular motif in J horror with this scene (think of the videotape curse in Ringu), he also refers back to the history of hysterical epidemics and their origins in the medical professions of the 18th and 19th century, when Jean-Martin Charcot and Sigmund Freud founded schools of thought that intended to explain human behaviour and to cure it of its most burdensome psychic maladies. Charcot and Freud’s efforts in some sense also shaped the medical culture by providing a narrative – that of hysteria -- that helped to create our notion of an unconscious self. Charcot first established his clinic at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris in the 1770s, when it was part poorhouse, part medical establishment, and part prison for women. As Elaine Showalter describes it in her 1997 book Hystories: hysterical epidemics and modern culture: ‘this old hospital was an ideal environment for the manufacture and marketing of hysterias’ and it became a place where ‘doctors, patients and culture came together for the first time’.  Charcot gave popular demonstrations every Friday morning in which he brought the medical concept of hysteria – stripped of its previous religious connotations -- to wider recognition by publicly demonstrating how hysterical symptoms could be stopped or created using hypnosis. Patients ‘flocked from all over the world to his consulting room’ and the Salpêtrière became a popular tourist attraction, before Charcot's reputation was largely eclipsed by Freud's ideas in the nineteenth century.

 Kurosawa leaves the original objectives and identity of the anonymous therapist at the centre of the film’s particular institutional ‘cure’ as a mystery: all we ever see or hear of this figure is an enlarged but blurred photographic portrait, hanging behind a sheet of plastic in the abandoned clinic, and an old Edison gramophone recording in which an incantation of nonsense phrases is repeated ad infinitum. After all, in Kurosawa’s diffuse and haunting world, identity can never be pinned down and is, in any case, illusory (a provocative and disturbing thought in an age where Identity with a capital ‘I’ has become one of the defining political and cultural issues of the day). It seems this mysterious figure was regarded as something of a heretic during the Meiji period in the late 1860s when Japanese society began to industrialise and to adopt a more western style of governance. Hypnotism was thought of as ‘soul conjuring’ during this period and suppressed as a form of occultism by the Government. The film is thus drawing an interesting and ironic parallel between the activities of medical practitioners in the 19th century, grappling with the secrets of the psyche and invoking nervous diseases that involve both the body and the mind, and the methods of the witch hunters and the priests they were trying to discredit and replace. Showalter also points out in Hystories how Charcot’s techniques echoed those of the witch-hunt and involved searching the bodies of his patients for signs of hysterical “stigmata” and pricking or writing on their skin. Kurosawa’s film suggests that when a conservative, authoritarian society suppresses these investigations into the unconscious and attempts to replace them with a purely surface concern with the pursuit of consumerist pleasures, it causes a mass societal neurosis to take root, much as the repression of trauma is said to lead to the physical manifestation of hysterical symptoms in Freudian psychoanalytic theory. The semi-urban world at the edge of the city depicted in Cure, with its degraded, sub-Gothic landscapes of perpetual Jungian liminality, is itself an expression of the sense of dislocation and unconscious anomie its characters experience at a subconscious level as part of their daily lives. Ironically, the final scene sees Takabe, at last, finding a place of healing and calm only previously experienced in short bursts of fantastical heavenly flight when riding on a bus with his wife on her way to her appointments at her mental health clinic. Yet it provides a bitterly bleak coda to this entrancing but stark view of the modern human experience.

 Cure finally arrives in the UK via a dual-disc edition from Eureka Entertainment featuring some worthwhile extras taking the form of an excellent video overview and critical appraisal by Kim Newman and two interviews with Kiyoshi Kurosawa: one an archival piece, and the other brand new. Plus, there’s a trailer, and a collector’s booklet featuring an extended essay by Tom Mes. It is the film itself that ensures, though, that this will be an essential purchase.                             


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