2018 Film Essays

The Inside Is Now the Outside: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ‘Cure’

Fiction is full of detectives who become so engrossed in a case that they lose their own identity. This trope was famously exploited in the TV show Hannibal when detective Will Graham, an empath, identifies so intensely with the killers he profiles that he becomes one. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 1997 film Cure takes a different approach: what happens when the killer profiles the detective?

A series of murders has Detective Kenichi Takabe (Kōji Yakusho) mystified, not because the police cannot find the killers, but because the killers have no memory of committing the crimes. Each victim is found with an “X” cut into their throats. This post-mortem wound represents the “X factor” or the unknown, since without memories of the crimes they have committed, the killers seem to have no real motive.

Takabe eventually crosses paths with a mysterious young man known as Mayima (Masato Hagiwara) who turns out to be the one responsible for the killings, in a manner of speaking. Mayima is first seen wandering on a secluded beach suffering from an extreme form of amnesia; he doesn’t know who or where he is. Indeed, his short term memory seems to be completely dysfunctional; he cannot remember where he is even after being told multiple times.

Memory and identity are inextricably linked. According to an article in Psychology Today, ”you are able to have a sense of identity because you know that you are the same person you were yesterday and will undoubtedly be the same person tomorrow.” For those who suffer from memory loss, there is a disconnect between memory and identity. For example, Alzheimer’s patients “are not aware of who they are as individuals because they do not have the memories of their life to draw back on.”

However, instead of trying to figure out who he is, Mayima tries to extract identity from others, asking them questions about their own lives. He opens a cigarette lighter under the pretense of wanting to smoke, but his real motive is to hypnotize his victims with the light it emanates; they are drawn like moths to a flame. Through the power of suggestion, Mayima’s victims commit murders that they later cannot recall. By removing their memories of their crimes, Mayima provides them — and by extension, himself — with an alibi.

Like a skilled con artist, Mayima asks seemingly simple and benign questions to manipulate hs victims. He makes people forget themselves and their true nature, then uses that lack of identity to direct them into killing others. Mayima tries to play the role of the interrogator when he meets Takabe, but at first, the detective will not reveal any personal information about himself and thus refuses to accept the role of the suspect.

This is just one of the ways that Cure subverts detective fiction tropes. Takabe certainly looks the part, clad in a suit and trench coat, the uniform of the detective. From its origins in the trenches of World War I to detectives from Sam Spade and Dragnet to Unsolved Mysteries, Twin Peaks, The X-Files and beyond, the trench coat “does have a sense of kind of world-weariness, like it’s seen all kinds of things.” Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York says, “If you were asked ‘trench coat: naïve or knowing?’ You’d go ‘knowing’ of course.”

Ironically, Takabe does not know everything in Cure, or at least not what he thinks he knows. He figures out Mayima’s hypnotism game early on in the film, but it doesn’t stop the killings nor even provide a real answer to Mayima’s motives. As the film’s psychologist Sakuma points out, “People like to think a crime has meaning, but most of them don’t.” This doesn’t mean that Sakuma isn’t concerned for Takabe, however. He continually warns the detective not to “get in too deep,” worried that the strain of the case and Takabe’s personal life will cause him to cross a line and become more like a killer than a detective.

In addition to trying to solve the mystery of these crimes, Takabe is also burdened by his wife Fumie’s illness. Fumie suffers from a form of amnesia, albeit a kind less dangerous to others: she runs the washing machine without clothes in it and gets lost on the way home from the store. When a fellow detective reveals Fumie’s illness to Mayima, it gives him control over Takabe. That’s when the line between the two men becomes further blurred.

In a tense scene between Mayima and Takabe, the detective finally admits that he is under extreme strain due to his wife and his job, the classic trope of the Defective Detective. “I’m a detective,” Takabe explodes, “I’ve been taught to never show emotion, not even to my family.” Mayima takes this one step further, questioning Takabe’s entire identity. “The detective or the husband; neither one is the real you.” This is when Mayima is able to “get too deep” into Takabe’s head, using the idea that identity is ephemeral and therefore meaningless. Takabe hasn’t lost himself in the case; he’s just lost himself.

There may not be any real meaning behind Mayima’s machinations, but that doesn’t stop Takabe from putting several bullets into the hypnotist’s head. The detective has become the killer. Mayima’s death, however, does not stop the spread of his disease, despite the film’s somewhat ironic title. At the end of Cure, a waitress who has just served Takabe grabs a knife after her manager whispers something in her ear. Mayima might be dead, but the virus he created lives on.

On April 23, Cure was released for the first time in the UK on Blu-ray through Eureka Films.

Leslie Hatton (@popshifter) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.


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