They give him their usual answers--school teacher, policeman, and so on--but Mamiya always comes back with the same question only a few minutes later: "Who are you?"
This repetitiveness partially has to do with what Mamiya has become: In his own words, "What was inside me has all escaped and now I am empty." His existence is entirely external: he has no memory (to the point of not remembering what happened a minute ago); no idea who he is (he can't even recognize his own reflection). He is the epitome of existing only in the present, with no past, no inside, and no identity. While asking it of others, he himself cannot answer the question, "Who are you?"
This inability, however, may also be the basis for his insistent questioning. His quest is to make people realize that they, despite their simple answers to his query, really don't know who they are, either.
Since Cure is a horror thriller, this proves deadly. In the story, Mamiya is a psychology student who, studying the work of Mesmer, has somehow discovered the way to empty other people--turn them inside out so that they commit acts of murder they've always wanted to do but have repressed.
That's the story, but what makes Cure one of the best films of the year is Kurosawa's superb evocation of the most fundamental instability: who we are. While most horror films let us confirm our identity by destroying that which is alien, or not "us," Cure hits home by undermining our certainty that we are not the monster ourselves.
The seeds of doubt are planted mostly through the figure of Takabe, the detective assigned to solve these mysterious murders. Played by Yakusho Koji (Unagi (1997), Kamikaze Taxi (1995)) in yet another sure performance that proves him the best Japanese actor working today, Takabe is the representative of reason, voicing his and our goal of explaining these acts, which are seemingly without rhyme or rule.
In the end, however, his act of putting into words what is going on is not too different from the stories Mamiya asks his victims to tell and then brutally enact--as he mesmerizes them. Takabe's explanation ultimately makes him like Mamiya, a shift that shows how the forces of reason are undermined by their very quest to impose stability on a confusing world.
Like in all good thrillers, Takabe the hero is Mamiya's double. He alone understands the other meaning behind Mamiya's disturbing "Who are you?," in part because he, too, is aware of the instability of identity. His wife Fumie (Nakagawa Anna) is mentally ill, often acting in ways she cannot explain--just like Mamiya's victims.
As our representative in the story, Takabe works to solve the crimes and tend to his wife, expressing our desire for certainty in knowledge and a cure to abnormality. But Kurosawa ultimately refuses us fulfillment of that hope. On occasion, a horror film has provided the teaser ending in which the hero, too, has turned into a vampire, but Cure's enigmatic conclusion makes us unsure of even that conclusion. A Jean-Luc Godard aficionado who has worked extensively in both horror (Sweet Home (1989) and Jigoku no keibiin (1992)) and action (the "Katte ni shiyagare" series), Kurosawa undermines the security of genre convention and thus the stability of cinema itself with deft editing that mixes reality and fantasy and creates more questions than it answers.
Cure rises far above its genre status. While a great horror film, it is simultaneously an investigation of the loss of identity in the postmodern age: a summoning of the return of what has been repressed in--and what is the underside of--our veneer of civilization and domestic tranquillity.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerowonogerow@angel.ne.jp
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 25 December 1997, p. 9.
Copyright 1997: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow