As Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure initially unfolds, the film’s audience is as confused as its characters.
The movie begins with a slew of murders committed by people who fail to remember anything about their actions, and, more importantly, any biographical information about themselves. The slew of murders appear linked by an “X” cut into each victim’s throat. Slowly, then, the detective and his psychiatrist colleague learn that a former psychology student has learned the art of hypnosis and has been hypnotizing people into murdering people crucial to their identities.
The real crux of the movie hinges on the fact that the hypnotist ultimately achieves his manipulative ends by seducing the citizenry with a fuzzy nihilism in which the self ceases to exist in either individual or social form. In each victim, he instills an anxiety about a contrast between a “true, inner” self and a “social” self that is burdened by the existence of others. Then he goads people into killing someone who prevents their true self from coming forth: a wife who domesticated the husband, a sexist male who stifled a woman’s career progress, an annoying colleague, etc. By causing them to kill people close to them, he instills a psychological autoimmune disorder in which each person kills what obscures their ‘real, inner’ self. But by eliminating people vital to one’s identity, the murderers immolate their true selves too— which we witness as the catatonic amnesia that overtakes all the killers.
In contrast to everyone the hypnotist talks to, the film’s protagonist — Takabe, the detective — avoids hypnosis by remaining firm in his commitments to others, which, for him, consist of working hard at his job and taking care of his sick wife. Firm moral grounding is the only way to avoid the hypnosis campaign. By making this film, Kurasawa suggests that we actively combat society’s drift towards amnesiac nihilism by adhering to moral imperatives and social commitments.
Who Are You?
The movie’s murders are all acheived by a serial hypnotist. In each instance, he achieves this by presenting himself as a confused man in need of help, which causes people to drop their guard and see him as harmless. Naturally, the worried citizens ask probing questions about him, but he effortlessly turns the questions back on them, always while lighting a cigarette or pouring water to invoke a calm, receptive state in his interlocutors. The essential question he asks is, “Who are you?”
The hypnotist repeats the question whenever someone gives a superficial answer because he wants to pose the question in existential, not occupational terms. He knowingly asks the question in a way that creates an anxiety about an inner and outer self, which creates a division between an authentic self and a social self. As people realize the real question, they realize it provokes hatred towards those people and obligations that prevent the flourishing of an authentic self. He asks married men about their wives, doctors (GPs) why they aren’t specialists, cops about how difficult their job is, etc. It is no coincidence that these people go on to kill people antagonistically related to what one experiences as an inner desire: a wife, a sexist male, an annoying colleague, etc.
After the murders, the characters lose all memory about the crime, but, more importantly, they start to exist in a near vegetative state in which they no longer know anything about themselves — as if killing the person that alienated them in their social role also killed off their authentic self. Many of the murderers use the word “calm” to describe their mood, but the truth is that they have reached a state of total exhaustion, as if they have lose their capacity to interact with the world.
The hypnotist tries to seduce other characters by offering them an existence without others. But by appealing to a suspicion that we have all become too reliant on external forces in our lives, the hypnotist opens the door towards solipsistic nihilism which is aestheticized in the movie as a fuzzy amnesia.
In sum, the true method of hypnosis is to establish a true, inner self that is in contrast to the living self and then offer a resolution of this dichotomy by dissolution of a vital social obligation. The calm that follows is not the sensation of liberation, but, instead, is the catatonic calm of a person unable to live at all. The social nihilism inherent in murder does not even acheive individual liberation; there is no self apart from society. The dissolution of social bonds is a form of existential self mutilation.
Fending Off Nihilism
The movie’s detective and his psychiatrist co-worker are both aware of the hypnotist’s strategy, so they both try to avoid the fates of the catatonic murderers as they interrogate him. Only one, however, succeeds. The psychiatrist finds himself fascinated by the techniques of hypnosis, which causes him to analyze it carefully, while the detective shields himself by reminding himself of his commitments to his wife and his community, through his work. Therefore, protection from nihilism is not a question of rationality, but, instead, is a question of non-rational moral commitments.
Fascinated by a new approach to human psychology, the psychiatrist talks to the hypnotist to learn more about him and the strategy, all while trying to keep himself distant enough to not fall for his tricks. He goes “too deep,” to put it in his own term, and eventually the detective shows an “X” — the same one cut into each victim’s throat — on the psychiatrist’s wall to indicate he is already hypnotized and that he will soon kill somebody. To prevent that outcome, the psychiatrist kills himself.
Despite trying to have mastery over the situation, the psychiatrist cannot escape influence from the hypnotist’s questioning. Fending off nihilism is not a question of having the right mood or right line of questioning; flirting with nihilism is the same as being seduced by it.
The strength of the protagonist, therefore, is not his intellectual curiosity, but, instead, is his engagement with quotidian responsibilities. The hypnotist revealed to him that he cannot get people to do things that their moral code would otherwise prevent, which further cements his commitments.
The detective, for example, imagines the death of his wife in order to affirm his mental framework of who she is. The marriage is a weight for him to bear, but imagining the wife’s death causes him to realize that he would be nothing without her (and his job). His wife bothers him and his work stresses him out, but he works hard— even to the detriment of his own physical health. Paradoxically, thinking about others is what enables him to maintain his potent sense of self. In a beautiful dialogue, the detective says things that would normally be associated with the hypnotist, but his commitments have rendered him able to bear heavy burdens:
The ultimate manifestation of his morality’s potency is that he helps the hypnotist sneak out of prison just so he can track him down and kill him himself.
In the movie’s concluding scene, the camera wanders off and finds a waitress grabbing a knife— suggesting that she, too, will kill someone and that the plague of nihilism will continue in spite of the hypnotist’s death. Viewers are thus presented with the contrast of the spreading social contagion of amnesiac nihilism that eliminates the possibility of selfhood by the dissolution of social bonds and the possibility of a committed agent of morality. One is covered in blood and the haze of amnesia; the other is tired but engaged and capable of experiencing meaning in his life. The correct choice is clear.