The concluding event at the alt-SCMS conference in Tokyo was the informal presentation given by two of Japan’s leading directors to the attendees. I have not yet seen Aoyama’s work, which includes the highly regarded Eureka (focusing on the survivors of a horrific bus hijacking), but consider Kurosawa’s Cure to be one of the finest horror films ever made. I did begin an article of sorts which focused on Cure, and plan to revisit it soon. Here are some excerpts from “A Cure for Serial Killing” (warning: contains many spoilers):
At the start of the film Cure (1997), directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira), the Tokyo police find themselves utterly baffled by a rash of murders. In each case, a long and deep “X”-shape has been cut into the lower neck of the victim, severing the carotid artery. The suspects are all different people, and seemingly have no connection with each other. In one instance, it is a middle-aged man who murders a prostitute, in another scene, a female doctor kills a man in a public bathroom and proceeds to peel off his face. Furthermore, none of them can give a motive for their actions once apprehended – one of the suspects simply states that at the time, it seemed like the “natural thing to do.” The detective in charge of the case, Takabe, speculates that some kind of mind-control technique might be involved, given the fact that the suspects are all clearly distraught and despondent after the act. The police eventually take into custody a drifter named Mamiya, a former medical student who appears to be suffering from amnesia. Takabe investigates Mamiya’s shack, where he discovers a collection of books devoted to the German pioneer of hypnosis, Franz Mesmer, and the mummified remains of a monkey tied to a bath-tub pipe with its limbs twisted into the shape of an X. The police psychiatrist Sakuma is at first skeptical that hypnosis could be behind the murders, because, in his view, no hypnotist, save a superhumanly powerful one, can change a person’s basic moral sense. However, Sakuma, against the wishes of Takabe, places Mamiya in a psychiatric ward, and warns Takabe not to get too deeply involved with him. For Sakuma is wary of Takabe’s obsessiveness, knowing that the detective is currently under severe psychological strain because of his wife’s slow descent into insanity.
The film does a remarkable job of showing how its psychotic manipulator gets into the heads of his prey. Whenever Mamiya encounters a new person to hypnotize, he tells him or her that he has no memory of who he is. Or rather, it is his interlocutor who infers this, because Mamiya asks the same questions over and over again, in the befuddling manner of a spaced-out stoner. “Where am I?” he asks a concerned school-teacher. “Azuma Beach” the teacher replies. “Where?” Mamiya asks again. The teacher repeats the answer. “Where is that?” Mamiya asks, and the teacher then speaks the name of a nearby town, which prompts Mamiya to ask once more, “Where?” Mamiya repeats this pattern for all other topics, shirking any question directed at him about his identity, until he grabs a lighter, flicks it on, and says to the other person, “Tell me about yourself.” The film is adroitly reticent about what people tell him as they become transfixed by the flame, or by the reflection of light on spilled water, but it is not difficult to conclude that Mamiya guides his victims to the murkiest levels of fantasy in which all are murderers.
As the narrative unfolds we are given more detailed glimpses of how he operates. The policeman who kills his partner admits that he had found his partner, who did everything by the book, a source of daily irritation. The woman doctor is told by Mamiya that she must have a hard time in her profession, “because women are inferior beings to men,” and that “the first time that she saw a man naked was when she dissected a corpse.” He then refers to her real desire, that of becoming a surgeon, and speaks to her sense of grievance, alluding to the satisfaction that she would feel in cutting open members of the opposite sex whose prejudice has hindered her career from the outset. Mamiya induces his victims into a kind of emotionless stupor – when they do their killings, they appear calm and methodical, as if obeying a principle of a blind automatism. The marvelous irony of the film consists of its insight that when people act on their most repressed desires and fulfill their most disavowed fantasies, they do so mechanically, even mindlessly, with all the gusto of robots or zombies.
But Mamiya’s power is demonstrated not only through the actions portrayed on the screen but also in the emotions aroused in the viewer. In the scene where the vagabond is shown to a room full of law enforcement officials, he flusters one police chief so much that the latter, having lost his nerve, turns away and casts a helpless and aghast look at his colleagues. Mamiya turns the tables on his questioner by relentlessly badgering him with the question, “who are you,” each time the chief tries to get some information. He even deploys a bit of the rhetorical judo that was used to memorable effect by Charles Manson in his legendary “These Children That Come at You with Knives” speech to the court in Los Angeles, when he brazenly chides his hapless interrogator by adding, “You think about that.” The blunt and inane way in which Mamiya repeats the question, “who are you,” makes it clear that the only acceptable answer to it is the void of subjectivity itself. Earlier, he tells Takabe, “the detective or the husband – which is the real you? There is no real you.” Like both the detective and his boss, the viewer feels outraged and disgusted by the drifter’s bewildering demeanor, the way in which he replies to each question with another question, and his overwhelming apathy towards those whom he manipulates and their victims. In short, Cure highlights one quality not conventionally associated with serial killers, or with sublime demoniac rebels for that matter – the fact of being annoying. The imperious charisma and disdainful allure often attributed to cinematic portraits of evil are utterly lacking in Mamiya, a disheveled sort whose scrawny, almost delicate frame and perpetually vacuous bearing convey an overall impression of shabbiness.
But the very fact that we find Mamiya annoying, and almost welcome the impulse to lash out at his physically frail body, is precisely what renders us vulnerable to his power, for annoyance serves as the germ carrying far more violent and destructive emotions. Indeed, the film’s spare and barren portrayal of Tokyo gives rise to a truly ominous portrait of the metropolis, where murderous rage appears never far below the strained courtesies of everyday life. Director Kurosawa creates an atmosphere of dread and barely suppressed violence in the events of the narrative that are subsidiary to the main storyline. When Takabe goes to the dry cleaners, the sound of the manager obscenely cursing his employee, and then threatening physical violence, is clearly audible in the background, before the employee approaches the counter with Takabe’s clothes. Takabe’s first gesture whenever he returns from work is to shut off the dryer, which his wife, Fumie, leaves running all day without any clothes in it. Fumie’s increasing withdrawal from reality is registered in the repetition of an enigmatic scene which appears to be a dream but is impossible to ascribe definitively either to her or to her husband. In this scene, Fumie and Takabe are the sole passengers on a bus, which appears to be flying through the air, as moving clouds and a blue sky are clearly visible through the windows. She asks him when they will be going on vacation to Okinawa, and Takabe says that they will not be going. Fumie then remarks how beautiful it will be, as if she hadn’t registered her husband’s reply. When the scene is repeated, Takabe is shown sitting alone.
The detective disobeys Sakuma’s advice and decides to interrogate Mamiya. In a sequence that subtly transforms the physical space of Mamiya’s cell into a landscape of the unconscious, the camera frames Takabe sitting to the left in a darkened room, with Mamiya above in a well-lit bathroom in the center of the frame. The lighting emphasizes the demarcation between the two spaces, yielding the sense that the well-lit space in which Mamiya sits is the image of Takabe’s consciousness. Takabe grows infuriated when Mamiya tells him that he knows about his wife’s worsening condition, and how it is undermining his ability to do his job. Knocking down Mamiya’s lighter just as he lights the flame, Takabe declares that he will wait in the room until Mamiya gives him answers. In the silent interlude that follows, the screen gets darker until the sound of a downpour is heard. Then, in a blurry, low angle shot of the detective, a black stain expands slowly on the ceiling just to the left of his head, as if it were an excrescence of his own consciousness. Dirty water then drips from the stain onto the table near Takabe, who is immediately transfixed by the sight of the puddle. The excretory nature of the wish fulfillment brought about by Mamiya’s technique of hypnosis is conveyed by his enigmatic remark, “I was once full, but what was inside me is outside now,” at once underscoring the negative ontological status of evil and the experience of subjectivity as void that is said to distinguish the serial killer. After this encounter with Mamiya, which leaves the viewer with the suspicion that Takabe has been hypnotized, the film becomes increasingly elliptical, with abrupt transitions separating the scenes. Takabe is informed by Sakuma about a murder case at the turn of the century in which a woman, a follower of a mysterious cult, killed her son and slashed an “X” pattern into his neck. When Sakuma switches on his bedroom light, we see a large “X” painted behind him on the wall. The actual scene of Mamiya’s escape is not shown, although it is clear that he has somehow brought about the killing of his guard. Then there is a cut back to Sakuma’s apartment, where the police discuss how Sakuma had handcuffed himself to a pipe before strangling himself. It would appear that Sakuma’s “basic moral sense,” at the cost of his own life, has kept him from committing murder. Takabe travels to an abandoned house which served as the headquarters for the cult. Mamiya meets him there, and tells him, “Anyone who wants to meet his true self is bound to come here.” Takabe responds by shooting Mamiya twice, but the dying drifter merely raises his arm, pointing toward another room. Takabe, still infuriated, empties his gun into Mamiya’s body, and then goes into the room, where he finds an old Edison home phonograph player. He turns it on, and a garbled, disembodied voice calls out, “Fearsome heart of his healing hand… Take sword, a man but dew… road of healing not a long… heal… oh water-grass, oh winter… falls snow that heal… Take in hand… heal.”
The next scene begins with a shot of the psychiatric hospital where Takabe has committed his wife. A nurse apprehensively turns around at the sound of something being wheeled behind her in a corridor – it is Fumie, upright on a gurney, with an “X” carved into her neck. Then we see Takabe vigorously finishing a meal in a restaurant – in an earlier scene, he had been unable to eat at all. The waitress clears away the plates, and Takabe lights a cigarette. In an astonishing long shot, we see the waitress going back to the kitchen to fill more orders, until the manager approaches her. The waitress nods at the manager’s words, and then picks up a butcher knife, grasping it like a weapon. This disturbingly understated image concludes a remarkable allegory of carnage as contagion, as the film’s portrayal of an evil at once collective and inchoate evokes the national trauma caused by the release of sarin gas into the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult a mere two years prior. Indeed, the antinomian connection between healing and murder was a central element of the theology developed by Shoko Asahara, the partially blind, failed herbalist who was the leader of the cult. Asahara drew from Tibetan Buddhism the notion of poa, whereby a guru by the strength of his meditation can “transfer either a human soul or an animal” into higher realms, and combined it with parables in which spiritually enlightened persons kill and eat animals – a seeming violation of the Buddhist imperative to revere all life which is revealed in the end as the merciful act of absorbing the “bad karma of these creatures and so elevating their lives in death” (Lifton 66). Asahara transformed the idea of poa into a doctrine of altruistic murder, whereby the spiritual elevation of the people who were not adherents of the cult and thus leading “worthless lives,” could be accomplished by killing them.
As Robert Jay Lifton points out, the idea of killing people in order to save them was not an innovation of Asahara and his cult, as the official propaganda for the bloody military conquests that defined Japan’s emergence as a world power and its engagement in World War II mobilized Buddhist ideas. D. T. Suzuki, who would later achieve fame for introducing Zen to the West, maintained that the act of killing the enemy was “religious in nature,” while other teachers applied the bodhisattva principle of saving others to the practice of warfare, asserting a doctrine of “the compassionate taking of life” (Lifton 250). With Aum, one sees the universalization of the infamous remark made by US troops during the Vietnam War who asserted that they were destroying a village in order to save it. The release of sarin into the subway system was intended to trigger a nuclear conflagration, after which Asahara and his followers would inherit a purified world. Because Asahara viewed himself the Final Liberated One, he could freely dispense immortality to all in his planned omnicide, as poa became for Aum a shortcut to Enlightenment through the act of killing. The underlying fantasy of Asahara, according to Lifton, is quite similar to that of Charles Manson, who likewise hoped that the murders of wealthy and prominent residents of Beverly Hills would lead to a race war culminating in Armageddon, which would allow his family to take over the country. Like Asahara, who asserted that the people who would survive the nuclear holocaust to inherit the world with him would have all become his clones, Manson looked forward to the day when he would be the last man: “The only way anyone can live on earth is one world under the last person. I am the last and bottom line: you will all do what I say or there will be nothing” (Lifton 280). Seltzer, for his part, notes that the “serial killer’s fantasy of murdering ‘society’ itself” is essentially a dream of survivalism, the desire both to be the last man standing and to give birth to oneself (Seltzer 130).
The charismatic appeal of the leaders of violent and suicidal cults such as Asahara, Manson, and also Jim Jones of the People’s Temple lies in their ability to embody polar opposites, to be both holy and base, magnanimous and cruel, to be recognized by their followers as both God and anti-God, Christ and anti-Christ, as the one who gives life and takes life (Lifton, 284). The fascination aroused by the capacity to unify these opposites is not limited to their slavish devotees, for as Michael André Bernstein points out in Bitter Carnival, real-life cult leaders and murderers such as Manson and Ira Einhorn have their literary precedent in a figure whom he calls the Abject Hero. For Bernstein, the tendency of modern culture to ascribe the values of authenticity and profundity to those who break moral and social taboos has led to the full-blown emergence of a distinct cultural type who plays the fool, “but only in order someday to replace the well-dressed courtiers,” and cunningly disguises his ressentiment, born of anger, envy, and pride, in the “language of social compassion” (Bernstein 30, 10). The Abject Hero may rage against unjust social conditions but does so primarily out of wounded pride and his own sense of exclusion from social privilege, and thus “will never be able to shake off a servile longing for approval from the targets of his wrath” (Bernstein 51). The most characteristic rhetorical gesture of these figures, whose ranks include Diderot’s Rameau, Dostoevsky’s Fyodor Karamazov and Underground Man, and Céline’s narrator in From Castle to Castle, is to affect the pose of a buffoon or madman in decrying the soulless complacency and moral corruption of society while at the same time engaging in self-mockery, admitting to his own status as that of a charlatan and a fraud. Like Manson and Einhorn, the Abject Hero stakes his bid for the prestige and dignity he so badly desires based upon his understanding of society’s willingness to admire and glorify the figure of the defiant rebel (Bernstein 173). His “most promising option,” therefore, is to “pass himself off as a monster. The very reading that has helped blight his self-esteem has shown him the curious prestige habitually attached to the monster. If he were to succeed in embodying, both for himself and his interlocutor, the role of civilization’s daemonic double, the madman who rages forth when all the compromises and repressions of socialization have been shattered, then the Abject Hero might indeed effect a sudden reversal in his wretched position” (Bernstein 31). Such a reversal is, of course, dependent upon the degree to which one’s threats will be taken as credible, and it is thus a familiar technique for the Abject Hero to resort to the rhetoric of apocalypse.
It is my contention that the contemporary fascination with serial murder is difficult to extricate from the fascination with the apocalypse, a yearning for the end which, under the antinominian desire to take active measures to bring it about, becomes unleashed in Saturnalian outbursts of murderous frenzy. This blindly antinomian drive, in my view, is the reverse side of the passive nihilism that afflicts wealthy, industrialized nations. For the triumphalist declaration that liberal democratic capitalism is the best form of social and economic organization, in seeking to choke off any alternatives, cannot help but have a suffocating effect on social reality that will find expression in the realm of fantasy. Thus, Zizek among others points out how the collapse of the WTC Towers was anticipated repeatedly by the catastrophes depicted in Hollywood blockbusters. Or, as one follower of Aum sums it up, the widespread fascination with the apocalypse in Japanese culture stems not only from the historical experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but is also born of a “desire to press the reset button on life” (Murakami 276).
1. Robert Jay Lifton, Destroying the World To Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism. New York: Metropolitan, 1999.
2. Mark Seltzer, Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture. New York: Routledge, 1998.
3. Michael Andre Bernstein, Bitter Carnival: Ressentiment and the Abject Hero. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
4. Haruki Murakami, Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, trans. Alfred Birnbaum. New York: Vintage International, 2001.