Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure slightly predates the spate of films that became known as "J-horror." It has a similar kind of spookiness, but its psychological approach produces the mystery and atmosphere of a supernatural film while remaining in, or at least near, the realm of the possible.
Cure was inspired by news coverage of a murder. Neighbors described the killer as an ordinary person, and wondered what could have driven him to do such a thing. The characters in Cure are not drawn as distinctly as characters in other films, and change from moment to moment. There is no true hero or villain. In Cure, heroism and villainy exist together in the same person.
The film opens with a moment of foreshadowing, as a woman reads a copy of Bluebeard to her psychiatrist. It then segues into a bloody murder, committed nonchalantly by a man who flees the scene so quickly that he leaves his clothes and identification behind. Detective Takabe investigates the murder and quickly apprehends the killer, who is at a loss to explain his actions. Several similar murders soon follow: all of the victims' necks have been slashed with the same "X" pattern, and all of the killers remember their actions, but none can explain them. There are no violent tendencies in any of the killers' backgrounds, and one is even a policeman colleague of Takabe's.
There is no apparent connection between the killers, and Takabe seizes on a hunch that hypnosis is involved. Sakuma, his psychiatrist colleague, tells him that it would take a "genius"-level hypnotist to implant such a suggestion, and that it is impossible anyway to get subjects to do something that goes against their morals. A suspect nevertheless emerges: Mamiya, an apparent amnesiac found wandering the city. Mamiya is discovered to be a dropout of a university Psychology department, and to have a fascination with a certain occult application of hypnosis that has been practiced by an underground society since its introduction to Japan a century earlier.
Mamiya proves worse than Hannibal Lecter to hold in custody, because his technique is so subtle that he can influence anyone within speaking range. He seems to leave mind-bending psychic pieces of himself in places where he's been, and Takabe begins to experience visions after investigating Mamiya's empty apartment. Takabe's frustrations with Mamiya are intensified by his stressful home life. Mamiya's memory problems may be an act, but Takabe's wife, Fumie, has them for real. She is the lady from the film's introduction, and has so much trouble recalling things that she gets lost on the way to mundane appointments. Her worsening ailment adds to the surreal atmosphere.
Mamiya turns out to be a dedicated missionary of his sect. Hypnotism is mentioned as having once been called "soul conjuring," and Mamiya forces his subjects to face their inner emptiness. He is quick to pick up on a person's inner anger, and offers the titular "cure": his subjects all have a deep-seated anger towards another person, and Mamiya enables them to overcome their inhibitions regarding murder.
In one striking, wordless scene, a man enters a restroom and finds a woman in the middle of a murder. She looks down as though in shame, then nonchalantly continues her gruesome work as though nobody were watching. The film is subtle and quiet, and requires patience. It has no soundtrack, apart from an occasional grinding drone. I needed three viewings to fully understand what was going on, but it was well worth the time and effort. This is a real gem of a lesser-known film.
SUBTEXTUAL STUFF: SPOILERS
Takabe is devoted to his wife and supportive in her infirmity until she serves his dinner raw. He then promptly institutionalizes her. There was a time when mental institutions were full of women who were committed for the "offense" of failing to do their housework, and only once she deteriorates to that point does she become a liability to Takabe. Mamiya has by then gotten through to Takabe, and Fumie is murdered in the hospital. At the film's conclusion, the formerly haggard and stressful Takabe is peaceful and healthy, cured of his anxiety.