“This is a true story,” reads the opening titles to the cult-favorite Joel and Ethan Coen film “Fargo.” Many, if not all fans of fictionalized cinema can easily separate what plays onscreen with reality. However, the titular character of “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” doesn’t appear to have that ability, and it’s left unclear whether or not her stubborn perseverance is willful ignorance or genuine belief in the world of the Coen brothers.
Written by brothers David and Nathan Zellner and directed by David, “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” was borne of an urban legend from Minnesota.
In 2001 the body of a young Japanese woman, Takako Konishi, was found in the snow on the outskirts of Fargo. The story behind her suicide was fairly unsensational — Konishi fell into depression after losing her job and traveled from Japan to Minnesota because her married American lover lived in Bismarck.
However, her tale was spun into something far more fantastical. Thanks to a police officer who claims his hours-long conversation with Konishi consisted of her repeating the words “Fargo. Fargo,” over and over again, her story became a tale in which she saw the Coen brothers’ film, believed the title cards that claimed it was based on a true story and set out from Japan to find the suitcase of money buried by Steve Buscemi’s character in the film.
Although in the film Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) does not have a married American lover, it is clear she is deeply unhappy with her life. Withdrawn, friendless, silent, pale-faced and soft-spoken, Kumiko wanders through the streets of Tokyo like an unresponsive ghost.
A 29-year-old who lives alone with her adorable noodle-eating rabbit Bunzo, Kumiko faces animosity from her mother and her boss. Both reprimand her for not having a family, let alone a boyfriend, at her advanced age and constantly remind her of her waning time as an Office Lady — there are plenty of younger Japanese girls who are going to eclipse her in that occupation.
Nothing appears to compel or excite Kumiko until she stumbles upon a glitchy VHS tape of “Fargo,” and spends hours at night intently studying the film while Bunzo munches silently in his cage. Kumiko roughly marks the area where she believes the briefcase full of money lays buried and abandons everything without warning to hop on a plane to Minnesota with nothing in tow but her hand stitched maps, limited English skills, a stolen company credit card and a determination to move heaven and hell in order to find her treasure.
Along the way Kumiko meets some friendly characters who try kindly to dissuade her from her fruitless journey. In particular, a widowed farmer (Shirley Vernard) who offers to take Kumiko to the Mall of America instead and a policeman (David Zellner) who attempts to explain to Kumiko that the movie is meant to be nothing more than entertainment. Kumiko will not be swayed, however, and powers through with her journey relentlessly.
Remarkably, the Zeller brothers have taken it upon themselves to spin this urban myth into something out of a fairy tale. Throughout the film, Kumiko dons a large, bright red hooded sweater that recalls the well-known story of “Little Red Riding Hood.”
Kumiko stands out as a bright spot amongst a sea of grey and concrete in Tokyo and the stark white snow fields in Minnesota as an adventurer who is clinging to her goal as though her life depends on it. The monsters in this film are intangible — instead of a Big Bad Wolf, Kumiko squares off against gender-related pressures, apathy and the struggle to hold onto the smallest spark of the determination to keep going.
The film’s outrageously beautiful cinematography also adds to the fairy tale element of the film. Both Tokyo and Minnesota and seen as almost alien lands through the eyes of the withdrawn Kumiko. The camera lingers in certain scenes for long periods of time, such as the café in which Kumiko attempts to meet a friend she has fallen out of touch with, a Chinese restaurant in Minnesota and the exit of a library in Tokyo.
The electronic soundtrack, composed by The Octopus Project, lends beautifully eerie background noise to Kumiko’s journey.
For a film that focuses almost solely on a single character, Kikuchi carries with ease the massive responsibility of continually engaging the audience, even in scenes of extended sustained silence. It’s a wonder watching Kikuchi’s eyes transform from listless and lifeless to animated and hopeful to almost manic in determination and desperation as she treks through Tokyo and Minnesota in search of her treasure.
At its core, “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” is a tragedy with no discernable happy ending in sight. Clearly what she is looking for does not exist, and the audience is waiting with bated breath to see what happens when or if she finally faces the reality of the situation.
A beautiful journey that explores the sustaining and borderline delusional power of hope and fantasy amidst the starkness of what is real, “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” is a hauntingly modern-day fairy tale for adults.
RECOMMENDED: Anchored with pleasing aesthetics and an outstanding performance by Kikuchi, “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” is a well-done tragedy that focuses on the line between fantasy and reality.