“Solitude? Just fancy loneliness.”
It’s easy to assume Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter will be a humorous adventure of cultural dissonance upon reading its synopsis. The conceit is ripe for comedy and David and Nathan Zellner do mine that arena throughout their drama when it suits the story, but it’s a nuanced tragedy that’s ultimately delivered. How could the tale of a twenty-nine year old Japanese office worker stumbling upon a hidden VHS copy of Fargo, thinking it a treasure map to a suitcase full of cash, be tragic? Quite easily—even without knowing the full details surrounding the demise of the young woman upon whom the Zellners have found their inspiration, Takako Konishi. That story is much sadder as this is a retelling of the urban legend the American media birthed in its aftermath. Still, Kumiko’s journey is heartbreaking just the same.
A slow burn from start to finish with gorgeous landscapes and a mesmerizing turn from Rinko Kikuchi as the titular Kumiko, the Zellners’ melodrama almost makes it difficult to laugh once the want arises. Whether depressed or socially impaired with an affliction such as Asperger’s, Kumiko’s existence is one of simple pleasures and heavy anxiety. She has no aspirations to move forward in the employ of Mr. Sakagami (Nobuyuki Katsube), content instead to remain the “Office Lady” in perpetuity despite it being a younger woman’s job. She lies to her mother (Yumiko Hioki) about receiving a promotion because it’s the only thing she can fake without proof, (Mom really wishes for a husband and grandchild); avoids the frivolities her coworkers revel in both at work and outside; and seeks to extract herself from any physical contact whatsoever.
Kumiko’s Zen is treasure hunting—her passion and a road towards importance nothing else in her life can provide. Likening herself to a Spanish Conquistador, she sets off with her maps to discover whatever is hiding in the distance. We never know how one of these guides her to a cave containing a scratched up VHS of Fargo or if we can believe this opening hunt is even real, but that acquisition becomes a turning point in her life. She studies the movie until reaching the scene where Steve Buscemi trudges into the snow to bury thousands of dollars by a fence post. Kumiko estimates the distance of each section, needlepoints a drawing to keep with her when a lack of audio/visual equipment prevents viewings on the road, and sets off for Minnesota with a stolen company credit card.
So driven and confident about what awaits her, she does whatever it takes. This means entering the lives of strangers and leaving just as quickly. The language barrier keeps her mission quiet for the most part as missionaries Robert (Nathan Zellner) and Brad (Brad Prather) provide a highlighted route to Fargo and a kindly older woman (Shirley Venard) a warm place to stay alongside an unsolicited list of alternate destinations less desolate and cold than North Dakota. Only when a local policeman (David Zellner) picks Kumiko up does the goal of her visit come forth. Unable to bridge the culture chasm and explain how the Coen Brothers‘ movie is fiction, she continues on in the solitude she likes best. The only friend she’s ever needed was her rabbit Bunzo; the money will take care of the rest.
The Zellners achieve the painstaking job of ensuring the sorrow Takako Konishi felt in real life is present opposite the more whimsical farce of the “Fargo Legend”. We can see in Kikuchi’s eyes and demeanor that unearthing this suitcase is the only thing able to make her happy. A monotonous life in Japan with everyone she knows pressuring her into becoming exactly what she strives to avoid—a cookie cutter, traditional cliché—never could despite their best efforts. That is why she moved out of her mother’s house. It’s why she cut ties to old friends and refuses to make new ones. To Kumiko, the excitement and spoils of her adventures denote important work no office worker could ever hope to match. She refuses to entertain thoughts Fargo is fake because this victory is all she has left.
So while Kikuchi’s blank stares and awkward stiffness in social interactions elicits giggles and a sense of knowing whom this girl is to hope for success, similar moments later on expose the tragic circumstances of her delusions. If this were a Hollywood tale Kumiko would probably end up falling in love with an American, shaking the cobwebs of fantasy from her mind to live happily ever after. That’s not what Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is, though. Instead the Zellners have done their best to honor the memory of Kikuchi with an adventure as breathtakingly resonant as it is sad. No matter how it ends or how you should interpret its conclusion, you can’t help being inspired by the optimism this woman possesses despite her search’s genesis. There’s hope in its futility, beauty in its misfortune.