On the supreme sadness and power of escapism in the Zellner Brothers’ strange tale of an obsessive personal quest.
Woven from the fabric of Joel and Ethan Coen’s ‘true crime’ noir Fargo, and in turn written and produced by a pair of brothers, David and Nathan Zellner, the enigmatic Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is on the surface at least a film about a film. Specifically, it is about the urban legend of a woman’s ill-fated search for the suitcase of cash seen buried in Fargo, though it is through the allure of images and mythmaking that it is also by extension a film wedded to film history and culture. Just as the Coens’ postmodern relationship to film genre is a self-conscious hallmark of their cinema, the Zellners’ approach to cinematic form and the role it plays in illuminating mysteries of this nature suggests the pursuit of an “ecstatic truth”—a deeper well from which the film draws with its many signs, coincidences, and poetic revelations. It is by no mistake that this Herzogian concept follows other more obvious allusions to a filmmaker long immersed in the drama of obsessive personal quests. Indeed, Kumiko, who regards herself as a modern day conquistador, travels from Japan to “The New World,” and fashions an evocative cape out of a duvet, could have been Aguirre in another life, chasing “untold riches hidden deep in the Americas.”
To be clear, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is not about fortune and glory so much as it is about delusion and shattered dreams, which brings it closer in setting and tone to Stroszek (1977), one of Herzog’s bleakest and best films. Like the doomed Bruno S, Kumiko (played with heartbreaking determination by Rinko Kikuchi) is an outcast who flees her homeland for the promise of America; in both cases, they touch down in a chilly upper midwestern state, encounter eccentric locals (as equally eccentric foreigners), and ride a ski lift towards the heavens. Kumiko is also on a suicidal quest, and the film arrives at her death—face down in the snow, somewhere in the middle of North Dakota—with a matter-of-factness that, if only for a brief moment, belies its otherwise compassionate embrace of her hopes and dreams. If there is cause for concern in the exploitation of a real life tragedy, one only needs to examine the generations of this story and how the facts were subsumed by invention and embellishment. The erroneous connection to Fargo somehow came to be following the reported death of Takako Konishi, whose body was found in the woods near Detroit Lakes in 2001. From there a grand narrative spawned via the press and the Internet, only for a suicide note to be discovered three weeks later pointing not to buried treasure but a broken heart. The Zellners’ take on these events, never clouded by the disingenuous statement that theirs is “based on a true story,” is perhaps the most truthful of all variations on Konishi’s death because it acknowledges both the supreme sadness and power of escapism in her journey.
While the film does open with a secondhand version of the true story caveat—a grainy vision of Fargo’s opening title card—it is only to underscore the mutations of the stories at hand. Fargo is not a true story, but it is plausible that its hoax declaration, a kind of mockumentary conceit, could be taken at face value (as some gullible journalists apparently did upon its release), or, for a reclusive Japanese woman with limited understanding of the English language, lost in translation. Konishi’s death, meanwhile, haunts the film like an old ghost story, and her stand-in, Kumiko, is figuratively a ghost in her eerie incongruity. If the source of Kumiko’s mania—a worn VHS copy of Fargo—seems anachronistic at first, it is entirely fitting in the scheme of both her irrational desire and the film’s engagement with cinematic folklore. Hunched inches from the screen in darkness, the blue light of the television flickering on the walls of her tiny Tokyo apartment, the grinding sound of VCR heads straining away, Kumiko might as well be watching a bootleg of the Ring videotape. There’s something distinctly viral about her fixation with the movie in this form, if not in the implication of her mental illness. Along with her preoccupation with a map of Minnesota—when she tries to steal it from a library, the security guard who catches her is naturally curious as to why she doesn’t use a photocopier or the Internet—it makes a grim kind of sense that she would be deeply possessive of these Rosetta stones in her state of mind.
The murkiness of the tape’s images, badly degraded and all the more hypnotic for it, also speak of how stories change as they are retold over and over again. For Kumiko, it is the fiction of the movie that dissolves from repeat viewings—or a morsel of truth that is magnified. By the time she has upgraded her VHS to a DVD (after her VCR finally spits the dummy, or should that be, the tape’s innards), her mind is already made up—quit her lousy office job, fly to Minnesota on a stolen company credit card, commute to Fargo, find the fence where the red ice-scraper marks the spot. This is not before an oddly touching moment when Kumiko smothers herself in the tangled mess of magnetic tape from her disemboweled Fargo VHS, eventually bidding it farewell down the toilet like a deceased pet goldfish. It’s here, as well as through other objects such as the hand-sewn treasure map (a reference to Fargo’s cross-stitched movie poster, perhaps), that the Zellners emphasise the realness of Kumiko’s fantasy through materiality. While I would stop short of reading this as a commentary on the loss of analogue moving images and their sense of authenticity and tactility in digital times, there’s something to be said for the provenance attached to the videotape in the film—it is discovered, after all, in a cave.
This first discovery takes place in Kumiko’s head and from the outside looking in we can see her as a Walter Mitty archetype: an impossible dreamer intoxicated by a figment of her imagination; a recluse by virtue of her intense belief. The question of whether the Zellners dignify Kumiko’s self-imposed exile from human contact is a tough one: yes, she is vulnerable in her lonesomeness, but it is also her choice, and the film at times seems to confuse the misery of her work life with the isolation of her home life, which is a refuge from the world rather than a prison within it. It is less a study of introspection in the quotidian tradition than a story of emancipation from oppressive surroundings. This is a powerful notion when coupled with the stark reality of Kumiko’s flight—a conquest of the useless, to borrow from Herzog—if only at the expense of a full embrace of her rich interior narrative, and it must be said that her quiet resilience at times feels reduced to a quirky loner stereotype, such as in the fortune cookie wisdom of a well-meaning old lady (“solitude, just fancy loneliness”), and especially in the scenes with her loyal pet rabbit Bunzo (who nonetheless steals the show as only adorable bunny rabbits can). However, once Kumiko reaches the Americas, it is through the strength of her imagination that it is still possible for us to revere the experience of solitude. As she bravely steps out into this alien world, she develops a natural self-consciousness—a naked state in which her private struggles finally become privileged moments.
Here, the film grapples with Kumiko’s self-awareness as she is exposed to the elements—a key to its empathy for the character. Sometimes, it stands side-by-side with her, such as when she stares into a mirror, mustering the courage to continue her voyage into the unknown. On other occasions, it contemplates her emotional well being from a sympathetic distance: when she breaks down sobbing in front of a kindly police officer (played by director David Zellner), we’re compelled to protect rather than pity her in the circumstances. Whether she’s upset because of desperation or devastation is a strange ambiguity that the Zellner’s have built into this moment—a precipice which, as Kumiko gets closer to her goal, gives way to the strong suspicion that she has realised there is in fact no treasure in Fargo, and yet tragically must keep moving forward having long ago reached the point of no return. But as hard as this futility is to watch, we root for Kumiko all the way, and it’s one of the small triumphs of this film that it keeps us firmly on her side through to the bitter end.
While it deals with solitude up until a point, it is merely one facet of the human condition. Ultimately and profoundly, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a film about stoicism—a particular kind of stoicism intrinsic to Japanese culture—by two guys from Texas. Against the casual racism of Lost in Translation—an American perspective on Japan full of ridicule and caricature—their film feels like a corrective, one that’s not necessarily positive or even charitable yet is uncommonly incisive in its cultural understanding. Kumiko wants to escape the suffocation of Tokyo, but for reasons that go beyond the implicit alienation of big city life. She’s outnumbered by a gaggle of kawaii girls at her workplace, ostracized because of her disinterest in conventional beauty and appearance, and berated endlessly by her mother and employer because of antisocial behaviour. It is this stifling normalcy—the social pressure to marry, raise a family, and/or be promoted—that is at the root of her depression.
In Japanese cinema, it is a theme that Yasujiro Ozu has broached many times over, though the outcome is often mournful and sacrificial in his films (the widower in Late Spring, for instance, contrives his only daughter into marriage despite the fact she would rather live with him in happiness). We’ve also seen the dynamic of individuality vs. subservience explored intelligently in Fear and Trembling (2003), a French film set in the Japanese corporate world. In news media, it is this conservative idea of success that is typically shoehorned into a rationale accounting for the anomaly of violent crime in Japan: the subway pushers, the knife attackers, they were all simplistically profiled as loners who fell behind the rat race, and who were failures in the eyes of their peers and family members. In a city as vast, accelerated, and expensive as Tokyo, getting left behind in the rush is a very real fear. As this spectre of disappointment hangs over Kumiko like a dark cloud, the Zellners crucially never lose sight of her dogged persistence, her resolve to live her life on her own terms. As she whispers to her insensitive boss, “we all have our own path.”
All of the above would be unthinkable without Rinko Kikuchi, an actress with an established outsider sensibility, a good track record of introverted role choices (Hole in the Sky, Babel, Norwegian Wood), and an angular face that’s at once beautiful, melancholy, and reticent, the very opposite of insidious cuteness. While there’s just enough levity in the film to take the edge off its downcast mood, Kikuchi never allows herself to be laughed at, only with, though even then, hers is a performance that is sincere and irony-free, and too genuine to ever be thought of as offbeat in the indie film sense. As with any film that attempts to balance contrasting tones or is intent on lurching between them, there will always be latitude for how audiences react in terms of the happy-sad dichotomy. The extremes of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter put it in the league of No One’s Ark (2003), probably the saddest ‘comedy’ I’ve ever seen (coincidentally, it is a Japanese film about a delusional couple who travel to the middle of nowhere with an implausible goal). Others will find it dry, amusing, quixotic, and endearing. Whatever the response, how the Zellners transcend the harshness of this emotional range and offer their protagonist vindication isn’t really a secret or an esoteric notion hidden beneath an exquisite quality of strangeness. Their film begins with a daydream, and so it is only fair that it ends in reverie. Movies crystallize fantasy, and it is this simple and enduring characteristic of cinema—something we all understand and have surrendered to before—that affords Kumiko a humble redemption and gives the film its everyday empathy.