Kumiko sits in her tiny one-bedroom Tokyo apartment, hunched over a television set, awash in the blue glow of the snowy Minnesotan landscape projected before her. In the background, the detritus of a life unlived, a mounting build-up of clutter. On the screen, a thoroughly worn-out VHS copy of the 1996 Coen Brothers movie Fargo, where Steve Buscemi’s bloodied visage — warped almost beyond recognition by time and tape scratch — is seen admiring a satchel bag bursting with hundred-dollar bills. He staggers desperately to a point in the snowy highway, digs up a hole, stashes the treasure inside, and covers it back up with dirt and snow. Kumiko pauses the tape and rewinds, examining the scene obsessively, carefully measuring the exact point by the roadside fencing where Buscemi’s treasure is buried, meticulously jotting down her observations on the little notebook in her lap.
On her back, but not seen, are the mounting frustrations of a dead-end job as an Office Lady — an executive assistant in charge of menial tasks such as picking up dry cleaning and serving tea, which she is perceived to have long aged out of by her disdainful boss and oblivious colleagues. On her back, but not seen, are her mother’s incessant demands to marry, secure a promotion, or move back home. On her back, but not seen, is a paralyzing inability to relate to her peers, whose carefree dispositions and easy rapport feel utterly alien to her. On her back, but not seen, are the immense societal pressures to be happy, friendly, and normal. She is crushingly, insurmountably alone. But she has found a mission. She has stumbled onto meaning. In her eyes, clearly seen: resolve.
Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is, like the fictional buried bounty that serves as the movie’s main driving point, a bit of a hidden treasure. You’re not going to hear a lot of casual movie fans talk about it — though it was warmly received in festival and critic circles, it didn’t quite break through to the mainstream upon release, finding a devoted following once it hit digital distribution. And yet it is the kind of movie that would inspire a fervent following — a viscerally emotional story couched in a darkly humorous and compassionate tone, an approach that cuts rights through to the particular brand of melancholy and post-modern nihilism that pervades so much of millennial culture. It is the kind of movie that, were it condensed down to GIF form, would be reposted incessantly across social media, likely accompanied by the word “mood.” This description might sound immediately repellent to some, but Kumiko is an emotionally impactful, thematically rich piece of work, and it is worthy of your attention.
When we talk about Kumiko not quite breaking through to wider audiences, it should be noted that it is also, by far, the most commercially successful movie David and Nathan Zellner have been involved with. The Austin-based duo has been working in the independent film scene for over two decades, sharing and trading duties over the course of their extremely prolific career, pumping out shorts and feature-length films that inevitably get stamped by the press with the adjective “quirky.”
It is true that the Zellner brothers’’ vision is somewhat slanted, that their creative eye is naturally drawn to the fringes of social behavior, the dead spaces, the awkward glances. Characters who seem to operate just left of normal, fixated on curios or quotidian minutiae, and storytelling beats that defy convention. But using the word “quirky” has the unfortunate effect of reducing their work to something frivolous, cute, easily dismissed. Kumiko is anything but.
What it is, partly, is a fable built on various layers of fact and fiction. The film derives its premise from an urban legend, which in turn was born out of real tragedy; the suicide of Takako Konishi, an office worker from Tokyo whose body was found in a snowy field outside of Detroit Lake, Minnesota. A rumor began to circulate that Konishi was convinced that the Coen Brothers film Fargo was a true story, and that she perished after trying to find the money that had been stashed away by Steve Buscemi’s character, Carl Showalter. In reality, Konishi was driven to suicide by heartbreak and depression. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is not Konishi’s story, but it takes elements from the urban legend surrounding her death to create a new tale.
As such, the film is a fiction based on an urban legend, which is in turn based on both a real story and a fictional film. To add another swirl to the metatextual meringue, Fargo claims in its opening credits to be based on actual events that are “told exactly as they occurred.” It is not.
Narratively and thematically, Kumiko is split down the middle; half of the film is spent in the sprawling cityscape of Tokyo, half is spent in the vast, blinding white of snow-covered Minnesota. Back in Japan, we are introduced to Kumiko’s life — the judging eyes of her boss, who questions why she doesn’t have a family yet at the ripe old age of twenty-nine; her mother’s phone calls, which urge her to get married or progress in her career; her complete and utter inability to connect with a single person in her vicinity, most clearly seen in Kumiko’s obvious discomfort when an old friend invites her to get together sometime. Kumiko is painfully isolated, with only her pet rabbit Bunzo to accompany her.
When she stumbles upon something that might provide her life with meaning, Kumiko travels to Minnesota where she sets out to find the buried treasure. But she isn’t able to relate any better in this strange new land, now beset by both a social and a language barrier, becoming instead a canvas onto which others can project their own feelings of loneliness and isolation. Communication is one of the film’s key themes, and Kumiko’s inability to communicate with those around her is externalized multiple times. Academy Award nominee Rinko Kikuchi does an incredible job of pulling us into Kumiko’s ennui, and her drive, with a mesmerizing, nuanced performance.
David Zellner’s direction is elegant and expressive, beautifully conveying both the alienating orderliness of Kumiko’s life in Tokyo and the otherworldliness of small-town America with directorial flourishes that place us right in Kumiko’s headspace. There are moments of stark realism, as well as flashes of impressionistic psychedelia. Zellner also acts in the film as a kindly, yet bumbling, sheriff’s deputy). Sean Porter’s cinematography is rich and artful, with painterly frames serving almost as storybook illustrations for this 21st century Brothers Grimm story.
Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is a gorgeously sad, sweetly funny story about detachedness, isolation, and searching for some meaning during our brief time on this earth. It is built upon a tangled web of metafiction that also serves as a commentary on the nature of stories, and the power of art to move us. Let yourself be carried away by its quiet charms. Just don’t travel to Fargo in the middle of winter. That just sounds like a bad idea for a vacation.