When you hear that the movie you’re about to review centers on a modern-day Japanese office worker who ventures to Minnesota to find the cash that Steve Buscemi’s character Carl Showalter left near a fence in the 1996 film Fargo, your ears tend to prick up. I mean, it’s the ultimate fool’s errand – trying to locate a briefcase full of money based on a work of fiction? And this particular work of fiction was supposed to have taken place in 1987, no less. We’re not talking about an offbeat treasure hunt like The Goonies; we’re talking about a woman who flies from Tokyo to Minnesota based on a movie that came out years before she had seen it.
Automatically, you start to think about the subject’s mind state and perception of reality. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter slowly unravels a sad tale of a woman who lives in her own head. Actually, “lives” may be too strong a verb; we see Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) merely existing, padding through her days as an “office lady,” getting tea for the boss and listening to everyone harangue her for being 29 years old with no marriage or financial prospects. She’s a victim of her own fantasies, choosing to live in Kumiko-world instead of the real world, where the rest of us know the difference between fact and fiction.
Her only friend is a rabbit she keeps named Bunzo, and she spends her time making needlework maps and notes about buried treasure. The first thing we see her do, in fact, is dig up a VHS videotape from a cave near a beach. We’re not told how it got there, but one can guess that she buried it herself to give herself some kind of adventure. That’s really all that Kumiko wants – an adventure that’ll take her far away from the worries of her solitary existence and give her enough money to do whatever she pleases.
She finds her purpose in viewing the videotape, which happens to be Fargo, a Coen Brothers film about a man who resorts to involving hitmen to get a large sum of money from his rich father-in-law. We see her frenetically taking notes about the exact point on the videotape where one of the men buries a briefcase full of money on the side of a road near a long fence that seems to stretch into oblivion (thanks to Fargo cinematographer Roger Deakins). There’s nothing really holding Kumiko to her current situation, and there’s a lot of money that she believes is still buried out there in the field in Fargo. Besides, it has to be real, right? After all, the film starts off with a disclaimer with the opening sentence “THIS IS A TRUE STORY” practically jumping out of the television at her, in effect daring her to come find this treasure.
The Zellner Brothers also choose to start Kumiko the Treasure Hunter the same way, with the noise-filled image of Fargo’s disclaimer, emphasizing that THIS IS A TRUE STORY. It’s an adaptation of the urban legend surrounding office worker Takako Konishi, found in a field in Minnesota in 2001, thousands of miles away from where she worked and lived in Tokyo. The rumor was that she was there on this very same errand, when in fact she was only there to find an old lover and was subsequently spurned by him. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter makes such a profound statement on the worlds we create for ourselves in order to make sense of or deal with the world outside our own minds. Unfortunately, in Kumiko’s case, the dissonance between the two causes her to retreat into her own fantasies, never to return.
Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is simply a gorgeously-shot, gorgeously-acted film, with lead actor Rinko Kikuchi taking the reins all the way to the end. She’s been noted for her strong performance in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, and she’ll again be noted for her stolid and heart-wrenching turn as the title character. This is not some walk-in-the-park role that you forget at the end of the day; this is a woman at the end of her rope, with no one coming to help her, and with no sign of her being able to accept facts as they are. Kikuchi holds this film down and absolutely nails every emotion running through Kumiko’s head, with her face betraying every last mournful bit of solitude and despair.
There are a lot of parallels to be drawn here. Kumiko is often seen in a red hooded sweatshirt, which brings to mind Little Red Riding Hood and her journey to grandmother’s house. Or is it a nod to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, where the figure in the red coat and hood are harbingers of the lead character’s fate? It could also be a fable about the American Dream and what happens if one comes over here to find it based on legends of gold-lined streets and with no money in your pocket. But it also could just be about mental illness, personified by a girl trapped in her own fiction, wading into waters way over her head. Instead of water, though, it’s the snows of Minnesota in which Kumiko finds herself lost, covering her much in the way that her own mind has covered her from reality.