Famously, the Coen Brothers' 1996 film Fargo begins with a black screen and a caption telling us that everything we’re about to see is based on real events that took place in Minnesota in 1987. What is perhaps less well known is that this is an out and out lie - a manifestation of the Coens' strange sense of humour that’s just really there as a sort of in joke to mess with the viewer’s head. When a Japanese woman was found wandering around a wintery Minnesota, underdressed for the cold weather and pointing to a hand-drawn map of tree next to a road, it wasn’t long before someone connected her actions to the famous movie. When she was found dead in the woods some days later, an urban myth was born about a crazy Japanese lady who froze to death looking for Steve Buscemi’s buried suitcase. As it so often does, the truth turned out to be much sadder and more ordinary than the legend suggests and that this poor woman became the butt of a global joke seems cruel and unfair. Now the original myth has spawned another story of its own - of Kumiko, who sees herself like a Spanish Conquistador who alone has learned of vast riches hidden deep in the new world.
Kumiko is a 29 year-old office lady from Tokyo who lives alone in a tiny apartment aside from her pet rabbit Bunzo. As she goes about her everyday life she looks worn out, like someone who’s been carrying a heavy burden for a long time. She barely speaks to anyone and resents her boss so much she almost spits in his tea before thinking better of it. As it turns out one of the reasons she looks so tired is that she spends every night sat in front of her ancient TV scouring an old VHS of the movie Fargo (which she found in a cave buried under a pile of rocks at the end of a previous treasure hunt) for clues as to where Steve Buscemi buried his money. When her boss calls her in one day to ask why it is she always looks so miserable and points out, in a nice avuncular way, that 29 is really far too old for an office lady things have come to a crisis point. Using his company card she’s booked herself on a flight to Minneapolis armed only with her hand embroidered map and an unshakable faith that her treasure exists and is hers alone to find.
Of course, her delusion is ridiculous for a multitude of reasons: to begin with, it’s obviously a constructed film not a documentary, so even if the events were real how would you know they recreated the exact burial spot in their movie version? Secondly, why would they have done that and then left the actual money where it was? Thirdly, the money was supposedly buried in 1987 - surely someone else would have come up with a similar idea in the intervening fifteen years and found the money already, wouldn’t they? Fourthly, he only buried it in the snow. Snow melts. How could anyone believe this? The film opens with Kumiko following another of her intricately made hand embroidered maps that results in her finding the fateful tape as if she alone had been handed some kind of divine revelation. Accordingly, she pours all of her energy into divining its holy secrets. Hers is a literal leap of faith - she simply believes in it even though we ‘know’ it’s absurd.
What would make someone cling on to this kind of bizarre idea as their only true hope of salvation? We’re never given very much backstory, but it seems that somewhere along the way Kumiko’s life diverged from the one she wanted to live and ever since then she’s been treading water. Her mother rings her periodically to try and convince her to move back home ‘until she gets married’ whilst asking all sorts of questions about her love life and career that Kumiko would rather not answer. At work she’s the odd one out in the office as generally young women either decide to leave and get married or pursue a more demanding career long before Kumiko’s almost ancient 29. She keeps herself apart from her colleagues and barely speaks to them which is fine because they think of her as a creepy old lady anyway. She does eventually agree to meet an old school friend for coffee but bolts once left alone in a cafe with her friend’s five year-old daughter. It’s almost as if Kumiko herself feels she’s failed and is too ashamed to interact with other people. Faced with her friend’s successful home life with a healthy young daughter compared to Kumiko’s own dreary, lonely existence it’s not difficult to see how loneliness and frustrated desperation could lead to a state of psychosis. If she can just prove it; show everyone she has a destiny - something she alone is supposed to do, then they’d all see.
Once she reaches America things begin to take a darker turn. Dressed only in her usual blue dress and little red hoodie, she’s like Red Riding Hood stepping off alone into the woods. She hasn’t brought winter clothes, cash or even made a proper plan of how to actually get to Fargo. She meets some nice people along the way - a lonely old lady who means well but has almost kidnapped the poor girl and keeps trying to thrust James Clavell’s Shogun at her, and a truly decent policeman who can see there’s something wrong but is prevented from helping by the impenetrable language barrier. Every time it seems as if there might be a better way out of this the door is cruelly slammed in Kumiko’s face and left entirely alone in a strange land there really is nothing else for her to do than trudge on in hope of finding her treasure. Kumiko could so easily have been a series of crazy lady tics and quirks but thanks to Kikuchi’s extremely nuanced performance the infinite sadness of her story is completely laid bare. All this happened, more or less - mostly less in this case, but there is truth in this story. The world is full of lonely people whose minds have turned in on themselves through having nowhere left to run. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is an existential tragedy that nevertheless is shot through with enough charm and whimsy to make its often unpalatable message easy to digest. A strange fairytale for adults, Kumiko’s story is heartbreakingly bleak but it’s also immensely beautiful.
Kumiko The Treasure Hunter was Screened at Sundance London from 25-27th April 2014.