The Zellner Brothers’ Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a deeply somber modern-day odyssey with a host of heartbreaking episodes, softened by glimpses of droll humor. It is dark tragicomedy at its finest, and is cinematically stunning from beginning to end. The filmmakers reimagine a now-debunked urban myth involving a Japanese woman named Takako Konishi, who was found frozen in a Minnesota field. The news sensationalized her story, claiming that she died from pursuing the treasure she believed to be real in the movie, Fargo.
**major spoilers ahead**
Our fictional, oddball heroine Kumiko (award-winning Rinko Kikuchi, Babel and Pacific Rim) is an “office lady” who is fed up with her unfulfilling work life. She isolates herself from her co-workers — gossipy and appearance-obsessed young women — and detests her belittling boss. At 29, she rejects other societal expectations of women her age, to her mother’s dismay and boss’s confusion. She doesn’t have a boyfriend and refuses to move back in with her mom; she instead lives in a flat with her pet rabbit Bunzo, her only companion. Kumiko exists in a society that does not understand her differences. Her boss at one point questions her sexual orientation, implying that the only reason a 29-year-old woman can be unmarried is if she is homosexual. She also faces ageism when that boss hires a much younger woman to eventually replace her.
In her free time, Kumiko fixates on the Coen Brothers’ movie, Fargo, in which Steve Buscemi’s character buries a suitcase full of ransom money in snowy North Dakota. She watches this outdated VHS time and time again, carefully mapping out the location of the suitcase. Kumiko is a conquistador, as she proudly proclaims; it is her destiny and purpose to find this treasure. This could be an allusion to Don Quixote, another tragicomic protagonist who sets out on an unlikely quest to revive chivalry. In this world, the boundaries between the fictional and real start to blur.
In a metaphorical sense, the treasure isn’t the ransom money. It’s whatever lifelong goal, no matter how impossible, Kumiko or anyone else finds worthy of pursuing. Something existentially gratifying. In this sense, Kumiko is in fact a conquistador. The film depicts society as oppressive in such a way that the viewer can identify with the protagonist’s desire to break out. It brings to life a sort of absurd and meaningless world found in existential literature. Kumiko seeks to ascribe her own meaning by seeking to find this treasure. Her source of authenticity in this absurd world is recreating herself as a conquistador.
This makes our heroine almost antithetical to the misguided protagonist of Fargo. That character, Jerry, plans a backward scheme involving the fake kidnapping of his wife. He is driven by a need to fit this societal ideal of masculinity: being “financially independent” (not asking for money from his wife’s rich father but instead conning him) and able to provide for his family. Kumiko frees herself from societal pressures. She abandons any kind of institutionalized femininity depicted in the lives of the other “office ladies” and her friend with the child. In the end, Jerry is arrested and Kumiko succeeds in breaking free. Bunzo’s release from his cage and out into the world — one of the most heart-wrenching and adorable scenes in the film — is representative of Kumiko’s own transformative journey. Like her fluffy pet, Kumiko is afraid and unsure of how to handle her newfound freedom, but forces herself to take that leap to North Dakota.
There, several offbeat characters cross her path. They all are caricatures of uncultured Midwesterners who are unsure of how to deal with Kumiko, a lost Japanese woman who can barely utter a word of English. There is the lonely old lady who offers up anything she knows about Japan in order to identify with Kumiko, but comes across as inadvertently racist. Worse is the kindhearted but clueless police officer (David Zellner) who takes Kumiko to a Chinese restaurant in hopes that the Chinese owner would know a little bit of Japanese, as if the two are interchangeable. Both Kumiko and Fargo play up the pleasantly humdrum vibe of the Midwest while simultaneously portraying it as a cold, bleak and death-laden environment.
These characters try their best to guide Kumiko along but are ultimately discouraging. They tell her that what she’s setting out to find doesn’t exist. That her goal is impossible. She is confronted by this when the officer tells her that Fargo is just a “regular” movie, not a documentary, and that there is no treasure. Kumiko doesn’t believe this or let anyone deter her, showing that while she is not all there mentally, she is headstrong and knows what she wants. This leads to both her downfall and ensuing freedom from the absurd world.
When Kumiko starts spiraling into a crazed mania after escaping from a sinister cab driver and running into the woods, the movie adopts a much more surrealist tone. This is when the viewer really slips into Kumiko’s mind, feeling what she’s feeling and seeing what she’s seeing, rather than examining from an outside perspective. Kumiko loses touch with reality and so does the viewer, no longer sure of what’s real and what’s not. The sequences in the woods—when Kumiko is most desperate and unwavering—are some of the most beautifully shot and haunting scenes of the film.
While the ending initially felt like a bit of a cop out, I now realize that it’s empowering even if it results in the death of our peculiar heroine. When she emerges from the snow, in a sea of white, she is reborn. The world, for the first time, is a refreshing and joyous place. It is no longer grim and bleak. Kumiko seems hopeful, and the viewer can sense this newfound hope. She uncovers the treasure right where she expected it to be, and is reunited with Bunzo. This is her goal playing out and she laughs and celebrates. For a character that does not fit into society’s constraints, death may be the ultimate freedom, as bittersweet as that is. While not overtly her goal, this unintentional suicide could be emblematic of a seemingly impossible goal being attained. Again, beautiful but haunting.