Takako Konishi was an office worker from Tokyo who was found dead in Minnesota and became the muse behind the urban legend that the Coen Brothers Fargo is the key to a lost bounty of cash. That same Urban Legend is the key inspiration behind David Zellner’s third film Kumiko the Treasure Hunter. Rinko Kikuchi is Kumiko, a bored salary worker with an unsatisfying job and personal life. A depression exacerbated by her Manager and Mother bullishly declaring that she should be married with children by her age. The only respite she has comes from her pet Rabbit, Bunzo, and feverishly pausing, fast forwarding and rewinding her way through a badly worn VHS of Fargo thinking it a document of lost riches.
Zellner’s film is not a document of what happened to Takako Konishi, that film already exists in Paul Berczeller’s 2003 documentary This Is a True Story. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is a hyper-stylised black comedy about depression and the type of person who seeks out the greener grass, however real it may or may not be. In that this is a film about Kumiko, the treasure hunting acts only as a divining rod for the emotional wellbeing of the protagonist. After burning all conceivable bridges in Tokyo, she heads to Minnesota in the search of Fargo and her pot of gold at the end of the metaphorical rainbow. Along the way she meets many warm people, all of whom try their best to usher her away from her fantasy goal.
Characters come and go: Kanako Higashi as childhood friend Michi, director Zellner appears as the policeman and Nobuyuki Katsube as her boss, Sakagami, midst other. Rinko Kikuchi is the consistent and one of the few Japanese actors to break out of the Japanese industry and on evidence of performances like this that isn’t changing any time soon. She is superlative as the titular character. A huddled ball of neuroses, using body language to draw a line between her and any of her would be well-wishers; the effectiveness of which flowers in the scene in which she says goodbye to her beloved Bunzo. A potent scene as it’s the only time when she expresses herself in an emotionally healthy way; the silence of her status quo becomes all the more affecting after this.
The style of Kumiko the Treasure Hunter may be a little hard to swallow for some, personally it was intoxicating. Music was the key to this. There is a woozy VHS aesthetic informed by the scenes where Kumiko is sat in front of her TV. The Octopus Project have composed a score of broken and dreamlike soundscapes, lending an ethereal aura to Kumiko’s adventure, evoking the haunting atmospherics Mica Levi brought to Under the Skin. There is also a sparse visual distortion trading on those same core aesthetics that the Octopus Project brought to the score.
Certain quarters of the press have stated that Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is a future cult film and while we wholeheartedly agree, there is plenty that will ensure the film met with indifference. The fundamental reason most independent or Japanese films fail to meet any level of crossover appeal comes down to pacing. Zellner’s film equals the patient pace of Japanese cinema that champions humble inaction as drama. As darkly comic, absurd and exact a depiction of debilitating depression Zellner (David & Nathan) have penned, it all comes down to that pace as to whether the film sinks or swims.
American filmmakers constantly steal ideas from smaller film industries and outsider culture, but it’s always achieved thru suffocating cultural empiricism. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is a truthful depiction of one woman, one sole statistic in a country devastated by loneliness and depression. This does not feel like a film directed by a Gaijin. That may make the film sound more po-faced than is the case, still with Rinko Kikuchi’s dominatingly small performance, David Zellner’s subtle direction and visual style scored by a fantastically weird score make for the first surprise of 2015. When films are well-received on the festival circuit it’s usually a mixed blessing, in spite of this Kumiko the Treasure Hunter prevails as a definitive and unique wanderlust picture.
KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER was in selected cinemas from February 20th and will be on DVD and BLU-RAY from SODA PICTURES.