The publicity campaign around Kumiko makes good use of its adorable rabbit. But this isn’t a feel-good animal movie. It is a potentially exhilarating one.
A 29-year-old Japanese woman living in Tokyo takes the opening title card of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo to heart: “This is a true story.” Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) has studied an old VHS tape of the film so much it has deteriorated into a snowy, glitchy shadow. She’s convinced it really is a true story, and crafts a treasure map to find exactly where Steve Buscemi buried a briefcase full of cash. Kumiko leaves her pet rabbit Bunzo behind and abandons her miserable office job, using the company credit card to fly to America, where she hopes to find that buried treasure. The plot synopsis of the Zellner Brothers’ Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter reads like that of a funny and charming film, and it is. But its cute plot line isn’t a conduit for mere whimsy. It’s instead a sobering look at depression and the quest for meaning in a cold, cold world.
The film is based on a tragic urban legend. In 2001, a woman who had lost her office job in Tokyo was found dead in a field in Minnesota, and it was rumored that she came to America in search of the buried treasure in Fargo. But she had come to Minnesota, where she committed suicide, because she had visited the state with an American businessman with whom she was having an affair.
Kumiko is more innocent than her ill-fated inspiration. She’s out of step with the rest of the world, unable to join in her fellow office girls’ games, impossibly lost when a cheerful old schoolmate chases her down in the street, demanding her phone number as she playfully stabs Kumiko in the gut with her cell phone. She retreats to the dark apartment she shares with a pet rabbit whom she feeds ramen noodles. Her boss, who has a portrait of himself hanging on his office wall, tells Kumiko that by her age the typical Tokyo office girl already has a family. Far from encouraging her, Kimiko’s mother can do nothing but put down her life choices. Bunzo is all Kumiko has. Why not look for treasure in America?
Director David Zellner gets a strong central performance out of Kikuchi (he’s not bad himself as a deputy who’s the one human being who shows Kumiko any kind of understanding). Kumiko walks through most of the film in a deadpan that convincingly depicts the flatness of depression, and that makes her rare moments of emotion that much more touching. The script, co-written by Zellner with his brother Nathan, refuses to vilify America: its native Minnesotan characters are certainly types, but they’re more than just cartoons with a funny accent. Kumiko visits a vast landscape that’s forbiddingly cold and empty, and if this reflects a spiritual emptiness it also gives this pilgrim a blank path finally unencumbered by the concerns of the world.
The film’s premise is easy to distill, but that basic plot is rich with different meanings and angles: the relationship between Eastern and Western culture; the pressure that society places on young women; the search for meaning in a modern world that seems meaningless; and the obsessive and potentially dangerous love for movies. Kumiko’s journey can be taken as a cautionary tale against getting too attached to cinema, but the Zellners’ love of the movies is unfazed by this sad extreme; they lovingly reproduce the glitches of VHS tape, whose deterioration mirrors Kumiko’s own. Her VCR reminds us of a time when it wasn’t so easy to study film, and it’s hard not to see our own search for meaning in her quest.
The publicity campaign around Kumiko makes good use of its adorable rabbit – look for the hashtag #TeamBunzo. But this isn’t a feel-good animal movie. It is a potentially exhilarating one. From the acting to the photography to the evocative, impressionistic score by The Octopus Project, this is one of the best films of the year. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is not a true story, but its central quest touches a chord truer than anything in Fargo.