It’s tempting to consider David and Nathan Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter an inversion of Lost in Translation, absent a catalog of killer songs and Bill Murray. It may be more true to say the films have little in common, except that both are set, sometimes, in Japan. Still, they share an interest in the ache of solitude and utilize a kindred dissociative hypnotism as they follow their heroines on a quest to nowhere.
The movie follows the adventures of Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi). Almost everyone who meets this 29-year-old “office girl” thinks she’s on the road to nowhere. Her shoulders are slumped and her eyes downcast, Kumiko wears a bright red hoodie, resisting expectations that girls grow up to be wives and mothers. She’s alone and obsessive, and her particular object of obsession is the Coen brothers’ film Fargo. Sitting night after night in her dingy apartment with only her adorable rabbit Bunzo for company, she pores over a worn-out VHS tape with Talmudic fervency, keeping a notebook full of scribbled clues that only make sense to her. Because of Fargo‘s famous opening epigraph — “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987” — she takes it as a faithful transcribing of reality. That’s why she keeps re-watching the scene where Carl (Steve Buscemi) buries the suitcase of cash by a fence in a snowy field. In Kumiko’s mind, she just needs to get to Minnesota.
Kumiko’s intensity of effort is such that the Zellners’ conceit isn’t merely a joke. The film appreciates its absurdity, but also probes the seriousness of Kumiko’s experience as an individual cut adrift who seizes on to a seemingly random cultural artifact for purpose and meaning. From the opening scene, when Kumiko follows a hand-stitched treasure map to find the Fargo videotape buried inside a seaside cave, her story appears as odd and seductive as the Coens’. Who would have left it there for her and also provided a map to it? When later she stitches another map to find Carl’s stash, it seems clear that she didn’t just come across that tape, but instead, she placed it. She is creating her own odyssey.
The odyssey isn’t exactly epic. Little that Kumiko does comes to much of anything, even after she lands in Minnesota, looking at the same Paul Bunyan statue she remembers from Fargo. Her own movie might have been one of those stories in which one more misunderstood loner trips their way into some form of greatness. But the Zellners’ sullen heroine is truly depressed and disturbed, and she can’t come to terms with even the smallest intrusions from outside her tiny zone of comfort. Eventually, we discover, as she does, that even in wintry Minnesota, her quest goes on.
We might sympathize with her initial desire to find another life. Kumiko is genuinely terrible at her job, and spitting in her sexist boss’ tea is only the most extreme example of her ineptitude. Still, we sympathize with her sense of dislocation. Her fellow office girls have helium-pitched giggle fits about getting eyebrow perms, and a well-meaning Bemidji sheriff (David Zellner) takes Kumiko to a Chinese buffet hoping that the owner can translate for him, only to be confused when he’s told that Chinese and Japanese are not the same language. And when a nice old woman (Shirley Venard) offers to drive Kumiko to the Mall of America instead of Fargo, well, that’s just good sense. There’s no Legoland in Fargo.
Kumiko’s stubborn refusal to go along with anything or anybody makes her seem more of an explorer than a victim. Her sense of agency, however limited, transforms her foolhardy quest into a more resonant narrative, embellished by the Octopus Project’s haunting soundtrack and Sean Porter’s bewitching cinematography. Staggering through the snow wrapped in a motel blanket fashioned into a ramshackle cape, her eyes blazing, Kumiko herself takes on an almost heroic grandeur. During one unsuccessful attempt to explain her quest, she likens herself to a Spanish conquistador. But by the time Kumiko reaches its bittersweet denouement, we might be reminded of another reality-challenged Spanish adventurer: Don Quixote.