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Spoilers for Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter to follow!
In 2001, Japanese office worker Takako Konishi was found dead in the snows of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, a story notable for how far she died from her Tokyo home but ultimately turned out to be a case of suicide, with Konishi, having just lost her job, visiting the location of a romantic getaway she had had with a former lover. However, due to the location and the still omnipresent popularity of the Coen Brothers film Fargo, the incident was commonly misreported as an ill-conceived attempt to retrieve the hidden treasure from the film, with the news media operating under the belief that Konishi had taken as fact the Coens' cheeky title card declaring the events of the film a true story. Despite the fact that this misunderstanding was quickly cleared up, the urban legend of the woman who tried to find the fictional treasure lived on, and this acts as the main inspiration for The Zellner Brothers' Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter.
Now, there are certainly substantial differences between Kumiko (played by Rinko Kikuchi) and Takako Konishi, mainly in their actual motivations for having made the trip to Minnesota, but the Zellners are less concerned with living up to reality or even the narrative of the urban legend than they are with exploring the psychology of one who would be driven to search for a fictional treasure in a foreign land. Kumiko isn't the subject of an emotionally devastating break-up, but is instead a victim of a depression that is exacerbated by a social circle that only has a superficial and judgmental interest in her well-being.
When an old acquaintance sees Kumiko on the street, she comes after Kumiko with aggression, being entirely nice but clearly ignorant of how obviously uncomfortable and silent Kumiko is with giving this practical stranger her phone number. At work, Kumiko doesn't relate with the other office ladies, all of whom are younger than her and with romantic prospects. Every day Kumiko contemplates spitting into her boss's tea, as the man constantly pressures her to either advance her career or find a man to marry, under a guise of care for Kumiko's well-being but more likely motivated by a feeling of discomfort with Kumiko's unwillingness to conform to the traditional path of a Japanese woman in her late twenties. Worst of all is Kumiko's mother, whom we only ever hear via phone conversation. She constantly berates Kumiko for wanting her independence and never living up to metrics of success that she seemingly has no interest in attaining. These moments are often tinged with awkward comedy, but it's never at Kumiko's expense, instead directed toward those too dense to understand Kumiko's cloistered responses.
It's unclear whether Kumiko is in fact a professional and romantic failure or whether such things simply didn't interest her from the start, but the constant inquiries into her life and goals are all only skin deep, with no one coming right out and asking how she is doing emotionally. Kumiko lives alone in a small apartment with her pet rabbit Bunzo, the only creature who doesn't judge her for her quiet and reclusive nature. It's no wonder then that Kumiko turns to fantasy to escape the uncaring social mores that restrict her, and the discovery of a VHS copy of Fargo in a cave – a buried treasure in its own right – offers her an avenue toward success and greatness that she can call her own. She sees herself as a conquistador, the destined discoverer of a secret treasure hidden in plain sight, and her goal becomes all-encompassing even as the social pressures of her unsupportive network close in around her.
In order to pursue this dream, though, he must give up that which means the most to her: Bunzo. In a scene equally comic and tragic, Kumiko attempts to release her domesticated pet into the wild, but the fat and contented rabbit has no impetus to scamper off, instead lazing about at Kumiko's feet as she struggles to push away her closest friend. This forces Kumiko to abandon Bunzo on a commuter train, and the bunny is whisked away from her life, leaving the lonesome woman with no reason to stay in Japan without her treasure.
However, once she lands in the Minneapolis airport, she discovers only more isolation, even among the well-wishing visages of the Minnesota Nice. With a limited understanding and ability to speak English, Kumiko relies on the kindness of strangers to deliver her to Fargo, South Dakota, or more specifically to the spot between Fargo and Minneapolis where Steve Buscemi supposedly buried his treasure. However, more often than not these people aren't interested in helping Kumiko achieve her goals, instead going through motions of kindness without actually bothering to understand why she would be out here by herself. A pair offering "tourist information" in the airport abandons her after they realize she cannot understand their proselytizing. An old woman who picks Kumiko up off the side of the road insists on diverting Kumiko from her path to visit tourist destinations, rambling on about her own international experiences without a care for how banal and tangential those ramblings are.
The only person who offers Kumiko the slightest bit of empathy is a sheriff's deputy who finds her wandering around in the cold, wrapped in nothing but a stolen comforter. He listens to her broken story of searching for the Fargo treasure, and he tries to convince her that it's not real. Even as he cannot break her delusion, he takes her out for a meal and brings her to a thrift store to find warmer clothing. This basic humanity overwhelms Kumiko to the point of misinterpreting his kindness as romantic advances; she has been so isolated, so deprived of actual empathy for so long even among the urban metropolis of her home city, she becomes enamored with a man who must immediately and professionally reject her advances. This misunderstanding destroys what last hope for human relationship Kumiko has as she steps away from the world into her fantasy, and the tragedy of it all is that one truly kind person wasn't enough to save her.
Kumiko runs away into the woods, fleeing civilization and finding solace in her search for the mythical treasure. She is cold, tired, hungry, and at one point attacked by a wolf, but the hope of finding that briefcase full of cash keeps her going, even as a snowstorm encases her in a layer of white. She awakes from this snowstorm with a more ghastly white pallor, but her surroundings are decidedly more serene, and her search actually brings her to the fabled fence from the film. Sure enough, the briefcase is waiting there, buried in the snow, and Kumiko takes her prize to walk into the sunset with the suddenly present Bunzo.
Of course, this ending implies that Kumiko died in the snowstorm, so this makes her end not so much a suicide as a quixotic tragedy, a vast departure from the true or fictionalized stories of Takako Konishi. But the idea that Kumiko might have found peace in the afterlife, with her treasure and the only creature that loved her without judgment, is a bittersweet comfort. The Zellner Brothers crafted a story that dives deep into the mentality of a woman on the edge of mental collapse, not through a pending explosion of emotional outburst but as the result of the crushing weight of societal expectation and the universal conflation of kind gestures with actual empathy. The tragedy of Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter isn't that Kumiko had to die for her quest, but that the world was so cold that it killed her for its lack of emotional warmth.