If there's one thing Kumiko the Treasure Hunter proves beyond the shadow of a doubt, it's that Rinko Kikuchi is a movie star in the making. (An independent film about a Tokyo woman who goes on an unexpected quest, Kumiko will expand across the US throughout the spring. If it's playing in your city, you should go see it.)
Odd and off-kilter, the Japanese actress is someone neither the American nor the Japanese film industry has entirely figured out what to do with. But almost the entirety of Kumiko rests on her shoulders. For much of the film, she's the only actor on screen, and she's endlessly fascinating to watch, even though the character she plays can be off-putting from time to time.
That quality, that thing where you can't take your eyes off someone onscreen, is usually defined as star quality. And if nobody can figure out how to make Kikuchi one of the biggest stars in the world, then they're not trying hard enough.
Kumiko could be so, so horrifying
At the center of Kumiko is an old urban legend. In it, a Tokyo woman in her late 20s travels to the frozen wastes of the American Upper Midwest because she believes the movie Fargo is actually based on a true story and that the money that goes missing late in the film is buried in a snow drift somewhere. The urban legend is one based around a wide gulf between two cultures, to say nothing of the strange notion that a Japanese woman, no matter how mentally ill, would apparently not understand the concept of fiction.
The thing about the story, though, is that it's a little bit true. But the true story, of course, is much sadder and more complicated than the urban legend allows. A Japanese woman named Takako Konishi really did travel from Tokyo to Minnesota and North Dakota. But she wasn't in pursuit of the money from Fargo. That was something police mistakenly assumed, thanks to a communication gap. Instead, she turned out to be suicidal and in Minnesota because that was where an ex-lover, a married man, lived.
Kumiko is based not on the truth but on the legend. In the hands of director David Zellner and his co-screenwriter, brother Nathan Zellner, Takako becomes Kumiko (Kikuchi), an obviously depressed and obsessive office worker who doesn't fit into her culture's typical view of what a woman should be. Unmarried and working in an office as she approaches 30, she simply doesn't fit. She watches Fargo over and over, eventually stitching a kind of treasure map into a sampler and heading to Minnesota in search of buried treasure.
The story of Kumiko brims with all sorts of potentially troublesome assumptions about cultural clashes and the like, but both Zellners imbue their title character with the sort of complications that make her seem more human than half-realized symbol. In his shots, David Zellner emphasizes how alone Kumiko is, how isolated she is even when she's surrounded by other women in her office, all dressed exactly like her. She sticks out like a sore thumb, even when she's not supposed to.
At the small apartment she shares only with her pet rabbit, Kumiko can seem like a plant, stretching toward the blue glow of her television, endlessly fast-forwarding and rewinding her VHS copy of Fargo to check for evidence in her treasure hunt. Pop culture can become a lifeline for those who suffer from mental illness because it's a strong, stable presence in life. No matter what happens to Kumiko, Fargo will always be the same.
The Zellners, then, have taken a story fraught with the potentially horrific implications of its real-life basis and elevated it to a kind of movie legend. Kumiko is no longer based on a single person. She's based on all depressed people who feel a need to break from their lives (and maybe even continents) and go after something, anything, else.
And none of it would work without Kikuchi.
This is what screen presence looks like
Kikuchi, 34, is probably most famous to American audiences for her Oscar-nominated work in Babel as a deaf teenager, and her major role in the monster-fighting cult hit Pacific Rim. Kikuchi was so much the best part of the latter that it could be a little hard to get too invested in the film when she wasn't around, and it certainly helped that her character was one of the few with a clear, simple story and motivation.
Kikuchi has been attached to Kumiko for years, while the Zellners sought the kind of funding they would need to film on location in both Tokyo and Minnesota. It's easy to see what she saw in the character. Kikuchi's energy has always been slightly off. There's something sly about the way she smiles, like she's daring you to keep hanging out with her. She's used that to play both the slightly aloof cool kid and the nerdy outsider who wants desperately to be an insider. What makes her performance as Kumiko so good is how she channels both sides of her onscreen persona.
But she also makes depression seem understandable.
Movies have a long, bad history of fetishizing depression, of making people who struggle to wake up and face the world each day seem like they're more poignant or somehow more cognizant of reality than the rest of us. In Kikuchi's hands, Kumiko is always interesting, always engaging, but also always somebody who is clearly struggling to stay just ahead of a massive wave that will overwhelm her if it catches up to her.
Kumiko loses a little something once it reaches Minnesota, as the movie turns into a series of vignettes about nice Midwesterners trying to understand this woman who's unexpectedly wandered into their lives. There are some gentle gags (taken from the true story) about how ill-equipped these small town residents are to help out Kumiko, but the scenes all tend to play in roughly the same way, until one final, haunting encounter with a deaf cab driver.
But Kikuchi keeps all of these scenes grounded, no matter how unbelievable Kumiko's quest might come to seem. The film's best shot just might be one from this section, in which Kumiko walks alongside a highway at twilight, trying like hell to reach Fargo, even though it's colder than anything she's ever experienced and she's not dressed for the weather. Snow blows eerily across the asphalt, seeming to rise out of its cracks like spectral fingers. But she keeps walking on and on, toward her destination.
At its best, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter and its lead actress understand that this is what depression can feel like — an endless walk through the most unforgiving of conditions, and one that just keeps going and going, so long as you can stay pointed toward something, no matter how nebulous.