Werner Herzog defined his brand of “ecstatic truth” in 1999 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as a cinematic truth greater than mere facts, or “the truth of accountants”: “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” Fifteen years later, filmmakers David Zellner and Nathan Zellner unveiled Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, their own sublime approximation of Herzog’s “Minnesota Declaration,” based on an urban myth that had its own origins, fittingly enough, in the snowy climes of the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
It was near one such Minnesota lake that 28-year-old Tokyo office worker Takako Konishi was found dead by a local bowhunter on November 15, 2001. She wore boots and a miniskirt, was in possession of a crude hand-drawn map, and upon arriving in Minneapolis from Japan, they say, she’d hitchhiked her way across the state in pursuit of the fictional buried fortune from the 1996 film Fargo.
At least that’s how the urban legend told it. The Zellners, Austin-based brothers and collaborators, stumbled across the stranger-than-fiction tale on an online message board before the age of Twitter and insta-info. The mystery sent their imaginations whirring, as they wondered what could compel such a woman to make such an unforgiving journey halfway around the world to her death.
“The headline was something like ‘Japanese Woman Goes From Tokyo to Minnesota for Fortune From Fargo’ and we were like, ‘Whaaat?’” said David Zellner, who directed and co-stars in Kumiko, which he wrote with brother and producer Nathan Zellner. “If that had happened today it would be chewed up and spat out really quickly and debunked. What drew us into it was this fable-like story of a treasure hunt, as if from the Age of Exploration, presented as fact and taking place in modern day.”
“The fact that there was limited information made us want more.”Eventually, the true facts surrounding Konishi’s ill-fated trip to the Midwest surfaced; there was no mystical treasure map, no deluded obsession with the fictional suitcase of cash stashed under a fencepost in the snow by Steve Buscemi in Fargo, which begins with a disclaimer purporting the film’s events to be true. (The Zellners have yet to hear what the Coen brothers, who wrote and directed Fargo, think of Kumiko.) As detailed and re-created in Paul Berczeller’s 2003 documentary This Is a True Story, the Fargo portion of Konishi’s mythology sprang from miscommunications she had with police in Bismarck, North Dakota, where she’d stopped days before heading toward Detroit Lakes.“I had never seen the film Fargo, but another officer in the station had seen it and he told me that there was money buried in this movie,” Officer Jesse Hellman told Berczeller. “And then we started to think that she had this false impression that the money buried by a road by a tree was real in the movie. That’s where she wanted to go. We thought that was really odd, but suddenly it all began to make sense.”When a pocket translator failed to help Konishi communicate in her native Japanese with the Bismarck Police Department, the flustered Hellman called a local Chinese restaurant for help, to no avail. Seemingly determined to make it to Fargo, a four-hour drive away, Konishi boarded a bus headed east and spent two nights at a Quality Inn motel.“She started asking about seeing the stars,” the night clerk recalled. “Which I thought was a little strange, because it was November and it isn’t that warm outside in the middle of the night, but I wanted to help, so I showed her this place on the map where it would be nice to watch the stars. She seemed to be happy after that.”The Medical Examiner’s office in St. Paul, Minnesota reported finding a half-dozen drugs in Konishi’s system, including sedatives, tranquilizers, and anti-psychotic meds. She was said to have visited the area with an American lover whom she’d called before her death. Her parents reportedly received her suicide note in the mail three weeks after her body was discovered.By the time Takako Konishi’s Fargo myth was debunked, the Zellners had already re-envisioned her story as a quixotic dreamer’s tragedy, keeping some of the intriguing elements from early reports: The map, her outfit, that laughable, desperate stab at getting a Chinese restaurateur to translate Japanese. They’d named their heroine Kumiko after taking a liking to the name and imagined her as an isolated misfit with the restless soul of a conquistador—a worn-out VHS tape and its promise of a buried fortune her only escape from the increasingly claustrophobic modern world.After an existential pause, the Zellners stuck with their vision, building on parallels to Konishi’s life to craft a story more humanistic than the cold and unknowable truths of real life. “We weren’t consumed with cramming facts in, which would have in a very literal sense checked the boxes,” David Zellner explained. “We wanted to approach it more from a human, emotional level rather than the literal facts. That resonated more to us and felt more truthful, in a way.”The brothers reached out early on to Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi after seeing her Oscar-nominated performance as a deaf teenager in 2007’s Babel, but the project percolated for years. The Zellners went on to make their Sundance 2012 drama Kid-Thing, about a destructive 10-year-old tomboy left to her own devices in the backwoods of Texas, before finally undertaking the international Kumiko shoot in Tokyo and Minnesota.Childlike and socially detached, Kikuchi’s Kumiko works an oppressive office job and lives alone with her pet rabbit, Bunzo; social ease escapes her; she shrinks from human interaction. Wearing a bright red hoodie like a safety blanket (and captured exquisitely by cinematographer Sean Porter), she stands out brightly against the muted palette of her urban prison and against the stark white snow of the frozen Midwest, never truly safe in either world.To find the “truth” of Kumiko’s journey, the Zellners divide her story into two chapters: life before and life after she makes the impulsive decision to fly to America in search of her destiny. “I am like a Spanish conquistador,” she confides to a library security guard who catches her trying to steal a page out of an atlas she believes is crucial to her expedition. “Recently, I’ve learned of untold riches hidden deep in the Americas.”Freeing herself of worldly worries, the naïve but courageous Kumiko embarks on a childlike adventure against impossible odds that’s alternately adorable, optimistic, confusing, and deeply melancholy.“It would be so easy to make her the butt of the joke or to overplay it,” David Zellner noted. “But people get the information they need. Rinko had the confidence to know when how she was selling it was enough.”Somewhere in Minnesota, Kumiko’s quixotic quest starts to feel all too real, the ghost of Takako Konishi haunting every shuffling step through the snow. Audiences in different cities vary in their take on Kumiko’s mental state, Zellner says, although the filmmakers are keen to see how the film plays in Japan. For most it’s impossible not to watch Kumiko and ponder the psychological traumas that sent the possibly-suicidal Konishi wandering into the woods of Minnesota in 2001.“I’m a filmmaker, not a psychoanalyst,” said Zellner. “It’s so easy to come off as dismissive and condescending, but there are elements of the real story that we’ll never know about. To reduce her down to some kind of label would diminish her character in a simplistic and patronizing way. That would also be safer for the audience because then they can distance themselves from her character and write her off. But this film is from her point of view, so you have to go all in with her.”