When I first heard of Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter I was excited to see it. The premise of a young Japanese woman going to an alien country to find treasure resonated with me on so many levels, considering my impending departure for Japan. However, what I viewed was not at all what I was expecting. Where I thought I would find a mystical adventure of a かわいい (cute) young woman, I was presented with a scenario I wasn’t even expecting, to the point of it being almost depressing. I also must preface this review with the fact that I don’t think it’s a poorly designed film, as it was executed quite well, it just fell outside of my morale compass.
I decided to review this movie as I feel it’s topical to the theme of my blog. If I find other Japanese related media, I may also review them if it takes my fancy too. I think one of the main reasons I decided to review this movie was because of the reverse effect it had on me. My expectation of it being a mystical treasure hunt turned out to be a visceral look at the nature of a woman who struggles against an oppressive society, and the lengths to which she had to go in order to escape Japanese societal expectations.
We are introduced to Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) as she is in the middle of a treasure hunt. With hand sewn treasure map in hand, she stumbles upon a small cave on a beach. Inside the cave she finds what she believes to be a treasure: an old VHS cassette tape of Fargo (1996). When she later watches the tape in her apartment she truly believes that the money buried in a remote area of Fargo is an actual treasure, not at all stopping to consider that this tape might actually be fictitious. The fractured spindle of her psyche slowly begins to uncoil with each encounter that she has with colleagues and acquaintances. The sad thing is, despite people reaching out to her, Kumiko is completely oblivious to people’s good intentions – instead choosing to live in a world of mysticism, and false hope. Now, I am not saying that people shouldn’t dream, don’t get me wrong. Kumiko’s dreams are so far gone, that she would have been best seeking help for what appears to be a case of mental illness, rather than traipsing off overseas. The sad thing, for me, is that despite people noticing her poor habits, and declining demeanour, no one truly made much effort to reach out to her, to see if she was okay, other than to make passing comments. This concerns me to a degree, as coming from a society where positive mental health is a huge deal, I wonder if Japan doesn’t really have much concern for it at all?
Due to the apparent decline in the character’s mental health, it made it difficult to predict what her actions would be. Excellent as a tool within the film, it left me with a sickly feeling in my stomach right the way through. Before Kumiko leaves for America, she makes the decision to part with her companion, Bunzo. Her first attempt to leave the rabbit in a park fails miserably. The next scene is of her standing on a platform, cradling the bunny as a train comes into the station. From the way that Kumiko had been represented so far, I seriously thought she was going to throw poor Bunzo in front of the oncoming train. She didn’t, but the fact that the thought was there meant that the character was cemented in my mind as being severely unhinged, and this unpredictability followed her right throughout the rest of the film.
When she finally sets foot in America, she has a number of encounters with locals, which left me a little puzzled. Through the beginning of the movie, Kumiko is painted as being fluent in only Japanese – yet she seemed to know enough English to not only be able to understand what people are saying to her, but also to communicate back (albeit very primitively). “I want to go Fargo” is a common line that she repeats to the various people that she meets on her adventure, with each person representing an agenda of their own.
The colourful cast of support characters come in all shades. At the airport, she meets a couple of men who attempt to help her, but also have religious agenda on their minds. This isn’t explored too deeply, as Kumiko sets off before that angle can be too deeply examined. It’s important to note that the film is set in the middle of winter, so in Minneapolis, it is extremely cold, with harsh sleet and snow impeding Kumiko’s journey. Despite this, she decides to walk alone, along a road in the cold until an unassuming old woman stops and picks her up. I think the old lady was one of the characters that seemed the most human to me. Riddled through her dialogue are a number of small observations that added a nuance to the character that made her likeable. An example would be when she handed Kumiko an old copy of Shogun, she mentioned that it was dusty adding in “…don’t worry, it’s mostly just dead skin.” These little nuances gave the old woman, without a name, an extra dimension. Despite cautioning Kumiko against her quest, Kumiko still sets off, leaving the old woman to nurse her loneliness.
The policeman that Kumiko later meets represented, for me, the only true positive character that didn’t have a real agenda other than to help Kumiko. Similarly to how Kumiko was painted in a negative light, the policeman was juxtaposed as the light to Kumiko’s darkness. I believed that the film was going to take a positive turn when, after a distressing telephone call with her mother, Kumiko breaks down in tears to be told by him that he will do anything he can to help her get to Fargo. Here, I thought that he was going to finally burst the bubble of mysticism that Kumiko was living in making her realise that what she was looking for was actually companionship, and not monetary treasure. When she attempts to kiss him in a thrift shop after he suits her up in warmer clothing however, he reveals that he actually has a wife and two children and that he was only trying to help her. They part ways as she scrambles for a taxi, clearly embarrassed by her actions, and he is unable to stop her.
Kumiko degrades even further when she leaves the taxi driver without paying the large fair that she wracked up, to run across a field. The weather takes a turn for the worse, and despite being quite rugged up the blizzard that comes on suddenly consumes her and the screen goes white. As the age old adage goes: curiosity killed the cat. While Kumiko is not of the feline species, she still sadly met the same fate. At least, that’s the impression I got from the end of the film. After she gets lost in the blizzard, she miraculously wakes up beneath a pile of snow, finds the treasure, picks up Bunzo (who somehow managed to find his way to America, from Japan) and walks off toward the horizon. The movie left me feeling incredibly underwhelmed, and disappointed.
My view on the film may seem incredibly jaded, but that is only because Japan was painted as an incredibly depressing and oppressive society, whilst I am trying to remain open minded and positive about my impending departure. Again, I must state that the film isn’t a bad one, as it won accolades after it was premiered at the 2014 Sundance Festival. Also, after later research, I discovered that the movie was based on the true story of Takako Konishi, who people believed thought also was looking for treasure in Fargo. However, in reality, Konishi committed suicide after being fired from a travel agent position that she held in Tokyo. This urban legend is what gave premise to the film Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter, and perhaps explains why it’s so dark in contrast to what I was expecting.