Review – Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter

Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter

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.

Goodbye, Bunzo.
Goodbye, Bunzo.

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.

Kumiko walks alone through the cold Minneapolis winter.
Kumiko walks alone through the cold Minneapolis winter.

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.

The Brisbane JETs Meet

Brisbane JETs

I am, and always have been, a firm believer in the power of networking. After all, if it wasn’t for networking, I wouldn’t be where I am today within the Arts world. I guess you could say that I am a people person, and I like to meet people and learn about their backgrounds, what makes them who they are today. As someone that writes, these kinds of things interest me immensely.

So, when I was shortlisted, it was a no brainer for me to reach out to other successful shortlisted candidates from the Brisbane Consulate, to organise a gathering for us all. With the assistance of another shortlisted candidate who I found early, we managed to locate, including myself, a total of 13 people of which 9 came to our little gathering on Saturday night.

Because everyone was in the same boat of not knowing where we’re going, yet being excited about being a part of the Programme, I feel everyone connected and bonded well – which was great to see. Now that most of us have met already, it should make the Pre-Departure/Post-Departure Orientations less nerve wracking.

Thanks to all the Brisbane JETs who came out for dinner, karaoke, photo booth and air hockey the other night.

It was wonderful to meet you all, and hope to catch you all soon.

The JET Programme: Statement of Purpose

JET Programme Logo

Last week I went over a few of the items that needed to be submitted in order to be considered as a candidate for the JET Programme, one of which was a Statement of Purpose (SoP).

This week, I am going to outline the Statement of Purpose, what makes a good SoP, and show you mine, that helped to get me successfully shortlisted.

According to an unofficial JET website, JET, the Statement of Purpose is “…the part of the application which likely plays a huge part in any success.” A strong SoP, along with excellent Letters of Recommendation can be one of the determining factors between whether you are shortlisted, made an alternate, or are declined a position in the Programme. I know of people who had exceptional SoPs, and did horribly in the interview, yet still got successfully shortlisted. The SoP should be designed as a document to sell yourself to Japan. The three main points to consider when writing your SoP are:

  1. Why Japan?
  2. What will you do for the Programme?
  3. How are you going to continue to foster relationships following the completion of your contract?

It is important to note that when it comes to defining why Japan would be a good fit for you, to relate it to things that you are interested in exploring further. For instance, I like anime, and video games, but I didn’t mention any of that in my SoP, or in any of the interview process at all, because I didn’t feel like it was a relevant contribution to the Programme. However, I am very interested in using my Drama background to enhance classroom learning, and also in exploring East Asian Theatre, and how Japan adapts Western Theatre. Here, I show not only an interest in learning about a cultural aspect of Japan, but also how I can contribute from my own culture.

The SoP should not exceed two pages, so you need to make sure that every sentence – every word – counts, and has relevance toward the picture you are trying to paint of yourself. The whole application process should be approached as though you are applying for a job — because, that is what you are doing. Whilst it’s nice to think of all the awesome activities you will be able to undertake in Japan, it’s important to remember that the primary purpose of the exchange is to partake in the enhancement of the English language within Japanese schools.

My SoP, which got me to interview stage, and successfully shortlisted for the Programme is below:

From my most recent trip to Japan, three years ago, it has been my intent to apply for the JET Programme (JET) upon my graduation. I am passionate about unlocking the potential in people, and I believe that I can achieve this through enhancing Japanese students’ understanding of Australian culture. I understand that there can be difficulties in motivating a student to learn another language, however, I feel that overcoming a student’s objection to learning can be an enriching experience. My goal is to stimulate classroom learning using games that inspire confidence that I have learned through my Drama Major, to enrich student interest toward the English language within Japanese schools.

I have always been interested in Japan, from a young age, and that interest was enhanced from spending time in the country for holidays. Knowing that I would be applying for the 2015 intake, I approached one of my references back in July this year for a reference prior to her transferring from the University of Queensland, to Stanford University. I am flexible, and adaptable, and believe I can handle living in Japan. Whilst I have been to Japan on a number of occasions, I believe I still have more to learn and will gain the most benefit from residing in the country. I have a basic understanding of the Japanese language, which I wish to enhance whilst on JET. I believe through immersing myself in the culture, I will gain a better understanding of Japan, the language, and its people.

I have experience teaching others, from working as a Quality Service Support Officer for News Corp Australia. The role entailed not only acting as a mentor for sales staff, to increase their sales capacity, but also in monitoring print advertisements for grammar, syntax and spelling, prior to print. Due to this, I believe I would be a great candidate for JET, as I can take my experience with English and apply it to the classroom, assisting the classroom teacher. I always like to keep myself busy, and have volunteered on a number of theatre or arts related projects this year. I interned for the Brisbane Writers Festival in June, and am currently volunteering with La Boite Theatre Company. In both roles I have exhibited my leadership ability and initiative in leading the other volunteers. My innate ability to network would be invaluable to JET, which will allow me to find opportunities to assist the community to better understand and appreciate the English language, and the Australian culture.

By participating in JET, I will empower myself to work within a different cultural structure, permitting me to gain invaluable life skills. I also wish to utilise the opportunity to start a travel blog, outlining my experiences in Japan. Through this, I hope to foster a greater relationship between Japan and native English speaking countries, imbuing the desire to travel within others. While in Japan I also wish to explore Japanese theatre, so that I may gain a better understanding of how theatre affects the Japanese community. I would devote time to joining the local school drama club, to assist with school productions, and enhance student participation rate within the club, and in the classroom. I believe my experience within JET will further enhance my leadership skills.

I am confident that through my participation with the JET Programme, a beneficial relationship would be established between Australia and Japan that would carry itself throughout the time I spent in Japan teaching, and beyond.

By no means am I an expert on the whole process, as I am yet to even set foot in Japan under my contract. But, if this blog can help aspiring candidates in any way, then I believe it will have fulfilled its purpose.

If you have any questions, or if you have had a different experience, I would be interested in hearing about it. Please leave me a message in the comments, below.

The JET Application Process

I made a promise to myself that in the weeks leading up to leaving for Japan, to partake in the JET Programme, I would keep a blog that detailed my experiences. After all, as a part of my statement of purpose, I had indicated that one of my desires was to create a travel blog that would chronicle my experiences, and hopefully inspire others to apply for the Programme, or even independently travel to the land of the golden sun. This week, I am going to write about the application process, and timeline it, so that you have a general idea of what to expect, should you wish to apply for the JET Programme.

I must preface, that the Programme is an extremely competitive, and very time consuming process, disabling you from applying for other opportunities, sans completing your degree. In my time since graduation, whilst waiting to hear about JET, I have had to opt out of applying for two roles that I really would have enjoyed, as I had the gut feeling that I had gotten into the Programme. Had I been wrong, that would have been extremely heart wrenching. So, make sure you are prepared for any outcome, and don’t bank everything on the JET Programme.

The Application Process

To begin with, below I have linked to the official JET website, which gives some information on the process. Following, I shall go into a little more detail, and talk about my experiences.

Official JET website

The application process for the JET Programme is a long and arduous one. The Programme opens for applications in early October and closes in late November, so you have two months to get all of your application together. It may seem like almost two months is enough time, but trust me, it isn’t if you have other commitments happening at the same time. Personally, I was in my final semester of university, doing two subjects that I felt I was way out of my depth for, as well as an internship and volunteering for a theatre company. Yes, I am a sucker for punishment, and if you’re curious, despite my high work load I still managed two Distinctions for my subjects. To submit an application you are required to fill in an 8 page application form, write a statement of purpose outlining your intent for the Programme, and provide two written references that can relate your skills to the Programme. You also need to provide a pre-medical assessment, which is basically a medical history. You also need to have a degree of at least Bachelor level. If you do not have this, then you can not apply (however, if you are due to graduate with a Bachelor degree prior to the leave date for the Programme, then you are eligible).

I had known I was going to apply for the Programme early, so I approached the convener of my entire degree for a reference, early (as she had been my lecturer for a couple of my courses, and tutored one of them). I knew she was leaving my university to go and teach at a university in America, so I asked her for a reference before she left in July. I outlined and stressed that the reference needed to align to the principals of the Programme, and as a result I received a reference that I could call nothing less than my Golden Ticket. I may post the reference up at some point, if anyone is interested in seeing it. The other reference I got from the CEO of the organisation I was interning for. I also stressed the importance of aligning it to the Programme’s values, and ended up with a second really good reference. My issue, however, was that the reference contains two parts (a written reference, and a competency sheet). The written reference can be done whenever (though I recommend having it as recent as possible), however the competency sheet must be from that year’s application pack. So, after my university reference moved to America, I had to ask her in October, to fill in the competency sheet and send it back to me by mail (as electronic isn’t acceptable). I almost thought that it wasn’t going to get to me in time, but luckily it did.

I wrote my statement of purpose around all my other commitments such as my assignments, coursework, internship and volunteering. Again, if anyone is interested, I will post this up too. Mine focussed on what I would provide to the Programme, what I hoped to get out of it, and how I would foster international relations, which I believe is important to highlight. As I am a Drama and Writing Major (Bachelor of Creative Arts), I angled my application around how Drama could enrich the students’ learning experience. I also mentioned my interest in East Asian dramatic arts, which I would use to increase my own professional development (My career aspiration is to work within the Arts). I sent my application off about a week out from the deadline in November, and was surprised when just a few days before Christmas, I received notification by mail that I was shortlisted for an interview.

I received my interview notification in January via email, and was scheduled for February 13th (in the Brisbane consulate). I found out on the 30th March that I was successfully shortlisted for the Programme. I will outline my interview in another post (I need to spread my posts out somehow!) From being shortlisted after the interview, you are required to send in your acceptance via mail, as well as get a Police Check, full Medical, and complete an Accident Insurance form. Once this information has all been submitted, you then wait to be contacted to be notified of where you have been placed (which is generally in May). For the record, my preferences were Tokyo City, Kyoto City and Hiroshima City, so we’ll see what happens there.

The last part of the process is pre-departure orientation, and then leaving. I currently have 15 weeks left until I leave, and have decided that I am not coming back to Brisbane to live at the end of my contract. I am not 100% certain at this point on what I shall do, or where I shall go, but I do have some ideas in my head. This means that I now have to sell/get rid off 10 years worth of accumulated “stuff” since moving to Brisbane in 2004. Big job!

Anyway, I hope this helps anyone who is looking to apply for the Programme. If you have any questions, please feel free to post them in the comments. To my fellow JET shortlisters, congratulations and good luck with your placements!

Accepted to the JET Programme

Back in September of 2014, I began a journey that would take almost a year to realise: applying for the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Programme. The JET Programme fosters international relations between Japan and your host country, as you teach English within Japanese schools, and live within the Japanese system.

My idea to apply to this Programme came in 2011, when I was in Tokyo for New Years. There, I met some expats that were on similar programmes to JET, that appeared to be loving the Japanese lifestyle. I had always harboured an interest in Japan, being an avid lover of Japanese produced Role Playing Games when I was a teenager. I had no doubt in my mind, as the clock chimed 12, bringing in the New Year, that my resolution would be to enter the JET Programme.

The application process was a long one in which I had to write a Statement of Purpose outlining my intentions for the Programme, source two References that would vouch for my credibility, and collect other paperwork such as Academic Transcripts, my medical history, and other such documents.

I was successfully short listed for interview, receiving my notification by mail on 22nd December. My interview was held at the Brisbane Consulate-General on Friday, 13th February (I am NOT superstitious). I will go into further detail about my actual interview and my earlier mentioned paperwork in another post, however I will say that I went into the interview expecting to be grilled and was pleasantly surprised. A friend of mine who is currently participating in the programme from the 2014 intake was quite upset by her interview, so I was expecting the worst. As it turns out, I had the panel laughing and was confident that my interview was a successful one.

Queue the long wait to find out about whether I was a successful short listed candidate. The wait was around 6 weeks – which would have been unbearable had I not been working two jobs to fill my time. In any case, on Monday, 30th March, I was contacted via email, advising that I was successful in making the short list. Now, I have 4 months to sort out my life – that includes selling all my belongings, saying goodbye to everyone, tying up my two jobs… the list just seems to go on.

What I am most looking forward to with the Programme? All the interesting and diverse people that I will get to meet as an expat, the arts and theatre I will have the opportunity to explore, and challenging myself in a role that I am entirely unfamiliar with. Watch this space…