Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is 29 years old. She works a mundane day job where she services the needs of a wealthy boss. Her official job title is “Office Lady”. She is among the many women stuck in this revolving door position but unlike the women who escape – of which the only means of escaping is by having a family – she’s dependent on the position’s meager salary for her livelihood. She receives regular calls from her mother, most of which involve her berating Kumiko for not finding a boyfriend, not having children, and not living with her. Kumiko lives in a small flat where the structure’s tight quarters only echo the sentiment that this young woman is trapped. Among the sea of black suits and white shirts that compose images of Tokyo’s commuters, it’s Kumiko’s red hoodie that sticks out. And Kumiko has a bunny. An adorable bunny that eats ramen named Bunzo. Yet it’s not hard to see why Kumiko seems to be clinging to what little sanity she has left – like her bunny, she’s trapped in a cage. So is it any surprise that when this young women discovers a VHS copy of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo, with its “this is based on a true story” opening and the promise of a snow-buried suitcase waiting to be uncovered, that she embraces the notion of becoming a Spanish Conquistador and sets forth on a journey to her El Dorado, by way of Fargo?
If Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter succeeds it’s because David Zellner and co-writer and brother Nathan Zellner are so persuasive in composing the oppressive forces that ignite Kumiko’s behavior. Akin to the predatory capitalist concerns of recent films like Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night and Joel Protykus’ Buzzard, Kumiko explores the social and economic forces that strip a woman of her agency and renders her capacity for distinguishing reality and fiction null. It’s in David Zellner’s visual approach that the film makes such a notable impression. Zellner relies on lush compositions of confined spaces and emphasizes Kikuchi’s spindly frame in relation to the collapsed bodies around her: as Kumiko is on a perpetual search to put a lid on her eccentric tendencies, it appears that everyone else around her has accepted their bodies as concave shells from the outside world.
Kumiko’s relationship with cinema is an odd one. It reveres the Coens’ benchmark film but goes beyond functioning as a catalyst to Zellner’s narrative. Our capacities to engage with films go beyond critical adoration – my critical instincts are useless when I’m serenaded by films that touch upon specifics relating to my worldview. With Kumiko, however, we only see her watching two sequences in the film – the aforementioned opening credits sequence and the burial. Yet there’s a sequence toward Fargo’s end that one would’ve hoped Kumiko would adhere to, where Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson notes “there’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here you are and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it”. But remember what I said about the Zellners’ being so persuasive? As Kumiko endures cruelty upon cruelty from the established hegemony and roams a blistering cold wasteland, it’s hard not to root for her snipe hunt, hoping for the Hollywood ending that she rightly deserves.