Note: the following was originally intended to be published in Marco Attard’s Pop Culture Destruction column in Schlock Magazine before he retired/took a break/went into deep space or some shit. Since the column never made it online, I’m posting it here with Mister Attard’s permission.
In 2001, twenty-eight year old Takako Konishi died in the middle of Fargo, North Dakota’s forests during an unforgiving winter. Initial reports came out that she came bearing a map, and made reference to the Coen Brothers’ film using what little English she had to the police officers and townsfolk who tried to help her. More snide news commenters remarked that she had gone looking for the money buried by Steve Buscemi’s character at the very end, not realizing the film was fictional, and also led to the birth of a rather ugly urban legend about the film having more truth to it than the Coens would like to admit.
Flying in the face of news-media, two groups of filmmakers decided to examine Miss Konishi’s life a little more closely. The first was documentarian Paul Berczeller, whose film This Is A True Story uncovered who Takako Konishi was and why she died. Ten years later, the Zellner Brothers released Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, a movie that asked what if Takako believed the money was real, and what that meant in the grander scheme of things.
The reason why I’m talking about both of these films is because we need them both in order to understand one another. Now, recently, I ended up seeing Kumiko during a long flight to Korea for a friend’s wedding. I could talk your ear off about the film itself and how absolutely haunted it is, but after Marco saw the film and, being the Media Detective that he is, found and subsequently subjected me to an accompanying decade-old documentary, somehow I discovered an extra layer to Kumiko’s arc, which puts Takako Konishi’s tragic circumstances in a different light.
True Story succeeded in giving us the side of Konishi’s life that everyone neglected to look into. In the documentary, we learn that Konishi was an extremely troubled young woman suffering at the hands of an unknown mental illness, and a married American businessman working on Singapore who had taken Konishi on as his mistress. With her company sinking and her options limited, she fled to North Dakota in search of a new life, finding instead linguistic and cultural barriers, and an oppressive winter Given that the coldest it gets in Japan is maybe -10 Celsius [I am from Toronto and this makes me laugh], this alone would have been a shock.
Her connections to Fargo (the film) seem tangential at best, with the only known link being a line drawing of a scene people assumed was from the film’s ending. This on its own does not strike as someone searching for fictional treasure but someone who just liked the movie Fargo and wanted to see what life there would be like. If anything, it reminds one of North American anime geeks who travel to Japan expecting to be met with open arms and vouchers for Maid Cafes rather than bitter resentment and social banishment. It wasn’t until True Story took a closer look at Konishi’s tumultuous life and her connections with the businessman – a Fargo native – that things become distressingly clear.
As expected, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter tells a different story, one of an unhinged lead who genuinely believes the treasure is real and is determined to find it no matter what. Watching Rinko Kikuchi play the disturbed heroine is a delight, because she moves and acts in a way that is as alien to behold as it is frightening to understand. Kumiko herself is a victim of her environment; a lone office lady on the edge of thirty years of age, pressured to start a family by a patriarchal society steeped in tradition. With no motherly instincts of her own (demonstrated by a scene where she meets an old schoolmate and her four-year-old daughter that stressed me out to no end) and finding herself surrounded by people who don’t care, she turns to film. She finds Fargo. She flees to the US with her company’s credit card to chase a piece of fiction, ending up hit by harsh reality instead.
I need to be honest here: writing about this chills my blood.
As media hobbyists, we turn to fiction for guidance. We often base our politics and lifestyle choices on consumptive, mass-produced art. Fiction is the lie that feels real, that we say is real above all else, and that we demand be real. We want this because few things in the world are reliable. Jobs are built on uneven ground, and those closest to you might someday betray you, but Captain America will always beat Red Skull. Kumiko connects to the audience in that very way, because she seeks the same thing we the weird all want: payoff. Validation for our strangeness. The ability to point at our nay-sayers and everyone who laughed at our dreams from the top of the highest hills “I did it.”
Not all of us are so lucky. Some of us die the weirdo.
And, really, I guess this is why I wanted to talk about Kumiko and Takako’s stories together: because they both died chasing dreams. Dreams are important because they’re all we have when everything falls apart. When we’re after them, we don’t care about the logistics. For Takako, it was pretty clear she dreamed of starting over somewhere new, without knowing what to expect. For Kumiko, she wanted to escape a repressive society, although it was never clear what she was going to do with the money when she found it.
As I said before, fiction provides certainty where reality fails, and it did for Takako and Kumiko. In both North Dakota and Japan, people lamented not reaching out to Takako Konishi or doing more to help her when she was very clearly in trouble, and it’s clear to see in Kumiko that our lead is an obvious mess that everyone seems keen on ignoring or undermining. The end result is a pair of stories, one real and one fictional, about someone hunting for certainty and acceptance in a world that refuses to want or understand them, with only fiction to go on and the cold unfeeling wilds waiting for them.