We wanted to approach her with a sense of empathy so you can relate to her on a human level. There's humor in it, but we didn't want it to be at her expense.
In Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, Rinko Kikuchi is the titular adventurer who becomes obsessed with the notion that the million bucks buried in the snow by a battered and bloody Steve Buscemi in the Coen brothers’ 1996 classic Fargo is still out there somewhere for her to discover. Fargo, and the secrets it contains, is her ticket out of a dissatisfying life and crushing sadness. A depressed “office lady” (a glorified secretary) living in Tokyo, Kumiko has no friends other than her pet rabbit Bunzo. Her mother badgers her over the phone about her still being unmarried and childless at 29. Her boss annoys her to the point that she toys with spitting in his tea each morning. The only thing that inflames her passions is her well-worn VHS copy of Fargo, which she watches each night in her cramped apartment, making notes and drawing maps. In Japan, she’s trapped in a life that has hemmed her in and she’s lost in a melancholy haze, apart from everyone. Once she pulls a Marion Crane and jets for the Americas in search of her loot, her vistas broaden.
Kumiko was inspired by the urban myth surrounding Takako Kanishi, a real woman from Tokyo who was found dead outside Detroit Lakes, Minnesota in 2001. The legend had it that Kanishi was in search of the Fargo treasure, but an investigation revealed Kanishi had lost her job and revisited an area she had shared with a former lover, and in a field, she committed suicide with a cocktail of alcohol and sedatives. As you might’ve guessed, there are variations on this story, which swept the pre-viral Internet. In any case, out of this lonely death, filmmaking duo David and Nathan Zellner (a.k.a. the Zellner brothers) have crafted a film about the way images and stories can infect our imaginations, one as mysterious and ambitiously strange as the tale upon which it’s based.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is now playing in select theaters in New York City.
Kumiko centers around a very intriguing myth. What urban legends did you grow up with?
David Zellner: Well, when we were little, they weren’t called urban legends.
Nathan Zellner: Campfire stories.
David: We loved campfire stories or, like, Greek mythology. It’s all kind of the same stuff, but from different periods. They’re folktales and legends, and just anything about the unknown. There was this show in the ’70s called In Search of…. It was an American show about the mysteries of the unknown. I just loved that kind of stuff, but not anything in particular.
What about you, Rinko? I’d imagine Japanese folklore and legends are quite different.
Rinko Kikuchi: They were just fairytale-like stories for children.
David: What about Namahage?
Rinko: Namahage. [Laughs]
How did you guys meet Rinko?
David: We had seen her work in Babel and just thought she was amazing in it. We’ve seen some of her Japanese films as well, and they were so different, you know? There was a certain curation to the choices she was making as an actor, so that was really neat. There’s a very delicate tone in Kumiko and she understood that right away. Rinko also had a really similar sensibility as Nate and I. There wasn’t, like, any confusion about the character. It was pretty clear right away.
When did you guys get interested in film? When were you creating content?
Nathan: Ever since we were little kids, we were making home movies. We made stop motion, Super 8 things with our dad. One Christmas, we got a VHS camera and we were playing around with that. But when you’re little, it’s about the excitement of making a movie, and there’s no real difference between an actor, a director, a writer or a cinematographer. One second you’re holding the camera, and the next second, you’re in front of it.
David: We were big cinephiles, too. We were always watching movies and trying to copy them.
What kind of stuff were you into exactly?
David: Different ages were different things. The first stuff was a lot of the big Blockbusters that kids like: Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, John Carpenter films, David Cronenberg, and Flash Gordon. Flash Gordon, most importantly! [Laughs] Then we were exposed to foreign films and older, repertory cinema. I think it’s always about trying to find new things.
You guys had already been to Japan numerous times, right?
David: We’re just dumb tourists, but we’ve been there enough to just fall in love with the city. It helped immensely when we started writing the script because we already had images of certain neighborhoods, and just things that we saw firsthand. The good thing about being a tourist is that things are new to you, things that are commonplace for locals. You pick up on a lot of details that leave a big impression. So when we were writing the script, we had some foundation to work with. We tried to do everything we could to make everything as culturally accurate as possible. Everything is obviously stylized, but we didn’t want it to be like a “white guy” version of that. We did our homework and had a great group of people to guide us as well.
We didn’t want it to feel touristy. In the end, where we wanted to put our focus on the most was just trying to have a fully fleshed-out character that you can relate to on a human level, regardless of her cultural background or relatability to her personal struggle. If you can connect with her as a human, instead of seeing her as this one-dimensional caricature like you see in a lot of movies, especially with female roles, then you’d be willing to, hopefully, go along with her on the journey, regardless of what her choices were or where she went.
As much as this is Kumiko’s journey, I was very impressed by your depiction of the peripheral characters. Everyone she meets on her peculiar journey are incredibly accommodating, and each character is completely dynamic. I think creating villains for Kumiko in America would’ve been reaching for the lowest hanging fruit.
David: That was very interesting to us. We didn’t want a bunch of obstacles that the audience or Kumiko could blame for not getting somewhere. We wanted the main obstacle to be herself. I mean, they were giving us the worst notes, like, they thought we should have a typical angry cop chasing her, or the Yakuza chasing her. [Laughs] It was the absolute worst stuff. We didn’t want to create higher stakes. Her stakes are internalized and self-generated from the circumstances that she’s living. We wanted people she meets in America to genuinely want to help her, but help is such a subjective thing. This idea of helping is conditional a lot of the time. They all mean well, like the old woman and the cop, but their idea of what help is suits them, not Kumiko’s needs.
What were some other things that you guys talked about in the preliminary stages, in terms of what you most wanted to communicate with the film and Kumiko’s journey?
David: Mainly, it was about the tone. Everything’s told from Kumiko’s point of view. If someone else had made this movie, they probably would’ve wanted to make a spectacle out of her, make her cutesy, or make a clown out of her in a condescending way. That’s the last thing we wanted to do. When you have a female lead, there’s a tendency for filmmakers to want to sexualize the character.
Who are you talking about? We want names.
David: [Laughs] People wanted us to give her a boyfriend, for instance. There are millions of movies like that—the girl chasing the boyfriend. We wanted her to be self-reliant and deal with her struggle on her own. We wanted to approach her with a sense of empathy so you can relate to her on a human level. There’s humor in it, but we didn’t want it to be at her expense. It was about balancing that tone where it’s melancholic and, at other times, humorous. I think that’s one of our strengths as filmmakers because a lot of our work is about that. Rinko got it right away.
Rinko, what was your first impression of their screenplay?
Rinko: I was waiting for a script like this for a long time. That remains true now, too, even though we finished the film. I normally don’t repeatedly watch movies that I’m in at screenings, and I did. The first time I went through the script, my imagination was running wild: “How am I going to portray her? What choices do I make in this situation?” I kept asking myself that as I read it.
David: Cool! [Laughs]
Rinko: Isn’t it? The three of us had a lot of opportunity to sit down and talk.
David: Over several years, once a year.
How long were you guys sitting on this idea for?
Nathan: Well, we first heard about the myth when it came out in 2001. After going through our fascination with it, we started working on the rough draft. We weren’t sitting on the idea for very long. It was just a matter of refining the script, finding the right actress, and it’s always difficult to find funding. It’s also weather dependent, and there’s a lot of scheduling to consider. A movie this ambitious and at such a scale, it’s always difficult to get all the pieces to fit together. You’re just waiting for the stars to line up, and we’re refining our tastes as filmmakers. In the meantime, we made a couple features, a couple shorts, and worked the festival circuit.
David: We’ve never worked on anything in a linear fashion. We work on one thing and, if that doesn’t go anywhere, we make something else. You just do what you can get done quickly, like a short film. We kept circling back to Kumiko every couple years, but we were working on other stuff. You’re still working on Kumiko because you’re constantly workshopping that script, and that happens unintentionally.
Nathan: Sometimes, during the editing phase of a given movie, you’ll go back to the script of a another project because you learned something in that edit. The script for Kumiko was written rather visually, so the shots were all described in thorough detail. We’re constantly evolving all the scripts we have. They never totally go away, so we have it in the back of our minds. We’ll dust it off, open them up, and add something to it. That’s what we were doing with Kumiko.
David: We have stuff gestating for a long time.
Nathan: Yeah, for better or worse.
What’s the writing process like when there’s the two of you?
David: I’m on the right side of the keyboard and Nathan’s on the left, like Wendy and Lisa!
That’s a wonderful analogy!
David: We just tag team stuff. Most of the time, we’re just talking about things, go off and do things, and circle back. It’s on-ongoing. We’ve been doing this for so long that we don’t really talk about the process outside of ourselves in interviews. Your question makes me stop to think, “Hmm, how do we work together?” Being brothers, we grew up with the same dynamic and everything kind of flows. It gets done somehow.
Nathan: Our roles definitely overlap. David is the writer and director, and I’m the primary producer and editor. But we’re both involved in every step of the filmmaking process. It totally harps back to our home movie days.
Rinko, how do you feel about having two people directing you on set?
Rinko: It’s fine, it’s totally fine.
David: One’s nice and the other one’s evil.
When you watch these guys working, does directing seem like an attractive thing to you?
Rinko: Someday, maybe. I think it would be difficult. I’ve made short films, but not features.
Nathan and David, did you guys get your start making short films?
David: Yeah, I mean, we were making home movies, but I don’t know if those are short films.
David: [Laughs] When you’re kids, it’s open-ended. Then you go to film school and make short films there. Once you graduate college, you’re a big boy and you can only make features. We made two features right out of college, and both of them bombed. They didn’t go anywhere, so we were like, “Let’s go back to shorts! It’s okay.” It’s so much work and so much time, and heartache if the movie doesn’t go anywhere. We learned a lot and like those films, but we were really young when we made those. When you make shorts, you can make a lot of them, and there’s obviously less time and money invested in it.
Nathan: You can also go explore other ideas with short films, instead of waiting to realize a feature for two, long years.
David: Yeah, Kumiko wouldn’t be what it is if we hadn’t made so many short films prior to it.
Nathan: It’s definitely product of that.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned while making Kumiko?
David: It’s about that because we ran into every obstacle imaginable hurled against us. We were trying to make it into something it shouldn’t be. We realized what the movie had to be in order to get it done. Also, being our own producers along with our producing partner, Chris [Ohlson], was difficult, not just from the creative side, but from the practical and technical side of things. We had to get this done somehow. That’s why it took years to make.
Nathan: And you can’t get too frustrated when you get notes about having the Yakuza chase her. [Laughs] We didn’t want to change something crucial just in order to keep things moving forward. You keep your eyes on the prize and, 12 years later…