Isolation and Authenticity
The tragedy of Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is one that may be far too familiar to all of us, and yet one we may not admit to. As the title of the film suggests, the protagonist, Kumiko, is somewhat of a modern day conquistador. However, this is framed as the background for someone who is deeply alienated and isolated from her culture. But through this isolation, Kumiko will find that the treasure she is looking for is not in the material world, but her self.
From the onset of the film, it is suggested that Kumiko has already begun her journey, where she finds a hidden VHS tape, buried within a sandy cave at an undisclosed location. Where she acquired the location for this buried tape isn’t given to us, what remains relevant is that Kumiko expresses a strange excitement over her findings. This becomes apparent when we are shown what her real life entails: working as some kind of secretary to an unknown businessman, at some unknown Tokyo office building, where Kumiko herself goes relatively unnoticed. As a quick aside, I watched this film without closed captions and/or subtitles. Whether or not these were available, I also recall this similar style in the 2006 film, Babel, where the actress who plays Kumiko also portrays a deeply troubled woman, and no subtitles accompany the languages other than English. I find this approach to watching “foreign” films more interesting, especially when subtitles can often give the wrong context within a poor translation. It hearkens back to a film like Lost in Translation, where 1:1 communication can never fully be received.
Communication is exactly what Kumiko fails to accomplish in this film. She is expected to play a particular role within her culture, and she cannot seem to communicate to her peers why that is so unnatural for her. As we are given a glimpse into her private life, we see that her world is in complete disorganization. Her apartment is messy, the kitchen is in shambles, and her only comfort food is instant ramen. The one constant in her life, is her companion and pet rabbit, with whom she shares a deep connection with. It is a simple connection, but they seem to be able to communicate with each other on a separate level than the one she finds in the real world. Perhaps this is why she finds companionship with a rabbit, as it has no expectations of her.
When Kumiko watches the VHS tape, she discovers it to be a worn out copy of the Coen brothers film, Fargo, and comes across the scene where Steve Buscemi buries a briefcase full of money in the snow. The film wants us to believe that Kumiko assumes that this is based in reality, as both the intro to the film and intro to Fargo both have disclaimers stating that what we and Kumiko are about to watch are based on true events, when in fact both films largely stretch the truth to weave an adventurous narrative to cover up the darker truth of humanity.
While Kumiko certainly comes off as mentally distressed with anxiety and depression, she does not mirror her real-life counterpart, Takako Konishi. Konishi was a Japanese woman, found dead near Fargo, N. Dakota, of apparent suicide in 2001. An urban legend spread about a woman searching for the briefcase of money from the aforementioned film, but died in a snowstorm. Tragically, the truth was that a Japanese woman whom was having an affair with an American man from the area, killed herself after a stint of depression and rejection from the man with whom she had an affair. From the initial investigation, the man had a wife and children, and did not effectively communicate to Konishi that their affair was only skin deep to him. So she left to where he was from. In Treasure Hunter, Kumiko represents the much more fantastical version of this story.
After leaving her rabbit and responsibilities behind in Tokyo, Kumiko ventures to the United States; Minnesota in fact. She desperately needs to find the briefcase full of money, as it seems to be the only thing in life that can give her meaning at this point. She is initially met by two unsuspecting evangelists, who disguise their encounter as tourist guides. When Kumiko expresses her desire to visit Fargo, the two men only begin to proselytize on account of her feeling lost. Kumiko has lost her self, in a way, and finding the money in Fargo is a way of retaining that feeling once again. As she travels alone along the highway, after her bus breaks down, an older woman offers her help to Kumiko, giving her a ride back to her home with food and warmth. It is only when Kumiko again expresses her desire to a stranger that she is dismissed. There is a large, cultural gulf between Kumiko and the older woman who helps her. The woman attempts to dissuade Kumiko from her journey, and suggests that she should visit tourist locations instead, as it would be much more fulfilling. It is at this point that the woman offers Kumiko a copy of the book Shogun, written by an American about medieval Japanese culture, assuming Kumiko would find some familiarity in it, but instead comes off as ignorant.
During the night, Kumiko silently leaves, unbeknownst to her host, and finds a motel to stay in by herself. As she attempts to check out in the morning, her business credit card is declined. It is at this point that Kumiko realizes that she is truly alone, with no resources of survival, so she must rely on herself from now on. She uses the motel bed comforter as a makeshift windbreaker, and ventures off further north.
Kumiko does run into a deputy sheriff, who does show genuine compassion for her, but begs her to realize that her “treasure” is merely pretend; fake. When the deputy feeds her and buys her warmer clothes for her journey, Kumiko misinterprets the sheriff’s intentions and attempts to kiss him, as a sign of affection and gratitude, but is rejected for similar reasons to her real-life counterpart’s affair. After she is rejected she takes a taxi as far as it will take her to her desired destination. When they arrive near a location she believes to be near the infamous fence the briefcase is buried by, Kumiko again takes matters into her own hands and escapes without paying for the expensive cab ride.
As we enter the final act of the film, this is where we see Kumiko face her greatest challenge: her own expectations of herself. Throughout her entire journey, Kumiko has been expected to be a certain kind of person. At every turn, she has rejected this notion, and deeply desires to define herself, for herself. This definition, as a desire for authenticity, is someone not just self-sufficient, but someone can seek greatness and not be held back by anyone else. As Kumiko ventures out one last time on her own, she faces a frozen lake and hallucinations beneath the ice, a feral dog attacks her, ripping her blanket and steals her DVD copy of Fargo, and she finally faces a disorienting blizzard. As Kumiko becomes increasingly lost in the blizzard, her confusion is manifested as the screen fades to black. This is where we can assume Kumiko has died.
As the next scene shows us Kumiko awakening from beneath a pile of snow, we see her face in expression of rejuvenation. She then drudges through the snow onward, with purpose and style. In a surreal moment, we see her arrive at the fence from the film, Fargo, where an ice scraper marks the position of the buried briefcase. She finds it beneath the snow, and is utterly ecstatic to find the money. With tears running down her face, we don’t see relief in her eyes, but catharsis, mirroring our own feelings at this point. As Kumiko looks to her side, she is joined by her pet rabbit, and they turn to walk off into the horizon.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is about finding yourself, no matter how isolated you begin or end your journey. For the title character, it ends up killing her. This begs the question, however, would life be worth living if there were no risk involved? What would you do or face to find authenticity?