How ‘Kumiko: the Treasure Hunter’ Presents Pop Culture as a Modern Religion

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In David and Nathan Zellner’s Kumiko: the Treasure Hunter, the protagonist’s closest relationships are with a bunny, a damaged VHS copy of the film Fargo (unearthed, in a hilarious nod to the bygone era of the video store, in a cave), and the fortune buried by Steve Buscemi’s Fargo character Carl Showalter before he gets axed towards the end of the cult film. A rabbit, a VHS and some buried treasure may seem like a disjointed set of companions, but because of Kumiko‘s central theme of the pursuit of a potentially illusory “Answer,” they eventually come to mirror the focal points of religious zealotry. 

In the absence of human allies, the friendship Kumiko (played by Rinko Kikuchi) strikes up with Bunzo the rabbit, whom she loves but whose friendship she’d forsake to pursue her Higher purpose, parallels human companionship. The VHS becomes a holy text that draws her away from Bunzo — her last bastion of an earthly relationship. And her connection to the treasure itself most reflects that which people form with monotheistic Gods — it is that presence described by scripture that comes to dominate lives, leading people to ignore the tangible world in favor of the furious search for what lies beyond it.

But because this film takes place in this increasingly agnostic millennium, Kumiko’s fanatical devotion doesn’t merely seem a religious/folkloric allegory. With the layering of the story’s direct narrative about a Fargo obsession and its implied echoes of religious fanaticism, it seems to speak, rather, to a new God: pop culture. Because of the Zellner Brothers’ meticulous ambiguity, the film is able to be highly cynical about both pop cultural and religious dogmatism — and the ways pop culture has morphed into the latter. Crucially, though, it is also completely open to both those things, allowing them to drive the film to curiously — even unsettlingly — uplifting ends. (Some spoilers below.)

The movie was conceived a decade ago, after an urban legend grew from a massive misunderstanding — inflated by misreporting — about a Japanese office worker named Takako Konishi who went to the Midwest to seek the riches buried in Fargo and perished during the quest; in reality, the woman is thought to have come to the USA to revisit the place she’d once had an affair, and committed suicide via a cocktail of alcohol and sedatives. “Urban legends are just modern folktales, so we liked taking that fable-like quality and applying it to something in the present,” David Zellner told Interview.

Though the film makes few alliances with reality, one of the director’s rare acknowledgements of “what really happened” is the choice that the film be set it in 2001 — the year when the events on which the film is so loosely based took place, and when VHS tapes were officially replaced by DVDs. This factor seems crucial to the Zellner brother’s (they co-wrote the script, but only David directed) thematic pursuits. Having Kumiko discover Fargo on iTunes wouldn’t exactly have been suggestive of the engendering of a (personal) religion. It’s no accident, then, that the Zellner brothers reverted to the obsolescence of the VHS. The fact that the VHS is discovered in a cave seems a particularly deliberate spiritual hyperbole, possibly alluding to Muhammad’s first revelation — where Gabriel first provided him with a verse from the Quran in the Cave of Hira.

The film ventures so close to Kumiko’s imagination as to become subsumed by it. There’s no point in deciphering what’s going on outside of her seemingly skewed subjectivity: for her, the discovery of Fargo is epiphanic. It’s as though the directors have provided a translation for glossolalia-expressed sublimity. (This is apparent, also, in the audience’s understanding of the goals of Kumiko’s quest, in contrast to the other non-Japanese speaking characters’ flailing attempts to interpret her desires.) By in-her-head proximity, we’re given a logical portrait of her possible illogic.

In this respect, the film seems to propose pop culture as an isolating mechanism rather than one of unification. This is a world whose ideas — and the technologies that distribute them — are speeding up so rapidly that the VHS she’s found resembles an ancient artifact. The tape is so unfathomably archaic as to seem to contain the unadulterated answers from a more holy past — in yet another religious parallel, it’s block-like and anti-technologic as the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. She takes the sacred thing, pops it into a VHS player — and it becomes her scripture.

Fargo gives Kumiko purpose and isolates her from her expected societal obligations, imposed by her bosses, her mother, and her chirpy coworkers: work, marry, give birth. Kumiko is from Japan, and notably Tokyo — an obvious center of technological acceleration — and what she’s absorbing is the product of America — an obvious center of pop-cultural acceleration (and pop-cultural imperialism). Fargo, as the Americana-obsessed Coen Brothers’ most iconized film, couldn’t be more American. Caught between America’s dictatorial cultural capital and Japan’s technological one, the character has been handed a cultural product to overtake her, heighten her solitude — and lead her to her own individualist “prize.”

In the same discussion with Interview, David Zellner recently said“The first thing [about the film] that was really fascinating was this antiquated notion of the treasure hunt, which ended with the age of exploration, basically — the idea of traveling to new lands and specifically to the New World in search of this mythical fortune. We liked the idea of applying that to this modern-day setting, because it’s a similar thing. It’s someone traveling from another part of the world to America.” With this notion, the film harkens back to the foundations both of the American dream — a capitalist myth that was also siphoned  into Post-War/Post-Occupation Japan. Kumiko’s desire to escape the at-times homogenizing nature of a collective capitalist society — and to embark on a journey that epitomizes the every-man-for-themselves form of American capitalism that arose from settlers’ early devouring of the New World’s resources — draws parallels between two fundamental forms of American myth: the parallel journeys toward monetary salvation and toward the salvation of the soul. (Kumiko’s arrival in the “New World” is captioned in the film as such.) 

Leaving Japan to embark on a near-religious excursion is an idea rooted in another reality: over 60 percent of Japanese people identify as not having a religious identity, and around 80 percent of Americans identify as having one. For Kumiko in Japan, where a collectivist spirit reigns, to be misunderstood means to fail. But in America, under the rule of ideals of personal salvation, to be an outsider is fine as long as you can cling to your own personal myth. It’s fitting that on her arrival, Kumiko is greeted by two unofficial travel agents who are more interested in religious pontification: “I was lost once. I saw the light,” are among the first words Kumiko hears in America. And in this film, the “light” just so happens to be one mediated by pop culture, the religion that America distributes throughout the world.

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As the film brings Kumiko closer to her goal — a goal which we, knowing the fiction of Fargo, believe to be entirely false — the cinematography and setting isolate her more and more. She journeys from people’s houses to motels to open roads to wooded paths to ski lifts and then, finally, to a snowy plain, surrounded by nothing whatsoever besides a simultaneously heavenly and hellish expansive whiteness. Here, the cape she’s made out of a tacky comforter makes her look more like a powerful, mythical snow creature than a woman who’s about to freeze to death. Thus, the film’s ambiguous relationship to the powers of film, pop culture and religion reach their pinnacle. The landscape is as horrifically minimal and agoraphobic as anything conceived by Beckett. In Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which takes place in a similar outdoor expanse, the famous crux is that Godot never comes, will never come, and that the waiting — despite the option of suicide — is all that will ever exist, in perpetuity.

But no matter how you read the final scene of Kumiko, the pop-culturally distributed, monetary ideal of meaning with which Kumiko has become so enwrapped does appear — because it appears at least in her imagination, which is, after all, what we’re shown. Through her isolation and ascetic search that initially seemed a sheer matter of absurd belief, Kumiko has reached her goal — her God. Her unquestioning worship to the influence of Fargo — of cultural capital — has sucked her so deeply into its fiction that it’s become her reality. Kumiko has come to America and found the treasure. Kumiko has come to America and found the manifestation of a pop culturally disseminated money myth. She’s found a new God. It works for her, but as the “real” story goes, it also just means her death.