David and Nathan Zellner’s new film, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, is based on a real story — though not necessarily a true one.
In 2001, a woman from Tokyo named Takako Konishi traveled to the Midwest in the dead of a frozen winter, under mysterious circumstances. She didn’t speak a word of English, and the news about her arrival spread slowly through the pre-social media internet, where tall tales of her odd adventure were fueled by misunderstandings by the few people that actually met her and the telephone-like quality of the era’s disparate message boards.
Here's what happened: A young Japanese woman named Takako Konishi was found frozen to death — under truly mysterious circumstances — in the woods of North Dakota. The 28-year-old, who had left her home in Tokyo only a month before, did not speak a word of English. News about her arrival and subsequent death spread slowly through the pre-social media internet, where tales of her odd adventure were twisted by misunderstandings spread by the few people that actually met her and further distorted by the telephone-like quality of the era’s message boards.
The filmmaking siblings heard the story and its various permutations). They were immediately intrigued, especially by the rumor that Konishi had come to America in search of the money buried in the roadside tundra in the movie Fargo, which she believed was a true story (as the Coen Bros’ film’s opening screen teases).
"It was so strange and serious and to have such limited information. And the idea of someone going on a treasure hunt, it was so antiquated in modern-day society," David told Yahoo Movies. "Those things piqued our interest and we just started working on the story from there… There’s different theories, something about a boyfriend. But we really weren’t interested. We were only interested in the urban legend, the different versions of any truth were not what drew us. The fantastical quest was what was brought to our minds."
The brothers spent more than a decade trying to make the film, developing the script and putting it on the back burner as they worked on other projects, including 2008’s Goliath and 2012’s Kid-Thing. Eventually, they recruited Pacific Rim star Rinko Kikuchi to play their version of Takako, a shy and timid loner who is obsessed with Fargo and believes whole-heartedly that she can find the treasure.
They shot with two different teams, in Japan and Minnesota, and premiered the film at Sundance last January. The end result is an off-kilter tragicomedy, about isolation and obsession.
"The idea is about obsession and imposing reason into something out of this need for belief was really interesting to us," Zellner said. "We weren’t interesting in labeling Kumiko and diagnosing her. That was something we wanted to avoid because the movie is from her point of view, so to put a label on it, it distances the audience from the character and you can step back and be at a safer place, but we wanted it to be more immersive into her world. And also approach her with a sense of empathy instead of detachment."
The film, which has its own sort of Coen Bros.-like vibe, currently boasts a 100-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is due out on March 13, 2015 in New York and March 20 in LA.