Thirteen years ago, Austin filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner became fixated on an Internet blurb. A Japanese woman was lost in the wilderness in the frozen American Midwest looking for a missing treasure buried in the snow from the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo. She’d found a VHS tape and thought it was a documentary. The story that emerged was riddled with missing details. Fueled by speculation, friend-of-a-friend witnesses. A search for cold hard facts became its own kind of treasure hunt among amateur sleuths in online message boards. The facts “were as muddy as a worn-out VHS tape,” the Zellners said. “It was folklore being born in real-time, through an online telephone game, and that’s how our obsession with this strange fable started.”

The story of that world soon became a script that sat on a shelf for over a decade. Until the Zellners found Academy Award nominee Rinko Kikuchi (Babel, Pacific Rim) to give life to the character—a lonely Tokyo office woman with a pet rabbit and a sudden urge for adventure—and, ultimately, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, which opens at New York City’s IFC Center tonight, with other dates to follow.

This quiet movie spent last summer charming film festivals all over the world, earning two Independent Spirit Awards, and both Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize and the Special Jury Prize for its original score. Intrigued, we asked Kikuchi about this one-of-a-kind role.

“You’re asking me something very difficult! Reality and film, hmmm… Maybe you should ask the director about that. Film is fiction, right?”

So there really was a Kumiko, a Japanese woman who saw Fargo and went on a treasure hunt in the frozen North Midwest. The Mall of America and everything.
There was an actual person. But for me I was creating Kumiko from the script. I learned a lot from David and Nathan who told me a lot about her habits, her quirks. Together we created the real Kumiko you see on screen.

David said, “We realized we had our own version of the truth, an ecstatic truth; one we had been living with, sympathetic to the myth but just as valid as anything else.”
A movie is fictional. Whatever it is is the reality that comes from within. I don’t quite understand what you mean by reality or truth.

What is the reality for the character?
It is what she believes. That is her reality. Her reality is what she believes.

And what does she believe?
In this movie it’s not about getting other people to believe in her reality, but rather she is trying to live her reality and go forward with it.

This is a unique movie.
Definitely the script and the character. The director/producer team were unique. That’s why I loved it.

This seems in a way to be a movie set right on the line between reality and film.
You’re asking me something very difficult! Reality and film, hmmm… Maybe you should ask the director about that. Film is fiction, right?

It’s a movie about a reality where a character believes that the movie Fargo is a part of that reality.
Yes. I suppose you could say that. But that’s something that she believes. So whether you’re talking about film or music or art, my understanding is that it’s what she believes that makes her reality. Her reality is produced by what she believes in.

rinko-kikuchi-and-sheriffThe search continues: Kikuchi with director David Zellner, who plays a policeman.

What is it about the solitary protagonist that is so compelling?
She has a strength by which [when] someone tells her that [something] is not reality she still continues to believe. She has the sense to do that. And I felt that you really have to have an inner strength in order to do that. And I wanted to be somebody who has that kind of strength.

But it gets her into so much trouble. Is this a cautionary tale about setting limits with your imagination… or what happens when you don’t follow your reality?
I think either interpretation is valid. Imagination is something that is very important for me. But [when] there is something that I really want to believe I will always want to be able to follow that through.

For example…
I don’t think I could be an actress without imagination. Imagination is imperative to me as an actress. Without imagination it would be impossible for me to understand somebody. For me imagination is everything. So in order to be able to project somebody you need imagination. That is what I think.

Do your audiences react to Fargo? Or is that lost on them?
Not so much the audience. It seems that you writers are asking a lot about Fargo.

[Covers mouth and giggles] ふふふふふ!

Kumiko looks deeply into popular culture for personal meaning. What do you want you fans to seek out in your films?
I personally don’t want to say to people what they should take back. There’s nothing I want to say. I don’t want to dictate. Whatever it is, I want them to find it for themselves.

Thanks for sharing and good luck. ありがとう! (Arigatou!)