It’s hard to know where to start with a review of this extraordinary, depressing and intriguing Japanese film. At times it’s banal and trite, random and without coherence, and at other times it is a provocative essay on expectations, how our environment defines our life and the importance of having — and pursuing — our dreams, however crazy everyone else may think they are.
Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a young Office Lady who works at a soul-numbing bureaucracy somewhere in Tokyo. At 29 she’s not married, not dating, and lives in a tiny apartment where she consumes instant ramen out of a styrofoam cup and dreams of a better life. Except for when she’s so downcast and sad that it’s hard to even watch her on screen, let alone hope for her to find happiness. It’s a slice of urban Japanese life that will repel all but the most earnest fan of Japanese culture, a dismal existence that makes clear why Kumiko lives in a dreamlike state.
She sees herself as a modern day conquistador, an explorer who has a goal and will stop at nothing to find and achieve it. She finds a battered VHS tape of a film “based on a true story” that seems to suggest there’s a briefcase full of money buried somewhere in the farthest reaches of Fargo, North Dakota. In America. The film: Fargo.
Most of the movie takes place in Tokyo where she is a perpetual outsider, harassed by her boss Sakagami (Nobuyuki Katsube) and when an old friend bumps into her, Kumiko won’t even share her cellphone number lest the woman call and try to cheer her up. It’s a tone that gradually becomes quite oppressive and never really lets up as the narrative proceeds. Kumiko is a broken, downtrodden, forgotten woman and there’s not one person who listens to her or cares about her hopes and dreams.
When the opportunity presents itself, she boards an international flight and flies to North Dakota, armed with a map of the state and a precise map of the scene in Fargo where the briefcase is buried, a map that she’s embroidered onto a piece of fabric. She has to abandon her only companion, a pet rabbit called Bunzo (in a heartbreaking scene) and travels the alien world of North Dakota in the frozen winter as an increasingly desperate woman.
While the film is marketed as a “darkly comedic odyssey” it’s deeper and more troubling than its tagline suggests. Beautifully shot and sparsely populated, it’s a movie about the inner journey that we travel from fear to hope, from being constrained by the wishes and projected expectations of those around us to the path that leads to self-fulfillment. However weird that journey may seem.
There are some larger themes in this international production too, including how the Japanese characters are all self-absorbed, wanting to help Kumiko, but only within the context of their own expectations. The Americans, by contrast, are warmer, more sympathetic characters, notably the reserved, shy sheriff (writer/director David Zellner), who befriends Kumiko just to reject her when she tries, perhaps for the first time in her life, to genuinely thank him for seeing and helping her, rather than belittling or criticizing her.
I’ll be candid, this is a difficult film to watch. It’s a long, unrelenting movie about someone with a fundamental sadness to her life, a woman beaten down by her culture, her family and her own life decisions. She pursues her dream of finding the Fargo treasure even against ludicrous odds, and when the film ends rather ambiguously, we are left unresolved. Was there really a treasure? Did she find it, and if so, what’ll happen next? If she didn’t, then what happened? How much of the story turns out to really be part of her conquistador fantasy?
There’s much to recommend Kumiko nonetheless, including the candid view of Japanese life from the perspective of a worker in the big city, along with a more thoughtful narrative about pursuing ones dreams regardless of whether supported or not. The cinematography is beautiful, particularly in North Dakota, and there’s a subtle air of cinematic fantasy that creeps in as the film proceeds that’s most interesting. Still, though, it’s not an easy viewing.