Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
by filmmakers David Zellner and Nathan Zellner
Thirteen years ago, we became fixated with a blurb on the internet: a Japanese woman was lost in the wilderness looking for missing treasure buried in the snow in the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo. Eventually there were more details released, but not before we witnessed this story take on a life of its own, fueled by speculation, false rumors and unreliable friend-of-a-friend witnesses. This was before social media like Twitter or Facebook, and the discussion took place on message boards where everyone was a self-proclaimed expert but the facts and truth were as muddy as a worn-out VHS tape. 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 vagueness and ambiguity of the rumors only made us hungry for more information. How did she get here and what did she leave behind? What inspired someone to embark on a modern-day quest for El Dorado? It felt as epic as any conquistador voyage you learned about in grade school…. But this wasn’t the Age of Exploration, it was 2001, where everything had been figured out; there are no more uncharted lands. But in our minds, someone was so passionate that the antiquated notion of a modern-day treasure hunter still seemed possible, and we loved that.
To satiate our own curiosity as filmmakers, we embarked on a creative investigation to fill in the gaps. We focused on Kumiko’s perspective, developing her backstory and motivations so she would believe in this quest and thus the audience would go along on her journey. The crowded streets of Tokyo juxtaposed with the wide landscapes of Minnesota, along with the inherent culture shock, inspired many visuals and themes to build from. We finished the first draft of our own entry into the mythology Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter in 2002.
Over the next decade we made a bunch of short films and two features, but we would always circle back to this idea of a woman, a stranger in a strange land, pursuing an impossible dream in search of a mythical fortune, the blurred lines of fact and fiction, the key hidden in an analog video tape.
Years later we returned to the internet only to find the legend had been debunked. Grounded by reality, the story was much less fantastical and had nothing to do with treasure maps, El Dorado obsessions or fever-dream quests. At first the facts, though still cloudy and full of inconsistencies, took us by surprise. But then we liked it even more. 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.