Interview: Rinko Kikuchi Uncovers Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

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34-year-old Rinko Kikuchi became the first Japanese actress nominated for an Oscar in 50 years for her work in 2006’s Babel, and after fighting off monsters in Pacific Rim she returns to dramatic territory for the startling new indie film Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.

This new genre-defying story from American filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner (Kid-Thing, Goliath) draws its inspirations from the urban legend surrounding Takako Konishi, a Tokyo office worker who supposedly died in Minnesota trying to find the treasure buried in the snow by Steve Buscemi’s character in the fictional movie Fargo. Konishi in fact committed suicide there after a failed love affair, but the Zellners print the legend for their story of a lonely introvert named Kumiko (Kikuchi), who indeed travels to the Twin Cities looking for the fake loot. 

Kumiko’s Quixotic quest is both heart-wrenching and strangely uplifting, and stands as another remarkable performance from an actress who continually reinvents herself with each role. We sat down for an exclusive chat with Kikuchi (aided by her translator Yuko Kashiwagi) about all things Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.

For Kikuchi’s thoughts on Pacific Rim 2 and Star Wars: Episode VIII click here!

ComingSoon: Half of this film takes place in Japan. How well did the Zellner brothers understand Japanese culture?

Rinko Kikuchi: I think they really knew Japanese culture well because they watch a lot of Japanese movies and music. Already they put their ideas in the script. They really had an incredible understanding of the culture. I met them nine years ago and felt like we were totally on the same page because we had the same favorite movies, their taste in various things I shared.

CS: What were some of those favorite movies?

Kikuchi: Dardenne Brothers, Coen Brothers. Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.

CS: How much did the Zellners rely on you and the other Japanese actors to inform the nuances?

Kikuchi: Not much, not really any.

KumikoCS: Although Kumiko is not specifically based on Takako Konishi, but rather the urban legend that built up around her, did you do any research on her case?

Kikuchi: I did know about the story before I read the script. David and Nathan told me, “Don’t focus on the original story,” so I just focused on this script. It’s very interesting, though.

CS: Where did you draw your inspiration from if not from her?

Kikuchi: I was actually surprised to hear that something like that happened in reality. I really didn’t feel the need to focus on the actual story, but the fact that there was a story that triggered the script. I drew inspiration mainly from the script, and also David and Nathan gave me a lot of ideas. Where did I get my ideas? (laughs) I guess it boils down to very normal means, my imagination. 

CS: You mentioned your love of the Coen Brothers. What was your personal reaction the first time you saw “Fargo”?

Kikuchi: It was surprising. It was very unique at the moment. It had a very strange feeling. I sensed something that I had previously never sensed when I watched a film, and thought to myself, “Wow, this is interesting.” They can come up with a movie that leaves you wondering, “What am I feeling?” I thought that was something very unique about them.

CS: Like Fargo this movie carries a similar spirit in the way it contrasts very disturbing moments with quirky humor.

Kikuchi: Yes, definitely.

CS: The movie is bookended by two scenes that are likely in Kumiko’s head. In what ways did you shift your performance to accommodate the fantasy aspects?

Kikuchi: Fantasy is a very personal thing, a very individual thing. You can do almost anything with it. There’s one part of her that’s very free and unfettered, so I was trying to get that across.

CS: Would it be fair to call her a romantic?

Kikuchi: I think so. For her, what she believes in is her reality. In her reality she uses her imaginations and her delusions. One way that you can see her romantic side is she has an image of how she would like things to be. That’s the romantic in her.

CS: How did it feel to get a nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards for your performance?

Kikuchi: An honor. It’s been a while since I got awards recognition in the US, I was very nervous! (laughs) But David and Nathan were there, so I was happy with them.

Amplify will release Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter in theaters beginning Wednesday, March 18.