Rates: * * * * 1/2
Why Did I Watch It? Catching up on Indiewire’s ‘Best 100 Films of the Decade’ films I missed.
In contemporary Tokyo, a depressed young woman drifts through her days in a gloomy fugue state. Her job is stifling, her work colleagues relentlessly cheery, her mother relentlessly critical, and everyone just wants to know: when will she either start a career or get married?
Little do they all realise: she has imagined her way out of these dead ends already. Finding an old VHS copy of the Coen Brothers 1996 crime thriller ‘Fargo’, and convincing herself that the bag of cash buried at the end by Steve Buscemi is real, Kumiko sets herself to finding it. She steals her bosses credit card, and embarks on a strange odyssey across middle America, encountering a variety of quietly eccentric locals along the way.
I had read a synopsis of this film before I saw it and, based on that, had been expecting something more like a wry comedy. So I was not ready for what this film actually is: a very melancholy look at modern isolation, and manic depression.
Kumiko’s life in Tokyo is presented as something like a horror story; a dismal, joyless existance where every moment is torturous for her to endure. She hangs her head, she speaks while barely opening her mouth, she runs away from people who try to engage her, she throws her dry cleaning in the garbage. Her only friend is her bunny rabbit Bunzo and, in the film’s most genuinely upsetting scene, she eventually abandons him in the subway. Nothing can keep her from her mission.
Kumiko’s only real pleasure is found in her imagination, and that is what leads her to the US. The film sorta alludes to the fact that she can’t really believe that ‘Fargo’ is a true story, but more that she prefers to believe it is. She is happiest inside her own head, which is a feeling that generations of pop culture nerds can relate to; why else do we have all this stuff, blockbuster movies, long running book serials, Netflix shows, if not to give us all some escape?
For Kumiko, her maladjustment and obsessions eventually lead to tragedy; not explicity spelled out in the movie, but it is hard to read the ending another way. Obsession, ultimately, is not good.
Rinko Kikuchi – who I know best from ‘Pacific Rim’ – offers a compelling and very sympathetic performance as this atypical heroine. You really root for her, even though you know her quest is pointless, and can’t really work out. And she is tough, she is independent, she won’t be told no: strong, admirable qualities.
The film is also quite beautifully shot; the stark winter beauty of Minnesota is the perfect background for this sad tale, and there is bravura camera work towards the end, as Kumiko becomes literally, and figuratively, lost.
The joy of imagination. The loneliness of mental illness. An unusual combination, in this very effecting film.