30 for 30 Shorts: The Billion Dollar Game

Anatomy of an Upset

Jungyeon Roh

The Woman Who Froze in Fargo

The new movie ‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’ tells the story of a Japanese woman on a quest for riches who was lured to the brutal cold of the Midwest by a Coen brothers film. The woman was real, even if the story isn’t entirely true. And it’s been told before, by a documentarian. So where is the line between fact and fiction, and just how strong is it?

In November 2001, an unemployed Japanese travel agent named Takako Konishi was found dead outside Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. Nobody knew Konishi was a travel agent, or what she was doing in Detroit Lakes, only that she was young, pretty, and far from home.

About a week earlier, she had checked into a Holiday Inn in Bismarck, North Dakota. The morning after she arrived in Bismarck, a man had seen her wandering around a landfill and offered help. Konishi didn’t speak English, so the man took her to the police, where Konishi showed officers a crudely drawn map of a tree and a road and started repeating a word that soon everyone came to hear as “Fargo.”

Fargo: A city nearly 200 miles east of Bismarck on the border of North Dakota and Minnesota, best known for a 1996 Coen brothers movie in which a car salesman hires two men to kidnap his own wife for ransom. Things go wrong (things always go wrong in Coen brothers films) and one of the men ends up killing the other with an ax after an argument about a 1987 Cutlass Ciera, but not before the ax victim buries the ransom in a briefcase in the snow.

A story about Konishi emerged: Here was a woman who had traveled a very long way under the great misunderstanding that the movie Fargo was real. Only one of the officers at the Bismarck Police Department had seen the movie, which, incidentally, opens with a title card that reads: THIS IS A TRUE STORY.

It’s not real, the police tried to explain — it’s a movie; movies aren’t real — but Konishi insisted: Fargo. They labored over a pocket translator, but that only made things worse. Exasperated, officers called a Chinese restaurant, thinking it might be close enough.

Konishi’s body was discovered a few days later in Minnesota by a local bowhunter. Some say it was in the woods, some say it was in a field. She was wearing thigh-high boots and a black miniskirt. “Girls in North Dakota kinda don’t dress like that,” one of the police officers in Bismarck said. “Probably because of the weather.” The last two people who saw Konishi alive had picked her up on the side of the road. They thought she was late for work, though didn’t suggest what her job was or why she was hitchhiking there in a miniskirt. That night, the temperature dropped to 26.

Far away in a place called Texas, two brothers named Nathan and David Zellner read about Konishi on a message board or an online forum. They can’t remember which one … or no, actually, it was several, several boards and several forums, a kind of cubist narrative pieced together with fragments and half-digested bits of information that had percolated through a young Internet like words in a game of telephone.


The brothers developed a fascination with the story, which seemed like the kind of high-flying adventure you might read in Amazing Tales or hear whispered around the campfire: lone wolf strikes out into wilderness in search of buried treasure. It reminded them of zealots and conquistadors, of passionate madmen whose quests lead them to the edges of their selves and their worlds. They wrote a movie script about it, which they finished in 2002, about a lonely Japanese woman who leaves Tokyo for the Upper Midwest in search of the ransom money from Fargo, which she watches obsessively on VHS tape. The VHS appears to be her only copy of the movie, which wasn’t released on DVD until 2000. VHS tapes decay; DVDs don’t. In the movie, which is called Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter and comes out this week, Kumiko’s VHS of Fargo plays like a map that disintegrates a little more every time she picks it up.

After Konishi died, a filmmaker named Paul Berczeller read about her story in an English paper called The Telegraph. Berczeller didn’t normally read The Telegraph; he read The Guardian, and came upon Konishi’s story by chance. Berczeller was drawn to both the tragedy of Konishi’s death and the comedy of her misunderstanding — to him, it seemed like something the Coen brothers might write.

He traveled to the Upper Midwest to make a film for the BBC that he called This Is a True Story, in which he tried to reconstruct the last week of Konishi’s life using actual people Konishi had met along the way.

Berczeller, a fast-talking man with a lot of ideas, found Upper Midwesterners fascinating. “They are the most honest people on earth. They are ridiculously honest. They will tell you — fuck it! — what they think … Which is why Jerry Lundegaard is such an outlier,” he says, slipping seamlessly into a description of Fargo the movie, not the place. “Everyone senses he’s a liar. That’s why they don’t like him: Because they respect the truth.”

“Duplicity doesn’t fly,” I say.

“Exactly,” Berczeller says. That’s why he asked them to act in the first place: The lie of reenacting a moment would bring them back to the moment’s truth — a process that he claimed combined journalistic fact-finding with an oblique kind of therapy in which people could process a real event by staging it for a camera.

Berczeller left the people to direct the scenes as they wanted, or as they remembered, whichever felt right. After shooting, he interviewed them.1 To play Konishi, he had hired a Japanese music promoter living in London, re-creating her outfits from Konishi’s autopsy photos. “They really felt like [she] was a ghost,” Berczeller says. The woman, whose name was Mimi, left a stack of oranges against a tree where Konishi died, a Buddhist gesture.

I ask if Berczeller talked to anyone involved with the movie after it aired. “I think I got an email from those two funny guys in the car,” he says. “They were driving a car and saw [Konishi] running down a hill. They contacted me a couple years later, and they were like, ‘Wow, you’re the guy who did the movie, right? Wow.’ That’s all they wanted to say to me.”

Berczeller didn’t see himself as serving a reportorial role, per se. But he was mostly faithful to so-called real life. In his version of Konishi’s story, though, it’s snowing. In hers, it isn’t. He liked the snow. He thought it felt truer.

Rinko-Kikuchi-in-Kumiko-the-Treasure-HunterLila 9th Productions / Ad Hominem Enterprises

In art, the wall between fact and fiction is porous and has been for decades. Reality TV has made “reality” both weaker and more interesting, while the panic for accuracy in movies like Selma or American Sniper — dramatic narratives “based on real events” — has made screenwriting seem more like dissertation work than storytelling.2

Our preference for truth seems to depend on the perceived sanctity of the subject at hand: a movie about the American civil rights movement, for example, will likely be looked at more closely than the recent Seth Rogen–Zac Efron comedy Neighbors, which depicts the relationship between two young parents and a frat house next door. Neighbors may have been based on real events, too, but it’s unlikely that those events involved people being beaten and jailed — the idea being that if we let an awful truth slide, we’re likely to experience that awful truth again.

Grayer and more interesting, though, are stories in which reality and artifice don’t just bleed together but generate each other. Take Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, which tells the story of two young, down-and-out guys who attempt to rob a bank and end up in a protracted hostage situation neither is equipped to handle. The movie, which stars Al Pacino, is based on the true story of a man named John Wojtowicz, whose idea to rob a bank came in part from a matinee of The Godfather: Pacino’s performance inspired a criminal that Pacino later played. Last year, the directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren made a documentary about Wojtowicz called The Dog, which focuses less on what Wojtowicz did than on who he was: a Goldwater Republican turned gay activist, a Vietnam vet, and a father of two who ended up marrying a transgender woman — a story not just about Wojtowicz’s shifting personality, but about the shifting nature of personality in general.

Almost everything by Larry David asks these questions,3 as does a lot of Charlie Kaufman’s work, and The Act of Killing, a 2012 documentary about two men who served as paramilitary killers for the Indonesian government re-creating their crimes as fictional films — a process that leads to a reckoning more magical and more severe than any conventional documentary could. Here, fiction isn’t a way around the idea of fact but a shortcut to an even higher form of it.

On the other side of this non-fictive divide is a refreshed thirst for true crime in the form of the Serial podcast or HBO’s The Jinx — stories that use the rigor and granularity of reportage as the springboard for entertainment. True crime is as old as crime itself; had Serial aired in the 1950s, it might have resembled pulp reading for depraved teens. Today, it’s sold as social edutainment for audiences accustomed to questions about things like the weight of guilt or the nature of truth. Our gumshoes are no longer rumpled drunks with a dim office above a luncheonette but Princeton grads with architect glasses and bright, searching women who make even their own conscience the subject of investigation. True crime has gone upmarket.


Though similar from a distance, Serial and The Jinx are very different shows. The first season of Serial was about unknown people involved in a murder that someone had been convicted of years ago; The Jinx was about highly public people connected to homicides for which nobody has been convicted. Anecdotally speaking, audiences seemed to have different opinions about whether Adnan Syed, the protagonist of Serial, committed the crime for which he was sentenced, whereas The Jinx’s Robert Durst appeared so obviously guilty that the through line of the show became the surreal ways in which he managed to evade conviction. Serial was trying to untie a knot; The Jinx tried to figure out how the ends had stayed so loose for so long.

In both cases, though, the focus slipped steadily from people to information, from “truth” to “fact.” Serial, especially, hinged on banalities like the placement of pay phones and how long it takes to drive from a high school to a Best Buy, details that drove clusters of Junior Investigators to Reddit to share not just their opinions, but their findings. At certain points, both Serial and The Jinx seemed propelled by a collective incredulity that we, in our time of progress, clarity, and awesome data, had gotten something wrong, as though data had anything to do with storytelling in the first place.

One of the reasons Paul Berczeller is proud of his film is that it went looking for one story and found another. After Minnesota, he traveled to Japan, interviewing Konishi’s neighbors and landlord, seeing where she lived, the streets she walked.4 The question of Fargo — and the urban myth pursued by the Zellner brothers — took a backseat to a posthumous profile of an ordinary woman around whom an extraordinary story developed.

As these renditions of Konishi and Kumiko develop and proliferate, we can watch real life jump the line into something otherworldly. Which is why it makes sense that the Zellner brothers pitched Kumiko not just as a fictional film, but as a fictional film made in the context of a larger, nonfictional event. “There are so many different meta-layers inherent to the project that we didn’t even have to project onto it,” Nathan Zellner says, or maybe it’s David.5 They didn’t learn about Konishi’s case and didn’t care to, dismissing it as what Werner Herzog called an “accountant’s truth,” as opposed to an “ecstatic” one — the small lie that helps give way to a bigger truth. Interestingly, when I ask why it took the Zellners 12 years to shoot and release Kumiko, during which time they released two other features, they say that part of the issue was needing to film in both Minnesota and Tokyo, as though movies were shot only where they were supposed to take place.

Ultimately, Paul Berczeller and the Zellner brothers are after different fish. Kumiko6 is a romantic, melancholy movie that stands as a requiem for a narrative that seems passé in what the Zellners see as a society not just saturated by information but spoiled by it. “People pat themselves on the back for getting some truths correct, but those things are often irrelevant,” Nathan says. The more sensitive our instruments for truth become, the greater the appetite for a truth that transcends conventional accuracy — that Herzogian “ecstatic truth” or what in more low-flying terms might just be called “right.”

Berczeller, on the other hand, sees the perceived myth of the Japanese woman who traveled to America in search of the buried treasure from Fargo to be a small story that gets big only when you figure out the real world in which it spread. “That’s why the story was told the way it was,” he says. “You can say, ‘Oh, she’s a crazy Japanese girl. She confused fiction with reality. That’s why she died. OK. Solved. Human mystery solved.’” The myth heightened reality and flattened it at the same time.

the-treasure-hunter-KUMIKOLila 9th Productions / Ad Hominem Enterprises

A coroner’s report on Konishi’s body revealed sedatives, anti-convulsant drugs, tranquilizers, and anti-psychotics. The drugs alone wouldn’t have killed her, but the cold helped. Everyone struggled to figure out how to classify her death. “Our working theory is that she was intending to commit suicide,” the Detroit Lakes police chief said at the time. “Although perhaps not directly successful, she was ultimately successful.” Directly, ultimately: This is what I figure the Zellners really mean when they talk about accountant’s truths.

There was also this matter of Konishi’s American lover, a businessman living in Tokyo whom Konishi had gone to visit a few times in Minnesota. Konishi had called him from her hotel in Bismarck. What they talked about is between them. The poetically minded may be inclined to think Konishi died from a broken heart. Still: Not everyone with a broken heart flies across the world in thigh-high boots and a miniskirt and goes wandering into the Minnesotan winter. The filmmakers do seem to agree about one thing: Knowing the Japanese woman’s motivations wouldn’t make them easier to understand.

Incidentally, almost none of Fargo was shot in Fargo or anywhere near it. Production actually started in Minneapolis, near where the Coen brothers grew up, but then moved northwest toward the Canadian border in an effort to find snow, a word that appears in the movie’s screenplay 54 times. 

Mike Powell (@sternlunch) is a writer living in Tucson, Arizona.

Filed Under: Movies, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, The Zellner Brothers, the coen brothers, The Jinx, Serial, Dog Day Afternoon