In the winter of 2013, the Tacoma-born and Ashland-based cinematographer Sean Porter got a cold call from Austin-based indie filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner, better known as the Zellner brothers. They wanted him to fly to Tokyo in three weeks and shoot a film based on the true story of Takako Konishi, a 28-year-old woman who flew from Tokyo to North Dakota to search for the money that had been buried by Steve Buscemi's character in the Coen brothers' masterpiece Fargo. Police officer Jesse Hellman told reporters from around the world that Konishi had shown him a crudely drawn map that revealed the location of the black briefcase that held the treasure (almost $1,000,000), namely: a hole under a section of a barbed-wire fence that stretched on into an infinite, indistinguishable landscape of ice and wind-blown snow—exactly what we would expect the middle of nowhere to look like.
Officer Hellman (a tantalizing surname for a bad screenwriter) tried to explain to the Japanese stranger that the money, like Fargo itself, was fictional. Konishi did not believe him, and according to his story, she jumped on a bus to real-life Fargo, North Dakota. A few days later, a hunter found her frozen and dead next to a tree somewhere between Fargo and Brainerd. But the story does not end here. In 2003, Guardian writer Paul Berczeller reported that Konishi did not really die looking for the treasure. Nor, apparently, was she mad—as only a mad person would actually think that Steve Buscemi is a violent criminal, or that his face was really bleeding, or that he'd stuck a red windshield ice scraper into the snow to help him locate the $960,000 he'd been stupid enough to bury. The true purpose of Konishi's long and cold trip appears to have been caught in the language barrier between her and the concerned American cop. Berczeller's story raised the possibility that the Fargo element that made all the headlines owed its entire existence to a simple failure to communicate
She spoke very little English; he spoke no Japanese. He called a local Chinese restaurant to find a translator, but discovered that the tongues were not compatible. And so, when Konishi walked up the steps of the bus, Hellman could have been the only person in the world who thought she was searching for the fortune that had only ever existed on a movie screen. The evidence about her past suggests she may have been heading to a place beyond both Fargo and Fargo, beyond fiction, even—seeking not buried treasure but a view of the stars.
From the Guardian report:
"She started asking about seeing the stars," said the night clerk [at a Fargo motel]. "Which I thought was a little strange, because it was November and it isn't that warm outside in the middle of the night, but I wanted to help so I showed her this place on the map where it would be nice to watch the stars. She seemed to be happy after that."
She had her final short trip and, apparently, died under the Milky Way.
Almost exactly 12 years after Konishi's death, Sean Porter found himself in an oddly parallel circumstance: He was in a country he had never been to, shooting a film in a language he did not speak, working for two filmmakers he had never met. They picked him only because Todd Rohal, the director of 2011's The Catechism Cataclysm and a close associate of Megan Griffiths (she was first assistant director on Cataclysm and produced Rohal's latest short, Rat Pack Rat)—for whom Porter had shot the film Eden—recommended him for the job. Porter walked around Tokyo in a daze. He did not eat normally for the first few days because he is vegan and he knew next to nothing about restaurants in the great Asian city. (He eventually found an Indian restaurant, Nataraj Ginza, that met his standards and ate there every day.) His Japanese camera crew, grip and lighting, operated under a completely different system than the American one he was accustomed to. And he had to quickly make sense of the way the Zellner brothers made sense of the complicated filmmaking process. The result of this whirlwind was a truly great film and the best work of Porter's decade-old career.
"The Zellner brothers had been working on the story for 10 years," explains Porter, who is on the phone from Los Angeles, waiting for a flight to Ashland. He just finished shooting The Trust, a feature film starring Nicolas Cage, Elijah Wood, and (yes) Jerry Lewis. "They finally got it off the ground and found themselves needing a cinematographer right away. So it was a last-minute thing. An anomaly. But they also have a strong style, a strong aesthetic. They are very big fans of Japanese-style compositions. Very controlled frames. People walking in and out of frames. That kind of architectural stillness."
After that shoot, Porter accompanied actress Rinko Kikuchi (a rising star who plays the character Kumiko, based on Takako Konishi) and the Zellners to Minneapolis to shoot the second part of the film. They used a completely different crew for this section, which, admittedly, is not as beautiful and fascinating as the carefully composed Tokyo one. It looks and feels very much like Fargo—lots of odd-looking people who talk kind of funny, drive pickup trucks on desolate highways, and drink and eat at ugly diners. "[Kumiko] is really two movies," explains Porter. "One that is very architectural, with closed spaces. And one with the open spaces of the Midwest. In Tokyo, Kumiko is trapped by the density; in North Dakota, she is trapped by the emptiness."
The city scenes are indeed about Kumiko being trapped in her room, which is tiny and dominated by a huge cage that contains a plump, light-brown rabbit. It is in this little prison of a micro-apartment that she watches Fargo on a VHS videotape she discovered in a cave near a beach. Her office job is predictably drab. Her mother—who we only hear as a hectoring voice on the phone—wants Kumiko to be like all normal Japanese women of her age and find a man. The Kumiko we meet seems less mad than depressed, a characterization that seems more likely than Officer Hellman's speculations. Though something in us yearns for the fantastic version of this story, in which a crazy foreigner dazzled by cinema comes to America and dies looking for something that never existed, the reality is that alienation is always far more lethal and pervasive than madness. In the movie's North Dakota scenes, which were shot in and around Minneapolis, the wide-open space of the plains becomes another and maybe even worse kind of imprisonment. Kumiko is trapped inside a seemingly infinite landscape, pinned down by low clouds that go on and on.