In “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter,” Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi plays a Tokyo loner who’s convinced the loot from “Fargo” — the satchel of money Steve Buscemi’s character buries in a random, snowy spot off a Minnesota highway — is real. No one can convince her any differently, be they the library security guard who caught her trying to steal an atlas or a bumbling police deputy who meets her when she turns up in America, fully committed to digging up loot.
“I don’t think she’s crazy,” Kikuchi says during a Los Angeles press day. “She just wants to believe what she believes. She’s trying to live the way she is.” Kikuchi doesn’t even think Kumiko is depressed. “I think she’s happy. She has a happy life by thinking the way she does.”
Still, some commentators have cited the film as a powerful look at loneliness, albeit one that’s absurdist, coasting on a deadpan tone that makes room for plenty of awkward set pieces. (Her attempts to evade human interaction with coworkers and strangers yield the film some solid yuks, as do her interactions with her only friend: a bunny named “Bunzo.”) Kikuchi tried to see it both ways.
“This role is comical, but when I was acting I was trying to play it really seriously — to express the feeling of the character,” she says. “Maybe the seriousness of my acting somehow made it funny for the audience.”
“Kumiko” is another movie where Kikuchi doesn’t have to do much speaking, much like her breakthrough role: playing a deaf, depressed Japanese woman in 2006’s “Babel,” a performance that netted her an Oscar nomination. She’s no stranger to playing roles that are largely visual, much like one of her favorite actors: Buster Keaton. Indeed, in 2008’s “The Brothers Bloom,” her character only said two words: “Campari” and “f—.”
Still, she’s sought out diversity: She’s an action star in “Pacific Rim,” and was a full-on villain in “47 Ronin.” “I do like movies with not much dialogue. It doesn’t require much memorizing,” she says, laughing.
“Kumiko” did require that both she and her filmmakers — American indie staples David and Nathan Zellner — film in lands that are to each of them far-off. For her it meant hitting up one of America’s coldest regions. For the Zellners, it meant filming half their movie in Tokyo, though Kikuchi says the city wasn’t totally alien to them. “They both know Japanese culture very well,” she reveals. “They know Japanese music, Japanese movies. It was very easy for them to work in Japan. It’s they style.”
Unlike her character, Kikuchi speaks pretty fluid English, though she’s never let a language barrier keep her from working abroad; soon to debut is “Nobody Wants the Night,” by Spanish director Isabel Coixet and pitting her with Juliette Binoche. She’s eager to add more languages to her repertoire. “I’m interested in doing even more foreign movies,” she says. “I’d love to learn French.”