As a casual viewer, most people would be led to believe that the film was indeed based off of true events. However, in this film, that statement was fabricated.
Ethan Coen revealed a few months after the film’s release, “We wanted to make a movie just in the genre of a true story movie. You don’t have to have a true story to make a true story movie.” Though this seemed like a harmless decision, little did people know, this opening would spark an intriguing internet urban legend years later and spawn two polarizing films inspired by the story.
The story starts in December of 2001 and goes something like this: A Japanese woman by the name of Takako Konishi left Tokyo, Japan, in search of a buried treasure in Minnesota. Inspired by the film’s events in which Steve Buscemi’s character hides a briefcase filled with $1 million underneath the snowy wastelands of Minnesota, the woman took off with the goal of finding the fictitious treasure. However, she never found the money and ended up losing her life in the process, frozen in the snow near Detroit Lakes.
When brothers and filmmakers from Austin, Texas, David and Nathan Zellner read about Konishi in an online forum, they became fixated on the story. They said, “There were so many gaps in the story that made us feel like we needed to fill them in ourselves, just to satiate our own curiosity.” Thus, the film “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” was born, based closely on the internet myth and the brothers’ take on the urban legend.
Meanwhile, Paul Berczeller, an American filmmaker living in London, read about Konishi in a copy of The Daily Telegraph with the headline reading “Cult film sparked hunt for a fortune.” Much like the Zellner brothers, Berczeller couldn’t get the story out of his head, but unlike them, he wanted to fill in the gaps of the story by finding out the truth, so he instead set out to do research for what would become the short documentary, “This Is a True Story.”
Through a series of investigations, Berczeller learned that the first recorded sightings of Konishi took place on the outskirts of Bismarck, North Dakota. From there, she was dropped off at the local police station where she talked to Officer Jesse Hellman for four hours. Hellman recounted the experience to Berczeller and told him that she was holding what looked like a map with nothing on it but a road and a tree. He added that even though she spoke no English, she kept saying something that sounded a bit like “Fargo.”
Berczeller travelled to Detroit Lakes, the tiny community in which Konishi was last seen, and even to her home address in Shinjuku district of Tokyo to learn more about the mysterious woman. And although he did get a closer glimpse into her life, it was a phone record and a letter written to her parents that helped answer the question of what Konishi was doing so far away from home.
It was speculated that Konishi came to Minnesota because it was a place that she had previously visited with her former lover, an American businessman who had left her after taking a job in Singapore. The night before her death, records show that she had made a 40-minute call to Singapore. It was only later in the investigation that a suicide note sent to her parents emerged, revealing the true story behind her death.
After consuming two bottles of champagne, Konishi spent her last moments wandering Detroit Lakes before laying down in the Minnesota snow to commit suicide.
The story of Takako Konishi was one that grew to mythical proportions due to a series of tragic misunderstandings. Yet the truth was less of an entertaining and absurd tale of a foreign woman looking for buried fictional treasure, and more of an unfortunate and sad story of a woman who lost her will to live.