The unlikely star of Kumiko speaks

Pier Harrison

Imagination is a ubiquitous theme in David and Nathan Zellner’s latest and most accomplished film Kumiko the Treasure Hunter. Its eccentric titular character Kumiko, played by the fantastic Rinko Kikuchi (Babel, Pacific Rim), is a true outcast, and a heel, who treats her imaginary, self-assigned missions with complete seriousness. Her determination in her beliefs inspires her to run away from a bustling Tokyo, where she works as an “office lady” for a captious, misogynist businessman and is persecuted as much for her disheveled appearance and awkwardness as she is for being unmarried over the age of twenty-five. From there she leaves for the sublime Midwestern American snowscapes outside of Fargo, North Dakota, in search of the suitcase full of money that Steve Buscemi’s character buries in that scene from the town’s eponymous Coen Brothers movie, which Kumiko is convinced is real.

After finding a VHS tape of Fargo in a seaside cave at the end of one treasure hunt in the beginning of the film, Kumiko becomes obsessed with this scene, and, taking the “based on a true story” disclaimer from the beginning of Fargo to heart, sets out on a new mission to triangulate the exact location of Carl Showalter’s loot. Blurring the line between Kumiko’s imagination and reality, the film also becomes playful metacommentary on what constitutes fiction or a true story in cinema. It is indebted to Fargo and that film’s own problematization of the notion of true stories, but it is also based on an urban legend about a Japanese woman who came to the region allegedly in search of the same fictional treasure. The Zellners’ storytelling and knack for well-wrought characters breathes new life into the myth and culminates in a wholly original narrative feature.

Kumiko’s unrelenting obstinance and total intolerance for anyone who dares tell her that her dream is not real adds a refreshing take on the archetype of whimsical female characters we may expect from contemporary independent cinema. Even Kumiko’s pet rabbit and only friend, Bunzo (played by a rabbit also named Bunzo), performs with a level of pathos a cut above other indie animal side-kicks. In fact, Bunzo is widely considered the breakout star of the entire production. The film industry has been buzzing ever since the birth of the #TeamBunzo hashtag at Kumiko’s Sundance 2014 premiere. It is said that the rabbit was plucked out of obscurity after overcoming a difficult bok choy addiction which stifled his early acting career, but with Kumiko now in limited release, Bunzo’s gender-bending eponymous role has brought him straight to the top of the animal acting game.

Bunzo is a perfect example of the more substantial kinds of roles that are emerging for animals in films at this point in our culture’s obsession with cuteness and anthropomorphism, which in recent years has produced a feature length Lifetime movie starring the meme Grumpy Cat and a Tribeca Film Festival-selected documentary on Internet-famous felines like Lil Bub. And as the widening gyre of our obsession with cute animals hurtles ever onwards, along with said animals’ monopoly on coveted social media capital, it is only natural that their star power is parlayed into more legitimate roles in major motion pictures, and not just in kids’ movies.

Intelligent pet cats were prominent in last year’s Sundance entries A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and Listen Up Philip. (Full disclosure: I worked on the sales of both of those films.) Meanwhile, EuropaCorp is prepping a high-concept comedy about an inattentive workaholic father who becomes trapped inside of the body of his family’s cat. Un Certain Regard winner White God, which also came out this month, is a more severe and ambitious example of serious roles for animals in contemporary cinema, as its canine protagonists carry out an allegory for the revolutionary uprising of a disenfranchised fringe, as portrayed through a pack of marginalized stray dogs.

Meanwhile, much of Bunzo’s time onscreen provides a deeply empathetic source of comic relief, and the pivotal scene where Kumiko leaves Bunzo before her trip to America is heartbreaking. After falling for the charismatic bunny’s scene-stealing nose twitch and noodle-munching physical comedy, you cannot help but root for Bunzo to make it after Kumiko departs. #TeamBunzo indeed. However, within the universe of the Zellner Brothers’ filmmaking, difficult feelings of loss and loneliness come side by side with an appreciation for absurdist humor. As such, I interviewed Bunzo the rabbit through an interpreter about shooting the film, what life is like now in the aftermath of #TeamBunzo, liberation and what it means to be a bunny. This is Bunzo’s first interview.

Even alongside a fantastic performance by Academy Award nominated Rinko Kikuchi, some would say that you, Bunzo, were the true breakout star of the film – how does that feel? Did you expect this much attention for your performance going into the project?

I’m just happy that people enjoy the film and my work in it.  I just went out to be the best rabbit I could be, give the most honest performance. It’s nice that people recognize and respond to that.  That’s all an actor can really ask for.

These days it’s all about the #TeamBunzo hashtag. Has fame changed things for you since Sundance last year?

I don’t use the Internet, but I’ve heard of these hashtags. At first, I thought it was a breakfast food, but happy to learn it means people like you. Though, corned beef hashtags does sound delicious.

What was your audition like? I’ve read that during casting, the Zellners were looking for a “lethargic” bunny who liked noodles for the role. Would you say you fit the part, or did you have to pretend to like noodles to get the job?

The audition process was very professional, I think their casting couch was from Ikea. I didn’t read any lines, they just stood there and stared at me.  There was some petting.  Re: noodles, I have a healthy appetite, and will try anything once. Once.

Bunzo is a perfect example of the more substantial kinds of roles that are emerging for animals in films at this point in our culture’s obsession with cuteness and anthropomorphism.

Had you ever seen Fargo? Or a Zellner bros movie before?

No, I never heard of them and I don’t watch many movies.  I think they are brothers, and maybe from Texas, though they don’t sound like it.  Nice enough guys, I guess.

How much of it is really acting for you? It seems like you’re so similar to the Bunzo you play onscreen.

It’s so funny, I’m really an outgoing person. I guess you’d never know it from the film.  I guess that’s the magic of editing.

Tell us about shooting the scene where Kumiko leaves you on the train. What happened to you after leaving the station?

There was a mixup on the radio and I ended up riding around for an hour and a half, and finally got off at Asakusa. I had to cab it home. If only they had Lyft!

What was the hardest part of that scene?

Trying not to laugh. There are outtakes that rival Burt Reynolds and Dom Deluise! Oh Frith on the hills, we got the laughing bug right before door opened, I almost lost it!

Let’s talk more about your character. Loneliness and solitude are constant themes throughout the film. In many ways, Kumiko is alone even among other people, far before she sets out on her journey by herself. It’s hard for her to talk to people, even when there is no language barrier. Is Bunzo lonely too, or is Bunzo a projection of Kumiko’s loneliness? It seems like Bunzo’s existence is similarly isolated, both as a bunny among humans and as a being that has not only a difficulty but a total inability to verbally communicate. How would you compare Bunzo’s role in society to Kumiko’s? Are they equally isolated and lonely?

You just blew my walnut-sized brain…

Bunzo2

When Kumiko first tries to let your character go, in the park, she says “Go be free!” What is she trying to free you from? What kinds of oppression or constraints did your character endure?

Every animal in captivity feels oppressed, no matter how good their master is.  When faced with ultimate freedom to do whatever you want to do, it can be scary and intimidating, and those things make bunnies freeze.

Do you think all bunnies experience this? What does it mean to be a bunny, to you?

Definitely “city bunnies” feel this. Maybe “country bunnies” do too.  To rabbits, everything unknown is dangerous. The first reaction is to startle, the second to bolt. All the world is their enemy, and when they catch you, they will kill you.  But first they must catch you.  This is what it is to be a bunny.

On working with animals, your co-star and the director David Zellner once said, “If you try and force them to do something, it becomes more complicated.” Do you think animals on set tend to get reputations for being divas?  

Only by filmmakers who don’t know how to use them. You can’t rollerskate in a buffalo herd, ya know?

Do you consider yourself to be an animal?

No. George “The Animal” Steele was an animal. I’m Bunzo.

There is one major difference between your trajectory and Kumiko’s that was striking. While Kumiko is dead-set on this path to follow her destiny, when given the chance in the film, you don’t break free. In that scene, are you content, scared? What’s holding you back from running away to pursue your own treasure?

I think it is the fear of complete freedom that stops us.  Kumiko is different. The fear doesn’t stop her, and she is courageous enough to pursue her dreams, even though they may not make sense to most people.

Every animal in captivity feels oppressed, no matter how good their master is.  When faced with ultimate freedom to do whatever you want to do, it can be scary and intimidating, and those things make bunnies freeze.

What do you think makes something real, or fake?

People choose to stand by their own beliefs, so it’s in the eye of the beholder.  Who am I to tell them what’s real and what’s fake?  I’m just a simple rabbit

Did you draw on any real experiences to prepare for this role?

My real life is really boring. I watched a lot of TV static to prepare. The Zellners also made me watch NIGHT OF THE LEPUS to help me with my character and motivation.

Imagination and following your instincts are also major themes. What was inspiring for you about working on this film?

The story was unique, it was an opportunity to work with Rinko Kikuchi, I got to visit exotic locations, meet interesting and stimulating people.

What’s next for Bunzo?

Dinner. Sleep. Repeat.

***

Kumiko The Treasure Hunter is in theaters now. Showtimes can be found at kumikothetreasurehunter.com.

Pier is the new film editor at Impose. She also works in the music department at a popular sports entertainment company, and was previously a sales agent for independent films at Cinetic Media. When not clearing songs for professional wrestling pay-per-views or her friends’ short films, she plays guitar in the band Alice and hangs out with Sabine. For the sake of full disclosure: she was previously involved in a deal for the Zellner’s previous film A Kid-Thing.

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