A body is found in the frozen North Dakota woods. The cops say the dead Japanese woman was looking for the $1m she saw buried in the film Fargo. But the story didn’t end there.
It was just one of those crazy little stories buried in the morning paper. “News of the Weird,” as it’s sometimes known, true stories about real life events so unlikely and ridiculous that they attain a kind of absurd magnificence in the retelling. “Cult film sparked hunt for a fortune,” was the small headline that attracted my attention that morning back in December 2001. “A Japanese woman searched a remote area of America during a quest to find a briefcase containing almost $1m buried by a fictional character in the cult film Fargo.”
According to the article, a 28-year-old woman had left Tokyo a month earlier to travel to North Dakota, in America’s midwest. The police were called after she was spotted wandering around the outskirts of the state capital, Bismarck. When officers interviewed the woman, she showed them a “crude map” that was supposed to show the location where the money was hidden in the movie. A perplexed spokesman for the Bismarck police was quoted saying: “We tried to explain to her that it was a fictional movie, and there really wasn’t any treasure.”
But whatever the police said apparently didn’t deter Takako Konishi from her strange quest, which ended with her pointless death. “A hunter later found her body in woodland,” the story concluded, “near the village of Detroit Lakes, which lies on a road between Fargo and Brainerd.”
As any fan of the Coen brothers’ 1996 comic film noir knows, most of Fargo is actually set in and around a gentle American small town called Brainerd, Minnesota, proud home of the mythical mighty lumberjack Paul Bunyan. The movie tells the story of an uber-loser Minneapolis car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy), who comes up with a knuckleheaded plan to have his own wife pretend-kidnapped by hired thugs in order to swindle his wealthy father-in-law out of the ransom. Needless to say, the whole thing goes horribly wrong, one thing leads to another and before you know it bodies are dropping all over the place. Enter Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, who won a best actress Oscar), hot on the trail of the two spectacularly incompetent yet murderous kidnappers, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and his heroically sullen Swedish partner in crime Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare).
Perhaps the most memorable scene in a memorable movie finds Buscemi’s character in a car parked by the side of a deserted road outside Brainerd. With one hand he’s pressing a piece of dirty cloth up to his jaw - oozing with blood from a bullet through the face - with the other he opens a briefcase overflowing with $100 bills. This is the ransom money, but it’s much more than he expected - about a million dollars more. “Jeshush Shrist,” he exclaims. “Jeshush fuchem Shrist!” It’s his lucky day and he decides to celebrate by double-crossing his colleague. Buscemi gets out of the car, briefcase in hand, and doggedly slogs through a snowy vastness towards a barbed-wire fence, the only thing in sight. It’s the middle of nowhere. He kneels down at one of the fence posts and frantically digs away at the snow with an ice-scraper from his car. When that’s done, he throws the suitcase into the hole and covers it up. The would-be criminal mastermind stands, satisfied for a moment until he happens to glance around him. A line of identical fence posts stretch in either direction as far as the eye can see. He ponders the situation for a moment, then has a brainstorm: he sticks the small red ice-scraper in the snow to mark the spot.
It’s yet another absolutely positively foolproof plan in the movie that’s just not going to work out. Soon enough the sullen Swede is captured by Chief Margie while in the act of feeding his mastermind accomplice into a mechanical woodchipper. The suitcase full of ransom money - the desperate pursuit of which started everything off - is lost somewhere out in the snowy vastness. And other than Carl Showalter - last seen with his leg sticking out of a woodchipper - no one knows where it is, or even that it still exists.
Unless you count those of us in the audience. And while we are allowed - encouraged - to believe that a fiction film is real while we’re watching it, the moment the lights go up it’s a different story. Fargo, the dream, is over. Sometimes it’s not easy. But there’s no choice; we know it’s time to go home. But it seemed that for some unknown reason, by the time she was first spotted in Bismarck in November 2001, a 28-year-old Japanese girl named Takako Konishi no longer could.
It was late February and I was in Bismarck on the trail of Takako Konishi’s last days. The Coens memorably describe this part of America - they grew up nearby - as “Siberia with family restaurants”. The story had stayed with me ever since I first read about her. What was it that made me want to know more? Like her, I loved the movies, and especially Fargo. And because I did I couldn’t quite laugh at her apparent desire - however irrational - to burst through the screen and make Fargo real. It’s a common fantasy among movie lovers. The difference is, she did it.
Even the essential postmodern twist, the confusion between fiction and reality fundamental to Takako’s story, turns out to have been anticipated by Joel and Ethan Coen in their film. Fargo opens with a title card proclaiming: “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987.” Earnest journalists who went in search of the “real” woodchipper murders were outraged when, after months of wild goose chases and increasingly deadpan obfuscation by the film-makers, they finally admitted that the title card was actually an elaborate hoax - their way of “poking a hole in the true story balloon”, according to William H Macy.
So Fargo was not, in fact, based on a true story. None of it really happened. There is no real “Jerry Lundegaard” out there. Yet from what I read on the internet, the police apparently believed that the ironic and essentially cautionary title card was at least partially responsible for Takako’s delusion and subsequent death.
There’s yet another meta-twist: I went to North Dakota to make a film about Takako’s “true story” for Channel 4. My idea was to reconstruct the last week of Takako’s life using still photographs, mixed with some digital video, in a kind of contemporary response to Chris Marker’s legendary 1964 film roman short, La Jetée. I was going to interview the people she encountered along the way, hoping to excavate the real story and the real person beneath the urban myth. The interesting thing - or what I hoped would be interesting - was that the eyewitnesses would then recreate those encounters on film, “playing” themselves across from an actress playing Takako.
The inhabitants of Bismarck are certainly among the nicest people in the world, but that doesn’t stop many of them from engaging with strangers as one would with an extraterrestrial - politely, but plainly astonished at its existence. My cameraman Mark and I were strange enough. But when Mimi walked into a busy truck-stop for breakfast, every single baseball-capped head in the place swivelled instantly in her direction. Perhaps that had something to do with the short black miniskirt and high black boots I had her wearing in the dead of winter. Mimi, my star, was a Japanese music promoter living in London. By the time we arrived in Bismarck, she had transformed herself unrecognisably into Takako. The miniskirt and boot outfit - topped off with a black leather backpack - was classic fashion-crazy Tokyo girl, circa 2001. That’s how Takako had dressed for her quest in America - one of the few things I actually knew about her for sure.
“Girls in North Dakota kinda don’t dress like that,” Officer Jesse Hellman told me. Adding politely: “Probably ‘cause of the weather.” Jesse was the police officer in the original article that had sent me on my own quest. He was the source for what we knew about Takako’s hand-drawn treasure map, the first person who tried to figure out what she was doing there alone in North Dakota.
That was a lot harder than it sounded, he said. She didn’t speak English and he didn’t speak Japanese. He looked for help - even calling all the Chinese restaurants in town, figuring that might be close enough - but there seemed to be no one in the entire capital city of Bismarck who was Japanese. So they communicated with each other the best they could, one word at a time with a little pocket translator she had brought with her from home. “That didn’t help at all. Confused me even more,” he recalled, shaking his head gravely.
We all loved Jesse. He was especially nice to Mimi, whom he treated with a gentle solicitude both on and off camera, exactly how he must have been with Takako. He spoke to Takako for four hours after she had been dropped off at the police station by a concerned citizen, a trucker, who had seen her wandering around. Jesse did his best to help her, but he felt guilty now. “I didn’t think I had helped her at all, but I didn’t know what else I could do. I felt really bad for her,” he said, stealing a sad glance at Mimi.
Jesse told me about Takako’s map, a white piece of paper, on which she had drawn a road and a tree. “That’s where she wanted to go, she kept pointing at it. She kept saying something over and over, like 'Fargo’ or some word like that. Like that’s where she wanted to go. I remember that real clearly. But in North Dakota, practically everywhere you look, there’s a road and a tree. So that didn’t really help much.”
“I had never seen the film Fargo, but another officer in the station had seen it and he told me that there was money buried in this movie. And then we started to think that she had this false impression that the money buried by a road by a tree was real in the movie. That’s where she wanted to go. We thought that was really odd, but suddenly it all began to make sense.”