Since grabbing international attention with her Oscar-nominated role in Babel, Rinko Kikuchi has made an international career out of strange and often silent characters. Her latest film, Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, is a fairy-tale-like yarn about a frustrated office worker in Tokyo who’s convinced the briefcase full of cash in Fargo is not only real, but the answer to all of her problems. Directed by David Zellner, who co-wrote the script with his brother Nathan, Kumiko is a fascinating mash-up of their low-fi Austin filmmaking sensibilities and Kikuchi’s power to entrance the viewer with hardly a word. Plus, there’s a bunny named Bunzo who’s the star of his own social-media campaign, #teambunzo. What’s not to love?
With the aid of a translator, Kikuchi talked about her leporine co-star, playing a prickly character like Kumiko, Mako Mori’s Tumblr fan base, and why it’s easier to play characters who don’t speak.
The A.V. Club: Was it fun to act opposite Bunzo?
Rinko Kikuchi: Yeah, it was very fun with him. He’s [a] very professional actor. There was one scene on the subway, and it was perfect. He came through as a true professional.
AVC: The Zellner brothers approached you for this role in 2008, but it took a long time to get the movie into production. What about Kumiko kept you interested this long?
RK: [When I read the script,] I found it to be fascinating. Then I met the [Zellner] brothers; they talk really fast, but I found them to be really unique and interesting. I was determined I was going to follow it through and support it to bring it onto the screen. I was meeting with them maybe once or twice a year and swapping ideas. We talked about what movies we liked. We ate together, spent time with each other. So it took eight years, [but] we finally got it to be a piece of work.
AVC: How did you shape Kumiko the character? What input did you have?
RK: David and Nathan [Zellner] were quite knowledgeable about Japanese culture and Japanese women. They were very well versed about Japanese movies and Japanese movie music. But I think that I was able to be of some assistance in, shall we say, fleshing her out as a person.
AVC: It’s hard to decide if Kumiko is optimistic and determined or selfish and delusional. Even the ending could be sad or happy. Without giving anything away, what is your take on her?
RK: I think what’s important, as far as the ending is concerned, is that people who watch it use their imagination. I don’t want to dictate. You know, very often in our day-to-day lives, something that you believe in very strongly turns out to be something that doesn’t mean much to some of the people in your life. For Kumiko, what she believes in is what is important, and it’s what forms her life. And so that is everything. She does not seek approval or understanding from others. In some ways, she’s struggling. But you can also look at it as her inner strength. So in that sense, I thought that she was a very unique character.
AVC: Almost the entire film is just you, your face, not even necessarily communicating except with your face. Is that a lot of pressure to carry?
RK: Not that much. If anything, it was very relaxed. It was like, maybe it would be interesting if we had Kumiko did this or do that. And [the Zellners] were always taking a very positive attitude towards everything.
AVC: They made it very comfortable for you, similar to Guillermo Del Toro on the set of Pacific Rim. It’s so cool that you’re brave enough to work on these global productions that so often are about communication.
RK: You know, in some way, in some form, I’m enjoying it. I’m trying to avoid saying, “I’ve got to make that quantum jump.” I try to avoid thinking in those terms, of having to jump. I’m just a girl from a little country. [Laughs.] And in order for me to work with really creative people, I had to put out something that’s within me. I had to contribute. Some of it is just pure stamina.
AVC: I don’t know if you use Tumblr, but did you know that your Pacific Rim character Mako Mori is super-popular with fans?
RK: Really? I didn’t know that!
AVC: People, especially female fans, really connected with her because there aren’t many women who, in action movies like this, aren’t just a sidekick. There’s even a whole theory, called the Mako Mori test, how to create a female character like her. How can we get more characters like her in the world?
RK: You ask hard questions. I’ve been very fortunate. These [characters] were made available to me. Kumiko was offered to me. So I’m very grateful.
AVC: What’s the appeal of the character who is all body language and wordless, like Bang Bang in The Brothers Bloom or Chieko in Babel?
RK: Memorizing my lines is a royal pain, whether it’s in English or Japanese. [Laughs.] When I don’t have the mindset to memorize and keep in my memory, I am liberated. All joking aside, people often communicate a lot or understand each other in non-verbal ways. At least I think that non-verbal communication plays a big role in a lot of what goes on between us. And it’s great to be able to bring that out in my work.