The influence of myths on our society goes back thousands of years. We visualize our ancient ancestors telling them while sitting around a fire to entertain and explain natural phenomena that, to them, seemed mysterious and scary. Since then, myths of powerful gods, valiant heroes and horrible monsters have not only entertained but also inspired many heroic actions. The movie “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” explores how myths, supernatural or not, affect people’s behavior. The protagonist, a woman who’s job consists of shuffling paperwork and attending to the whims of her boss, flees her responsibilities out of a desire to pursue something significant, inspired by a movie that seemed to her to suggest that there was treasure buried in the United States. In the following paragraphs, I’ll spoil the movie, so I suggest that the reader watches the movie before continuing.
Although it takes place in the modern world, many aspects of the movie resemble a fable or a work of fantasy. Kumiko compares herself with the conquistadors of old, breaking the laws and customs of society. She offers the excuse “it’s my destiny,” something that mythical heroes often say in literature. On top of that, the plot of the movie has the structure of an adventure story: the protagonist embarks on a grand voyage, gets lost in a strange and unknown place (the United States), and has to overcome many obstacles to achieve her goal and achieve her destiny. Even the aesthetics of the movie project fantasy. Kumiko’s improvised clothing looks similar to the clothing of a samurai, and the scenes that take place in nature (like in the cave at the beginning of the movie, or in Fargo’s snowy forest) allow the audience to forget that the events take place in a modern society.
Not only does it imitate myths, but it is also replete with allusions to well-known myths. For example, the lonely elderly woman mentions the book “Shogun,” which is, for many Americans, the most famous samurai myth. The kindly policeman explains to Kumiko that a drunk guy shot off the testicles of the town’s famous statue of Babe the Blue Ox, which is an urban legend. At the end of the movie, a wolf attacks Kumiko, and her red hood suggests that this incident refers to the tale of “Little Red Riding Hood.” If one defines myths more generally, the list gets longer: the missionaries in the airport are also following a myth when their quest coincides with Kumiko’s, and the ideal Japanese woman (who should either scale the corporate ladder or start a family) with which Kumiko’s mother is obsessed is so idealistic that it also plays the role of a myth. The movie “Fargo” is a movie as well, and a quick internet search reveals that even the movie “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” is based on an urban legend. Apparently, a Japanese woman traveled to Fargo in order to look for an acquaintance living there, and she eventually killed herself; a policeman with whom she had interacted fabricated that she had come to search for the briefcase of cash from “Fargo.” The plot of the movie addresses the benefits and dangers of following myths. The missionary explains to Kumiko that religion, the most successful type of myth in the world, had helped him accept responsibility for his failures, but the majority of the myths in the movie do harm through their overly ardent believers. Kumiko, for example, commits numerous crimes, dishonors her mother, and eventually dies because of her literal belief in the plot of “Fargo.” The myth of the conquistadors helps her justify her irresponsible decisions. The myths in which her mother and boss believe make them put too much pressure on Kumiko to play the role of a traditional Japanese woman, causing her depression and flight.
This suggests a couple of important questions regarding myths: What is the purpose of a myth? To what extent do we have control over our myths, and to what extent do they control us? How much should we rely on myths as guides for our lives?
The philosopher and American professor Joseph Campbell designed a list of four functions that myths should satisfy: they should evoke a sense of amazement, explain reality and the universe, justify the structure of society, and guide the believer through facing live’s challenges. The reasons behind these functions can be inferred from an evolutionary point of view. We want to be entertained; we look for explanations and significance for the events of our lives, and we want quick solutions to our problems. A successful society needs something to maintain agreement between its members, and a myth can serve this purpose as well.
However, because of human development since primitive societies, some of these functions are obsolete because of the rigidity of myths or better alternatives. For examples, the sciences provide explanations for many previously inexplicable natural phenomena. Despite this, many people today deny the conclusions of scientists because they contradict their religious beliefs. Further, like in the movie, the social norms that some myths suggest can be restrictive, from the myth that Japanese women should either advance their careers or start a family to the myths that demand abstinence from certain foods, sexual abstinence, heterosexuality, or even arranged marriage.
The movie also refers to another more interesting and complicated aspect of the interaction between myths and their believers: the ability to turn into a myth while following a myth. Consider the conquistadors, who turned themselves into myths by trying to spread the myth of their religion among Native Americans, and searching for legendary treasure. Alexander the Great turned into a famous figure by conquering Europe and Asia, inspired by Achilles, his favorite mythological hero. During the reign of the Catholic Church in Europe, many philosophers and theologians like Martin Luther became famous by criticizing and modifying the teachings of the church. The American pilgrims and colonists, and prominent explorers like Lewis and Clark, have turned into myths because of their doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Kumiko’s journey and her duality as both a human being and a myth represents the transition between a real person and the character of a myth. The movie gradually shows us this transition. At the beginning of a movie, Kumiko lives in Tokyo, a crowded city where she is surrounded by people that are observing here. When she travels to Fargo, a less populated town, she doesn’t interact with many people on a daily basis. When she travels in the taxi, her final witness is the deaf taxi driver, and when she flees to the woods, she is completely without any witness. When the wolf steals her copy of “Fargo,” she finds herself without any myth left to guide her, leaving her independent and ready to convert from the human believer of a myth to a myth of her own. Finally, she dies and awakens replenished, finishing her metamorphosis.
The fact that the movie is based on an urban legend suggests that Kumiko has also turned into a myth by following another myth. Her personality also suggests her duality as both human and myth. She doesn’t speak much or open up to anyone, and this gives her the mysterious aspect of a myth; she ignores the laws and customs of society, just like supernatural myths reject the laws of reality. Her duality is definitively established at the end of the movie, when she gets up out of the snow apparently healthy after suffering a difficult night of snow and wind. This impossible feat implies that she has died, but also that she has entered a type of afterlife and eternal life - she will always live in the minds of the listeners of her incredible tale.