Fargo Documentarian Paul Berczeller examines the case of Takako Konishi, who died in a frozen forest on the North Dakota-Minnesota border looking for the fictional treasure from the Coen Brothers' Fargo.
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Documentarian Paul Berczeller examines the case of Takako Konishi, who died in a frozen forest on the North Dakota-Minnesota border looking for the fictional treasure from the Coen Brothers' Fargo.

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

OK, so my father is serious about certain things, and he was serious about driving. So when the time came to get my license, I wanted my mother, or my next-door neighbor or any other random person walking down the street to teach me to drive. But Pops, he wasn't hearing it. Boy, get in the car. I got in. And he starts explaining to me about everything on the dashboard. This here is the gas gauge; don't let the car run out of gas, boy. What's wrong with you? He looks at me like I'd already had to pull over to the side of the freeway with the gas gauge reading empty. And that there, that's the oil light. When the oil light comes on, stop the car; put some oil in the car. Do you understand me, boy?

Now, I want to act insulted, but I got to get my driver's license so I just nod; yes, sir. This here, this is the tachometer. Normally the needle is over here in the white part, you see that? Yes. But when it's raining, when you're pushing, it goes over to the red. Can you see that, son? Yes, but how long can you keep it in the red? Not long. How long? Not long.

Today on SNAP JUDGMENT, from PRX and NPR, we proudly present "To The Brink," amazing stories from way past the red line. My name is Glynn Washington. Please keep both hands on the wheel 'cause you're listening to SNAP JUDGMENT.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: We're going to begin our "To The Brink" episode with a true story that is not exactly true. But don't worry; this'll all make sense in a moment. SNAP JUDGMENT's Joe Rosenberg starts us off.

JOE ROSENBERG, BYLINE: So this story is about a woman, but it's going to be told by a man.

PAUL BERCZELLER: My name's Paul Berczeller.

ROSENBERG: He's a documentary filmmaker from New York. But a few years back...

BERCZELLER: I went from New York to France to take care of my mother who was dying of a brain tumor, and she died. And then I just started this life in England. And I was kind of a bit sad and lonely.

ROSENBERG: And he read a lot, four newspapers a day.

BERCZELLER: And I'm sitting in my study with all the newspapers surrounding me and suddenly, I see this story. And that's what led to my first seeing the name Takako Konishi.

ROSENBERG: The story of Takako Konishi was low on details, but high on intrigue. She had first been spotted wandering around a truck stop in North Dakota - 28, pretty, Japanese and wearing only the lightest clothing even though it was the middle of winter. Then came the hook, the thing that made the story the story.

BERCZELLER: This Japanese woman was searching for the money that was buried in the Cohen brothers' movie "Fargo."

ROSENBERG: For those of you who haven't seen the film, "Fargo" is a dark, comic masterpiece about a ransom gone wrong. It depicts the true story of a mild-mannered car salesman who had his own wife kidnapped in order to scam his father-in-law out of a million dollars. Instead, the money wound up in the hands of one of the kidnappers, played in the film by Steve Buscemi. Before he died, the kidnapper supposedly buried the money alongside a fence on an unknown stretch of road. In the film, the money is never recovered. Takako had been searching for the real-life treasure.

BERCZELLER: Because there was a graphic at the beginning of "Fargo" that said this is a true story.

ROSENBERG: The only problem being...

BERCZELLER: There was no money.

ROSENBERG: ...The film was fiction.

BERCZELLER: They made it all up. So Takako must've fallen for, you know, the Cohen brothers' trick.

ROSENBERG: Takako's gullibility would prove to be her undoing. She froze to death two days later, in a snowy field in the forest, looking for the money. If you'd been reading your own paper that day, you might remember this story. It was one of those odd, wire service human interest pieces that was just too good not to run.

BERCZELLER: Everyone I told it to just laughed because that was kind of the function of the story. It was black comedy from the start. But there was something about her story that kind of grabbed me. So I went back the next day and started buying that newspaper to see if there's any follow-up stories. And just by its very nature, that was it.

ROSENBERG: Paul wanted to know more, so he called up the investigator who had worked on Takako's case and asked if he could send over some info.

BERCZELLER: And they sent me kind of the crime scene photo. And so I saw Takako for the first time dead, you know, kind of lying in the snow. She had a black miniskirt, black boots, a black coat that kind of just went to her hips and she had black hair and very pale - a very pale face.

This was very strange. What happened to Takako Konishi? How is it possible that somebody confuses fiction with reality so much that they actually fly from Japan and end up alone in a field in the snow very far away from home?

ROSENBERG: And since Paul is a documentary filmmaker...

BERCZELLER: I wanted to make a film about it. I would follow the path that Takako took in America, step by step, person by person, because if I could just figure out why she was looking for the money, I could figure out like who was this real person, this real Takako who was kind of behind this, you know, crazy tabloid joke.

ROSENBERG: So Paul flew out to North Dakota with a skeleton crew and began following Takako's trail, which wasn't always clear. The first person he managed to find who had actually spoken to her was a Bismarck police officer named Jesse Hellman.

BERCZELLER: So I just walked into the police station and said, could I speak to Officer Hellman? And so I met him, and he didn't understand why I was doing this. And I said I want you to just show me what happened.

ROSENBERG: For Jesse, the day he met Takako had been just like any other day until a long-haul trucker brought in someone he found wandering along the side of the road.

BERCZELLER: And suddenly, through his door, this really pretty Japanese woman walked in wearing this outfit, and Jesse wondered whether she wasn't a prostitute. He said girls in North Dakota don't dress like that, and then he paused, you know. He said probably because of the weather.

ROSENBERG: Takako was clearly trying to explain something to him but she didn't really speak English, and he didn't speak Japanese. Just about the only thing that Jesse could understand was a word Takako was saying over and over again - Fargo, Fargo, Fargo.

BERCZELLER: And then she pulled out a map. There was an X, there was a road - there was two lines for a road and just a tree by the side of the road. There was nothing else identifiable, you know, as Jesse said. You can always find a, you know, single tree by a road in North Dakota; that doesn't really tell you where you are.

ROSENBERG: So Jesse flagged down another officer for help.

BERCZELLER: And he suddenly realized that this was a treasure map. He said, Jesse, she's looking for the money that's buried in "Fargo." It was kind of like, could you help me with that? They both tried to explain to her that "Fargo" was just a movie, that it wasn't real. But they couldn't get this across to her. They were quite frustrated. But Jesse liked her. He thought she seemed lonely. So he took Takako to the bus station.

ROSENBERG: And it was at that point that Paul gleaned his first clue about why she might be looking for the treasure.

BERCZELLER: Because as he drove her there, she was holding her stomach and saying something. And he heard her say the word cancer. So then he said, you have cancer? And then in broken English, she said, yes, cancer. And at that point, I was like, oh, my God, this is a story of a woman dying and what she does after she finds out she's terminally ill.

ROSENBERG: Suddenly, you feel a little closer - it's a little bit easier to get inside her head.

BERCZELLER: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely because, you know, everything that she'd believed was just up for grabs, and all the rules were gone.

ROSENBERG: But there was something else about Jesse's story which also struck Paul, not a clue exactly, but something all the same.

BERCZELLER: It was the look on his face. A look on his face was guilt. He felt guilty because after Jesse took Takako to the bus station, he said if you need any help, you know how to reach me, and then she walked off. And he felt really badly about it, that he should not have left her to go on her own.

ROSENBERG: So Paul kept following Takako's trail, knowing that from Bismarck, she had taken the bus to the town of Fargo itself where she checked in to a cheap motel.

BERCZELLER: So I went to front desk, and I asked for a particular room. And the guy at the front desk, he was like, why do you want to stay in that room? And I said, oh, well, we're making this film about this Japanese woman. He said, the Japanese woman? What? I said, yeah. Did you know the Japanese woman? Oh, yeah, yeah, of course. I checked her in.

ROSENBERG: Then Paul explained that he was investigating her death.

BERCZELLER: And he was like, what? She died? He was really - he didn't know that she had died. But she had made such an impression on him, you know, this person who'd come so far by herself. And he fancied her, and he never forgot her. You know, and I asked him - I said, did she mention anything about "Fargo," the movie? And he said, no, not at all. And then she said to him, did he know a good place for her to watch the stars? He asked me, I mean, what's so special about the stars in Fargo? And we just kind of looked at each other. I was like, I don't know.

ROSENBERG: So Paul took the key to Takako's room and lay in the same bed she had, trying to get inside her head and put it all together - the treasure, the cancer and a good place to watch the stars. Everything felt like it was on the cusp of making sense.

BERCZELLER: And it said in the hotel kind of phone records that she had made this phone call to this number in Singapore, and it obviously had meant a lot to her because it was something like a $75 phone call. And it was the last call she ever made. So I wonder who she was calling. And I called, and no one answered. And I looked out the window at this kind of very depressing parking lot and neon sign. And I don't know why, I don't know what it was, but I just gathered my things and changed my room.

ROSENBERG: In the morning, Paul found Takako's next breadcrumb, a taxi driver who had picked her up from the motel.

BERCZELLER: And I asked him what I asked everyone - was, like, what did she say about "Fargo," the movie? And he said she didn't really say much at all, but the one thing she did say is that she asked the taxi driver to take her to the Detroit Lakes.

ROSENBERG: Detroit Lakes is a resort town just east of Fargo. At this time of year, it was completely emptied out, no attractions. But Takako had asked to be let out on the far side of the lake where there was no town, just forest.

BERCZELLER: And he did have a moment where he thought, it's cold out; why am I letting her out in the cold? But like a lot of people, they had second thoughts, but they just didn't think it was polite to ask. And so they just - he just let her out of the car and drove off.

ROSENBERG: And the taxi driver let Paul out in the middle of the woods at the same spot.

BERCZELLER: And there was just - there was no sound at all. There's the sound of the wind flying off the lake and just cold air. And I followed Takako's path onto the property of this woman named Deb, who I went to see.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BERCZELLER: She said that she was with her kids in front of the house, and she saw this figure in black running up the hill a couple hundred feet away into the forest, this figure that looked like it was a witch. And I didn't know at first whether Deb was joking or not, but she said that she gathered the kids together into a circle, and she prayed to ask for Jesus's protection against the influence of this witch.

But she was very sad because, you know, Takako passed through the lives of these people just really briefly. She came, and she went. And in the same way that I think the night clerk felt that he should have been spending less time looking at her legs and more time trying to help her, it was the same thing with this woman Deb that, you know, the Christian thing to do would have been to run after her, to run up the hill to find out if she needed help, but she didn't do that. That's what Jesse felt as well. In fact, he told me, why didn't I do more?

ROSENBERG: The next morning, a hunter found Takako's body in a clearing by the forest. She had died of exposure kneeling against a tree with her face buried in the snow. The last person Paul spoke to was the lead investigator on her case.

BERCZELLER: And that's when something really strange happened because he just said something that made me realize that everything that everyone thought about the case and the death of the Takako Konishi was completely, totally wrong. And what it was, was he said to me - he just, in his totally off-hand way, started speaking about the suicide. And I was like, what? He was - well, she committed suicide. And I said, well, how do you know she committed suicide? And that's when he brought out the suicide note.

ROSENBERG: Takako had mailed the note to her family in Japan before she died. In it, she apologizes for the shame her suicidal will cause them. But by the time the police found out about the note, Jesse and the other officer in Bismarck had already told a local reporter about the strange Japanese woman looking for a fictional treasure. Only later, would Paul learn that Takako's map wasn't a treasure map at all. It turns out that in Japan, drawing maps is a common way to ask for directions, nor did the forensic team find any evidence of cancer. And although everyone Paul had spoken to had taken it for granted that she was looking for the money from "Fargo," Paul realized that she never actually talked about the movie with anyone. She was just looking for Fargo the town.

BERCZELLER: And I found out that, you know, the last phone call she made to this number in Singapore was to the ex-boyfriend. And this boyfriend came from Fargo. She hadn't gone there to look for the money that had been buried in the movie. It had to do with following the traces of this ex-boyfriend. It was about something real, something that had gone wrong in her life somehow and had led her to kill herself.

ROSENBERG: And as for Paul...

BERCZELLER: I was embarrassed. Why didn't I see the clues? Why did I insist on seeing something that wasn't there? What was wrong with me? There was nothing in front of me that I saw with my own eyes that told the story of a girl who desperately wanted to believe that something fictional was real. It wasn't her. It was me.

ROSENBERG: Paul had been like everyone else, instantly projecting on a strange foreign woman what they wanted to see, a prostitute, a witch, a pretty girl in search of a make-believe treasure. In the end, if no one helped her, it was because no one had really seen her at all.

BERCZELLER: So I had her address. And I went to Tokyo to see where she lived. And I just knocked on the door of the landlady. And of all the people who blamed themselves for what happened to Takako, the landlady blamed herself the most. The story she told was of a - a country girl who had come to the big city and got a job in a travel agency and was very polite and lived a totally normal life.

ROSENBERG: But then Takako lost her job at the travel agency, and her boyfriend dumped her. To make ends meet, she got a gig at a hostess bar. She began drinking, losing her keys, falling behind on rent. And the landlady wasn't sympathetic, until one day, Takako left without an explanation, the landlady presumed to go back to the country with her parents.

BERCZELLER: A little while later, Takako's mother called and said to her, Takako's gone. And the landlady said, gone? And then, the mother said, yes, she died far away, alone, in a cold place. And all Takako left in the flat was this music box. It was by the window. The cassette was still inside it. And the landlady pressed play.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

ROSENBERG: This song was a ballad about a man who promises to take his lover back to his hometown but then leaves without her. The landlady said it was Takako's favorite song.

BERCZELLER: I sat there with her while she listened to this song, no expression on her face, just these tears. And she just said, I should've helped her. I'm so regretful. I'm so regretful.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

WASHINGTON: Now, if you'd like to see Paul's documentary about the Takako Konishi, it's called "This Is A True Story." We're going to have a link to it on our website, snapjudgment.org. Paul Berczeller, he's a director and documentarian. He's living in London right now. We're so thankful to him for his help on this piece. And we're thankful as well to David and Nathan Zellner. We also interviewed them, but we weren't able to include their material. We're so sorry. They've written and directed a fantastic feature film inspired by this very story. We highly recommend it. It's called "Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter." It's in theaters now and will be available for digital download and video on demand June 19 and released on DVD June 30.

That story was produced by Joe Rosenberg. The original score and sound design for that piece was done by Renzo Gorrio. When SNAP JUDGMENT, the "To The Brink" episode returns, one mother's incredible decision and why people should not mess with tiny individuals, when storytelling with a beat continues. Stay tuned.

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