In Reel Bay: A Cinematic Essay, Jana Larson recounts her longtime pursuit of the truth about Takako Konishi, a Japanese woman who, as the urban legend goes, froze to death in the Minnesota snow while trying to find a buried suitcase of money featured in the film Fargo. An excerpt from the book, which was published by Coffee House this past month, appears below.
Bismarck, North Dakota, is a six-hour drive from Minneapolis, but it takes about ten hours by bus. You sit toward the back, next to an old man who sleeps with his mouth hanging open and an older woman with a red checkered shirt and dyed black hair in curlers. She reads a coupon circular like it’s a novel. Just in front of you, three Amish brothers talk among themselves in a thick Germanic language. You eavesdrop and try to figure out what they’re saying. It sounds biblical at first, but occasionally they say things in English, like “solid oak door,” and you second-guess that theory.
You settle in, take out your video camera, and start to film the landscape going by outside the window. You try to imagine you are Takako Konishi—that you’ve watched the movie Fargo, believe it’s a true story, believe there’s a suitcase full of money buried somewhere on this road, and believe you can find it.
Fargo is a black comedy by Joel and Ethan Coen. It tells the story of a car salesman named Jerry Lundegaard, who hires two thugs to kidnap his wife so he can buy a parking lot with the ransom money from his rich father-in-law. It’s a harebrained scheme that goes wrong in every way. Most pertinently for Takako’s story, one of the hired kidnappers, played by Steve Buscemi, buries a suitcase containing nearly a million dollars in a snowbank on the side of a road, and then he winds up dead.
That wouldn’t mean much if the Coen brothers hadn’t claimed that Fargo was a true story: “At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” After the film came out, in interviews and publicity, the Coen brothers maintained that the film was definitely true, all true. In March 1996, they appeared on Charlie Rose.
INT. SET OF THE CHARLIE ROSE TV SHOW – DAY
JOEL AND ETHAN COEN sit at a wooden table opposite CHARLIE ROSE on an all-black set in a television studio.
Here is my first question: This movie was not based on an actual crime …
Ethan Coen smiles and fidgets with a coffee mug on the table.
… was it?
It was. And this story is completely based on a real event?
Yeah, the story is. The characters—you know we weren’t interested in making a documentary, and the characters are really inventions, based on the sort of outline of events. So we invented the characters, and they’re really sort of our creation and the creation of the actors that played the parts.
While Joel is talking, Ethan sips from his cup and tries to stave off a laugh.
So Steve Buscemi and Frances and all these terrific ensemble company that you’ve put together here in a sense made their characters what they became.
The Coen brothers managed to create a fair amount of confusion with their claims. An article published in the Brainerd Dispatch on February 11, 1997, reports that both the Brainerd police department and the newspaper received multiple phone calls and letters after Fargo came out, asking for more information about the case. Even the cast of the movie was led to believe Fargo was a true story: William H. Macy, upon learning that the events of the film weren’t actually true, said, “What?! You can’t do that!” So if Takako watched Fargo and thought it was based on fact, she wasn’t the only one. It would have made sense for her to take the geography represented in the movie at face value and to think the ransom money was still buried out there somewhere.
Fargo takes place primarily in Minnesota, near the towns of Brainerd and Minneapolis, with an opening scene in Fargo, North Dakota, and a final scene in Bismarck. The bus you’re on, the one Takako would’ve taken, goes from Minneapolis, to Brainerd, to Fargo on its way to Bismarck. It’s almost like a tour of the movie locations. You settle back, expecting to see the landscapes from the film: endless, flat, white, empty.
But that’s not what happens as the bus pulls out of Minneapolis. Instead, traveling northwest on the highway, you pass car dealerships, shopping malls, billboards, and housing developments. You set your camera down and lean your head against the glass, watching the moisture from your breath condense and freeze into an oblong circular patch. It will be several hours before you get to Brainerd.
You saw the movie Fargo for the first time at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis. You were back home for a brief stint in March 1996, and a friend from college came to visit. The plan was to drive to Lake Superior, but first your friend wanted to see “the new Coen brothers film” in a theater with “real Minnesotans.” On the drive north after the film, your friend adopted a “Minnesotan accent,” gleefully slipping phrases like “okie doke!” and “okay, you betcha!” into every encounter with the locals. To you, he said again and again, “Hey! You’re from Minnesota. Why don’t you talk like it?” By the end of the trip, like most Minnesotans, you hated that stupid movie.
If a person watched Fargo multiple times to try and figure out where Carl Showalter, the character played by Steve Buscemi, had buried the money, one of the major clues would be the scene in which Gaear Grimsrud, Showalter’s partner in crime, shoots a highway patrol officer. Since Marge Gunderson, the officer assigned to the case, is from Brainerd, the shooting must have happened near there.
Grimsrud and Showalter were en route to a lake cabin when they shot the officer, so the money would probably have been buried somewhere near the cabin. The only clue to its location is a short scene late in the movie in which a “local” reports to a police officer that two suspicious guys are hiding out on Moose Lake. There are twenty-four Moose Lakes in Minnesota, but only three of them lie to the northwest of the Twin Cities, through Brainerd, and only one has cabins on it: the Moose Lake in the Chippewa National Forest near Blackduck. But that still leaves a couple of hundred-and-fifty-mile stretches of highway between Brainerd and Blackduck to search for a snow scraper or a suitcase lying in a ditch on the side of the road.
That’s the joke of the scene where Showalter buries the money. He’s just received the suitcase with a million dollars in it. His jaw is bleeding because he got shot in the face when he went to pick it up. Getting a million dollars was a surprise. Showalter and his partner were expecting only $40,000. So, on his way back to the hideout, Showalter pulls over, takes $40,000 out of the suitcase, digs a hole in a snowbank, and buries the suitcase with the remaining $960,000 in it. But after he buries it, as he looks up and down the featureless expanse of road with wire fence strung between wooden fence posts, telephone poles repeating forever in both directions, he realizes there’s no sign, no building, no identifying feature, nothing that could help him find the money again. So he sticks a snow scraper in the snowbank to mark the spot, a tiny thing that’s hardly better than nothing at all. That’s part of the black comedy: the impossibility of ever finding the money again. But if Takako went through a similar process to locate the money, she must have come to another conclusion. Her body was found near Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, far from any Moose Lake. Maybe she was lost, but there’s another possibility, an interesting bit of misinformation: a tourism website mistakenly lists the location of a Lakeside Resort on a Moose Lake just a couple miles from Detroit Lakes. If this Moose Lake existed, and if Showalter and Grimsrud were driving there from Minneapolis, they would have followed the same route as this bus, and the money would likely be buried near the place where Takako’s body was found. Maybe Takako found that listing in her research and thought, This is it.
You set your video camera on your lap and stare out the window, searching for stretches of highway that look like the spot where Showalter hid the money. You figure this is how Takako spent her trip, and you want to see the landscape like she did.
The bus stops for breakfast at a McDonald’s outside Little Falls, Minnesota. You’re a vegan and you know it’s wrong to be giving McDonald’s your money, but it feels like you’ve stepped out of your life and into another with different rules. You strike up a conversation with the girl in front of you in line—Stephanie, “from up north,” she says, but without saying where. You order a coffee with nondairy creamer and sit next to her in front of the windows to keep an eye on the bus.
Stephanie says she’s on her way to see her boyfriend, who’s older. The way she says “older” makes you think she means a lot older.
Stephanie tells you that she and her boyfriend were living together on the streets, even in winter, drinking a lot and getting into trouble. Then the police picked them up for something and they both got locked up. The boyfriend had a criminal record and was given more time. Stephanie has been out for a while. The boyfriend is in treatment now, in Brainerd, and she’s going to see him.
Stephanie is young and pretty, and you wonder why she wastes her time with him.
“I’ve never been to Brainerd before,” she says. “I don’t know where I’m going to stay. I need to make some fast friends, I guess.”
That sounds like a bad idea to you, but you don’t say so. You know she’ll find everything out the hard way, which is really the only way.
The driver walks through McDonald’s, signaling that the bus is about to depart. You and Stephanie grab your things and follow him outside.
You sit next to her in the back of the bus. Mostly the two of you sit in silence, staring out the window at the passing fields. In less than an hour you’re in Brainerd. Stephanie stands up, grabs her bag, and turns to look at you. She waves tentatively and walks to the front. You watch her through the window as the bus pulls away. She’s standing in the parking lot of a hospital, looking lost. You wonder if that’s what it looks like, just before someone disappears.
You go back to scanning the road. Just before Detroit Lakes, you make a note about a stretch of land just after State Highway 228 that looks flat and white like in the film, only on the wrong side of the road. And much later, near Steele, North Dakota, there are a few more bits of road that are possibilities. You write a note: Steele, mile marker 208.
Then the sun starts to go down, and the three Amish brothers in front of you sing a song together in their language. It must be a song for the setting sun, but it sounds like a song for the end of the world.
It’s late by the time you arrive. You get a cab to the hotel, a tall building at the end of the main street in town. Though Bismarck is the capital of North Dakota, it seems tiny and not quaint; just an unexceptional strip of businesses a few miles from the interstate.
Lisa, a slight woman in her early thirties, is working at the front desk. You ask about Takako as she checks you in. To your surprise, she remembers her.
“Oh yes, I remember her. I checked her in,” she says. “Are you part of the film crew?”
Lisa tells you that two days before, a couple of guys from the BBC in London were here asking about Takako. They were traveling with a Japanese actor who was playing Takako in their film.
This throws you. When you contacted the police officers in Bismarck to arrange a meeting, they mentioned that they’d be talking to a reporter about Takako, but you had the impression that there was just one journalist, not a whole film crew. You don’t want to dwell on this now, so you steer the conversation back to Takako.
“Do you remember anything about Takako?”
Lisa nods. “She had a pure complexion. She looked young to me. Short hair. No glasses. Ah, more of an oval face, almost round. But not heavy at all, she was thin. And not very tall, like five foot one or five foot two. The day she checked out, I remember distinctly, she was wearing a short black miniskirt. And kind of a short jacket, black, up to about her waist.”
You nod, taking notes in a small black notebook.
“When she arrived, did she say she was looking for anything?”
Lisa nods her head. “Snow. She asked about snow.”
You’re surprised. “What about snow?”
“She wanted to know when there’d be snow.”
You pause for a moment to think about this. “There was no snow when she arrived?”
“No. It was early November.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I told her she’d have to wait. That there would be snow, but she’d have to wait for it.”
You don’t like that she’s sure. There must have been snow.
“No. I mean, I don’t know why everyone’s so interested in a girl like that. But she was real quiet and polite. You’ll have to talk to the others. I just checked her in.”
You thank Lisa and grab your luggage.
When you get to your hotel room, someone is inside cleaning it. There’s a law-enforcement convention at the hotel—no vacancies. You don’t mind the wait. The ten hours on the bus have lulled you into a zone where there’s no rush. You sit in the hall and shoot some footage of the generic doorways. You try to imagine Takako’s reaction to this place, and nothing comes. It’s just a hotel, the only one in town. After the cleaning person leaves, you look around the room—probably not the same room Takako stayed in, but likely almost identical. Floral bedspreads, teal carpeting, dark wooden furniture, a Gideon’s Bible in the nightstand, and a window overlooking the parking lot. You pull the curtain aside and look out toward the freeway, the empty snow-covered fields and the nothingness you crossed to get here. You crank up the heat and perch on the radiator, hugging your knees to your chest. Hearing there was no snow has shaken your confidence. You now feel that you don’t know anything about Takako. You try to picture her walking out there in a scene without snow—brown fields, monochrome autumn, maybe dusk with the streetlights slowly coming up. It’s different. You realize you’re starting from zero, or almost zero: you know only that Takako wanted snow.
Jana Larson holds an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction writing from Hamline University; an M.F.A. in filmmaking from the University of California, San Diego; and a B.A. in anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. As a filmmaker, she has received awards from the Princess Grace Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board and shown her work at festivals and the Walker Art Center. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Used by permission from Reel Bay: A Cinematic Essay (Coffee House 2021). Copyright © 2021 by Jana Larson.