When David and Nathan Zellner's Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter premiered at Sundance in 2014, all eyes were on Rinko Kikuchi's unforgettable portrayal of a deranged Japanese office secretary who quits her job and travels from Tokyo to the remote tundra of North Dakota. There, she's determined to find the gold that Steve Buscemi had buried under the snow at the end of the Coen brothers' classic 1996 thriller, Fargo.
As it happened, though, Kikuchi's brilliant turn wouldn't even be the most buzzed about performance in the film. That honor fell to her fluffiest acting partner and the true breakout star of last year's Sundance, Bunzo the Bunny. The Danny Ocean of stealing scenes, Bunzo has enjoyed a meteoric rise to stardom, one that began seconds after the lights came up on that premiere Kumiko screening. His ascendance into legend has only accelerated in the 14 months since the world first saw his twitching face. (The film comes out today at IFC Center.)
Here's how the hare became a happening:
Winter 2012: The Zellner brothers hold open auditions to see which lucky animal might get to play Kumiko's loyal pet. The competition is so fierce that it's practically Darwinian, but once the filmmakers see a certain rabbit, none of the other contenders have a chance.
Looking back on the casting process on the eve of the film's release, Nathan Zellner told Time Out New York why Bunzo beat out the competition: "We wanted Kumiko to have a companion, some sort of connection that would be really hard for her to give up. And when we were thinking of her animal counterpart, we realized that people are really divided over dogs and cats—it's a very polarizing thing. But there's something about a rabbit which is just so serene. Maybe it's that David and I grew up being such huge fans of Watership Down, but they have those big eyes that have so much expression in them, and it just made sense that Kumiko should have a bunny. But we had no idea that Bunzo would have so much impact on people." No one, not even the Zellners, could have predicted what came next.
January 2014: Film critic Steve Dollar, among the first to see Kumiko, stumbles out of his Sundance screening convinced that he's just been witness to the beginning of a cinematic revolution the likes of which we haven't known since the dawn of the French New Wave. As Moses delivered the Ten Commandments down from the heights of Mount Sinai, Dollar unleashes a tweet from the slopes of Park City, needing far fewer than 140 characters to convey to the world what he's learned:
Summer 2014: The #TeamBunzo hashtag grows increasingly popular on social media as the film rolls through its festival run, every screening a chance to feed Bunzo's legend.
Fall 2014: Like Gotham waiting for Batman's return, hopeful whispers about this mysterious rabbit savior begin to spread beyond the Internet and into the physical world. Like, for example, on this t-shirt.
December 2014: Astonished by Bunzo's growing cult celebrity, Amplify (the film's distributor) officially embraces the #TeamBunzo hashtag. When the first Kumiko teaser drops online, it ends with a cryptic but prominently placed call to action:
January 2015: The Chinese Zodiac calendar might call this the year of the sheep, but we all know 2015 will be the year of the rabbit. Big things are brewing:
February 2015: Bunzo formally receives top billing. Later in the same press release, the Zellners include a detailed Bunzo biography, chronicling the rabbit's early months as a struggling actor and how he overcame a dangerous bok choy addiction on his way to becoming a star.
Late February 2015: Kikuchi does not take the news well.
Kikuchi, however, is a generous actor who wants what's best for the film, and she quickly reconsiders her feelings about being upstaged by a rabbit in his debut film role. In an interview with Time Out New York, Kikuchi is quick to rave about Bunzo's performance: "Bunzo was such a photogenic co-star. He was not a professionally trained actor, but somehow he would always deliver right away. There was a scene where we wanted him to eat ramen, and he did it right away. When we wanted him to look at the camera, he would look at the camera. He was perfect." Those compliments sure sound a little backhanded to us, but all that matters is that she ultimately gave Bunzo her blessing:
March 18, 2015: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter finally hits U.S. theaters. #TeamBunzo's message reaches the masses and a new dawn rises. Bunzo himself, overcome by the pressures of becoming the face of a movement, decides that the time is right to retire. According to the Zellners (who have effectively become their star's publicist), Bunzo has retired "to a farm in rural Minnesota, and now spends his days reminiscing on his time in the spotlight. He keeps in touch with Hollywood, and still dreams of one day starring in a remake of the 1950 Jimmy Stewart movie, Harvey, or a sequel to The Brown Bunny."
So long, Bunzo.