A Review of Jana Larson’s Reel Bay: A Cinematic Essay

April 16, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Rachael Hanel

A picture in a newspaper in 1999 sent me on a journey to find out more about a woman who is impossible to know. Jana Larson, too, also saw a newspaper article that began a nearly 20-year journey to find out more about a woman who is impossible to know.

Sometimes I can’t believe I’ve put more than twenty years into the research and writing of my subject—practically half my life. So as I read Larson’s Reel Bay: A Cinematic Essay, I didn’t feel so alone—here was another writer pursuing questions that have no answers.

The subject of Larson’s book is Takako Konishi, a Japanese woman who in 2001 traveled to North Dakota and then Minnesota, where she died in a grove of trees on a chilly November night. The surface story is that Konishi had been searching for the money Steve Buscemi’s character in Fargo buries, not realizing that the movie was fictional.

Larson is captivated by the story and begins her search, ostensibly to make a documentary for her MFA degree. But as Larson investigates, she uncovers a parallel story about herself. What was Konishi really looking for? What is Larson looking for? Is she truly trying to figure out Konishi, or is she trying to figure out herself?

This is a story about obsession. Larson cannot quite define why she’s so intrigued by Konishi. She becomes a reporter, following Konishi’s trail to Bismarck and Fargo and Detroit Lakes. She moves to Japan at first to help a friend shoot a documentary, but then decides to stay to continue her quest for answers about Konishi.

The format of the book is inventive, switching between essay and screenplay. We see how Larson imagines telling Konishi’s story in script form in myriad ways. At times Larson portrays scenes from her own life in the screenplay format as well.

The book is divided into seven chapters called “reels.” I was most captivated in the early reels, where Larson tracks Konishi’s trail in North Dakota and Minnesota. We also spend quite a bit of time in San Diego, where Larson attends film school. We see her frustrations in making the film about Konishi and other her struggles as a student, such as lack of motivation, getting caught up in an unfulfilling relationship, and low self-confidence.

But the inventive nature of the narrative doesn’t always proceed seamlessly. I was less impressed with the last two reels, which take place in Japan. At times they felt long and could have used a thorough edit. The exposition started to take on the feel of “this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.” We are introduced to many characters, some of whom only make a brief appearance and then are not mentioned again.

Most of the book is written in second person. Reel 6 starts in second person but then abruptly switches to third person and stays there until the end of the book. I was distracted trying to find the reason for the perspective switch. The author uses the initial “B” to refer to herself, which confused me at first. This narrator is clearly the author, but I don’t know why the initial “B” was chosen.

But I appreciated the creative and artistic approach, which offsets any of the criticisms I have. This book is a unique blend of reportage, memoir, essay, and biography.

Rachael Hanel is a writer and associate professor of mass communication at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She is querying her manuscript, Breaking Point: One Woman’s Transformation from Activist to Radical in 1970s America. You can find her on Twitter (@Rachael18) and Instagram (rachael_hanel).

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