Mr. Lonely: Fargo’s Mike Yanagita

Mainstream auteurs Joel & Ethan Coen recurrently spin their own unconventional brand of crime story: skillfully calculated meditations — both farcical and bleak — on the flawed logic of unlawful scams, and the sublime human catastrophe that results. The characters responsible for these egoistic and deceptive acts are victims of their own fallibility, and usually have to endure the messy repercussions.

The Coens’ minor characters can and will fail, too. Perhaps my favorite example involves the memorable if puzzling inclusion of Mike Yanagita (Steve Park), a fidgety Japanese-American Minnesotan, in 1996’s Academy Award-winning Fargo. His brief involvement seems superfluous and strange at first; some may wonder if he exists merely for comic relief. But it’s his set up and payoff that indirectly though finally leads our protagonist Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) to her answers and the film’s conclusion.

Yikes.

During a terribly uncomfortable reunion between old schoolmates Gunderson and Yanagita, we learn (amidst awkward passes made by Mike) that he’s a recent widower. He has lost his wife, a third schoolmate named Linda Cooksey, to leukemia. This sets a morose tone, with Mike then pondering his romantic intentions behind the get-together with a married and pregnant Marge. Realizing the whole thing was hopelessly misguided, he breaks down, pathetically confessing “I’m so lonely!”

Occurring rather late in the film with no obvious connection to the main plot, the scene is cruelly hysterical but seems as tangential and random to the viewer as it does to our protagonist. However, the following day Marge learns the truth by phone, from a fourth schoolmate: Mike’s marriage to Linda and her subsequent illness, suffering and death are all complete fabrications; in truth Mike has psychiatric problems, and lives with his parents.

Upon this entirely unexpected discovery, Marge simply replies, “Oh, geez. Geez, well geez. That’s a surprise.” An appropriately understated response, but she resultantly becomes aware that perhaps her Midwestern, inherently good-natured and trusting tradition has betrayed her, rendered her a bit gullible. Ironically it was she who, in an earlier scene, politely called to question her deputy’s sloppy police work regarding auto dealer plates. She then traces the plates to the Gustafson’s Motors dealership in Minneapolis, where executive sales manager Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) initially eludes any potential suspicions from the investigating Marge, despite his strange behavior.

On a new hunch, after Mike Yanagita’s ruses prompt her to reevaluate the details of her investigation, Marge returns to the Minneapolis dealership. Her mere reappearance and brief follow-up with a guilty Jerry Lundegaard is enough to drive him to erratic, desperate measures. After previously avoiding any implication, this time Jerry gives himself away by fleeing during Marge’s questioning.

This chain of events, which effectively leads us to the film’s conclusion, is informed by the shred of doubt triggered in Marge, by her brief night out with Mike Yanagita.

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15 responses to “Mr. Lonely: Fargo’s Mike Yanagita

  1. Great analysis.

  2. Absolutely – I’ve had the same theory now for a few years, after initially thinking that the whole episode was irrelevant.

  3. he was a guy who was interned as a child in the mid-west….the japanese were sent away many of them to midwestern states at the outset of world war II…thus his alienation….and breakdown

  4. Pingback: Characters that I love #2 – Steve Park as Mike Yanagita in Fargo (Joel Coen, 1996) | Permanent Plastic Helmet

  5. excellent analysis and description. cheers

  6. mike yanagita alienates people, especially women, because of his weak character………secretly, he probably thinks he’s sexy, desirable, and that marge wants him as much as he wants marge. his loneliness, living with his parents, emotional turmoil, and obvious disdane for linda cooksey for rejecting him all adds up to a deeply disturbed man…….very likely to continue to have relationship problems—possibly because he feels his midwestern roots as much as the anglo women he prefers……….

  7. Mike guilts Marge into having sex with him.

  8. rac raises a possibility [movies are not real life and derive their truth from interpretation] that is not much discussed but that is made plausible by (1) the repeated “oh jeez” suggesting “oops”, and (2) the final interchange between Marge and her husband.

  9. I think Mike Yanagita is a great representation of the isolation that most of the characters (and most people) feel. Marge and Norm share a loving, supportive relationship. That makes Mike’s deceit, the depth of his isolation, difficult for Marge to comprehend. At the end of the movie, when she’s taking to the Swede, she asks, “Don’t ya’ understand there’s more to life than a little bit of money?” He, of course, does not. He is an utterly isolated man, incapable of experiencing the love Marge has in her life. Marge also mentions something about it being a beautiful day. I think the endless blanket of snow is a perfect representation of the isolation of characters like Jerry or the Swede (and to most viewers) who can’t/don’t experience love, or understand that there is more to life than a little bit of money.

  10. One interesting point: just before Marge enters the restaurant to meet Mike, she is seen primping a bit as if she wants to impress the guy. She’s wearing dressy clothes instead of the usual bleak, brown uniform we see her in throughout the movie. Why is she trying so hard to impress a guy who’s supposedly just an old classmate she’s meeting for a casual lunch? Maybe Mike was the only one being deceptive here?

  11. Pingback: Fargo and Mike Yanagita | Understanding Film

  12. Pingback: Mind The Gap: You Haven’t Seen Fargo? | Deadshirt

  13. This is the conventional explanation which I don’t really buy. Yanagita is pathetic and creepy but one also feels sorry for him. He is a lonely looser desperately trying to rescue shreds of dignity in a brutal cold world, clinging to complete fantasies of a successful job or the arrival of his dream wife (ignoring even her pregnancy). In this he reflects the desperation of the self-centered protagonists striving for stupid imaginary gains (money), respect (Jerry) or what else. Instead the movie celebrates the decidedly unglamorous love of Marge and her husband. the Mike Yanagita episode is a mini-Fargo within the movie (similar to the toilet episode in the master piece La Haine)

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