In Fargo, a tightly structured film, the extraneous Mike Yamagita episode might easily have been excised. Here’s the story (Fargophiliacs may now bypass the plot summary). Mike is a high-school classmate and possibly an old boy friend of Marge Gunderson. He telephones Marge when he learns that she’s the police chief investigating the Brainerd triple homicide. When they meet in a hotel bar in Minneapolis, Mike makes a half-hearted pass which Marge decisively rebuffs. Mike then reveals that he had been married to a mutual friend, Linda Cooksey, but that Linda died of leukemia. Because he’s lonely and, it would appear, because he’s embarrassed to have crossed the line with Marge, he breaks into sobs. A couple of scenes later, Marge is on the phone with a girl friend. She is surprised to learn that Mike never married Linda, that Linda is very much alive though she had been “pestered” by Mike for over a year, and that Mike’s been having psychiatric problems.
The Mike Yamagita excursion doesn’t easily connect to the gruesome botched-kidnapping main story. What, then, is its reason for being?.
The Coens like to toy with audience expectations. When we first hear Mike on the phone, we recognize the same flat upper-Midwest accent with which we've become familiar -- and so, we're taken aback to discover that Mike is Asian-American. But is it a gimmick or does it matter? Mike himself plays against type. Almost everyone in the film (although not Carl Showalter, the excitable talkative funny-looking guy who's destined for the wood-chipper) is laconic and stoical. Mike's bawling opposes him to both the stereotypical impassive Asian as well as to the stereotypical low-key Swedish Lutheran. But can his display of sentiment be trusted? Mike is no less insane than Gaear Grimsrud, the psychopathic killer, but he’s addled in a sweeter way. He wants desperately to be part of a family. It's because of this longing that he harasses Linda Cooksey and fantasizes a romance with Marge. In its own Coenesque way, Fargo is a film that extols families. Although the Lundegaards are not a good model, Marge and Norm are emphatically in the process of creating a good and decent family. So perhaps, taken all together, the Mike Yamagita episode adds an unexpected quirky element to the film, challenges ethnic assumptions, and reinforces, in a 'funny kind of way,' Fargo's family values.
The Mike Yamagita subplot also deepens the character of Marge Gunderson. Although she’s interested in Mike--she primps for their "date" -- she’s not a bit flirtatious. There must be hundreds of policiers in which the tough cop engages in gratuitous sex, but Marge is not that kind of policeperson. When she confines Mike to his side of the table, she reinforces her status as the moral center of an otherwise amoral film. But Mike catches her off guard and she’s not nearly as discerning in fancy duds as she would be if she were in uniform. The Fargo screenplay describes Mike as “bald, paunching.” (The coinage “paunching” must mean “becoming paunchy.”) By changing direction and casting the handsome Korean-American actor Steve Park,-- a native of Vestal, New York, by the way -- in the role of Mike Yamagita, the film makes him less pathetic and more sexual. While Marge does resist, she’s curious enough about him to make it her business to investigate. She ably balances restraint with curiosity.
Finally, there’s a broad sketchy parallel between the Mike Yamagita sequence and the main action of the film. Jerry Lundegaard attempts a scam that endangers his wife; Mike Yamagita attempts a similar scam when he tries to insinuate himself into Marge’s life by, so to speak, 'killing' his imaginary wife. Marge thwarts both scams.
Three different approaches, then: one about Mike, one about Marge, and one about plot parallels. But has the heart of this mystery been plucked? Do we now know what Mike Yamagita is doing in Fargo? I don't think so. Is there anyone out there in the cinemablogosphere who can improve on these suggestions?