Millennium Actress by Satoshi Kon (Review)

It’s a rich film, creating a tapestry of imagery, memory, loss, and desire that’s quite captivating and moving.
Millennium Actress, Satoshi Kon

For awhile there, anime had sort of lost its appeal to me. Not that I stopped liking anime as a whole — I doubt I’ll ever lose my love for Studio Ghibli’s work, and if I do, please put me out of my misery — but not much of what I’d seen had really done a whole lot for me.

A few series had started out with great promise — such as Full Metal Panic! and His And Her Circumstances — but for one reason or another, grew more and more disappointing. (Full Metal Panic!s unnecessary reliance on fan service did it in for me, and His And Her Circumstances lost much of its focus and really muddled along in the last 5 – 6 episodes, ending on a very disappointing note.)

But that seems to be changing as of late. Witch Hunter Robin is now hitting North American shelves (although I’ve already seen the entire series, it’s nice to have a proper translation), Last Exile blew me away with its first disc, and last but not least, I just finished watching Millennium Actress, as magical a film as you’re likely to find, anime or otherwise.

Millennium Actress begins in modern-day Japan. A famous movie studio is shutting down, and a reporter named Genya is trying to track down its most famous star, an actress named Fujiwara Chiyoko. Although she’s lived in isolation for many years, Chiyoko agrees to the interview, perhaps sensing her time, like the studio’s, has drawn nigh. As they begin, Genya presents her with a key that belonged to her many years ago. Seeing the key unlocks all sorts of memories for Chiyoko, memories of her past and of the youthful love that led her to become an actress.

At this point, the movie takes a rather intriguing and surreal turn. Chiyoko begins to relive her past through her movies, such that any line between “reality” and “fiction” becomes very blurry at best. One minute, Chiyoko is a young girl before the outbreak of World War II who falls in love with a mysterious man, the next she’s a ninja in feudal Japan seeking to rescue her true love. Adding an additional dose of surrealism is the fact that Genya and his cameraman Ida are there as well, regardless of the time period, filming it all. Genya, being a huge fan of Chiyoko’s movies, goes right along with it. Ida, on the other hand, observes it all with a mixture of bemusement, fear, and frustration (his reactions providing much of the film’s subtle humor).

Is Chiyoko losing her grip on reality and taking Genya and Ida along for the ride? Is Genya just encouraging her fantasy so he can get a good story (and indulge his fanboy dreams)? Or is it something else entirely? It can all be a bit confusing as you’re trying to figure out if what you’re seeing is really a scene from Chiyoko’s life, or from one of her movies. But that’s the point — Chiyoko has never had a real life. Or perhaps more accurately, her life has been a movie, a movie which allows her to indulge in the memory and pursuit of a childhood dream, a dream she had forgotten until Genya returns her key.

Millennium Actress is a bittersweet film to watch. Bitter because Chiyoko has never been able to have a life in any real sense of the word (she sacrificed it long ago for her fancy) and a revelation at the film’s end helps drive home the tragedy of it all. And yet it also has a sweetness because of the hope and strength her dream (as foolish and naive as it might’ve been) has given her. At the same time, it’s also a nostalgic tribute to Japanese cinema (there’s even an affectionate nod to big monster movies a la Godzilla) and the magic of movies in general.

One reason Millennium Actress feels so magical is because of the lavish artwork and animation. Directed by Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Roujin-Z), Millennium Actress flows like one long dream. Even when Chiyoko suddenly finds herself transported from feudal Japan to the ruins of post-WWII Japan, the transitions are seamless and quite affecting emotionally. And the animation is absolutely gorgeous, utilizing a hand-drawn approach similar to Jin-Roh (although CGI is used in some places).

Many scenes, such as Chiyoko running through a snowy city on her way to the train station, or her leisurely bicycle ride through the lush countryside, are particularly rapturous — not just because of the quality of animation (which is very high), but also because of the emotions they’re able to conjure up. These scenes, which are very naturalistic (in the “behind the scenes” footage, it shows how the animators studied footage of a running woman to better animate Chiyoko’s movements), provide a nice counterpoint to the fractured narrative.

The final touch comes from the lovely score. Although some critics found it to be a bit overbearing in places, I thought it accented the scenes quite beautifully, such as the theme that plays during the aforementioned bicycle ride.

At only 87 minutes, Millennium Actress does feel a bit incomplete. I wish more time had been spent in certain areas of Chiyoko’s life, particularly her childhood. And despite being the key (no pun intended) to the story, I must admit that the “love” aspect of the movie feels a tad underdeveloped. But as we learn in the movie’s final moments, it wasn’t necessarily the love that kept Chiyoko going, but the dream — and in that regard, the hopeless naivete of it all does feel appropriate.

I was also disappointed by the Satoshi Kon interview contained in the DVD’s special features. Despite being a perfect opportunity for Kon to touch on the themes of this rich film, he’s frustratingly vague. It could be that he just wanted to keep up the mystery and allow the viewer to come to their own conclusions, but it still feels rather cursory and lacking, the only interesting stuff being the “behind the scenes” footage (which I’ve already touched upon).

There were several moments during Millennium Actress where I just wanted to laugh at the wonder of it all — and one of those occurred while watching the “behind the scenes” footage! How bizarre is that? For those convinced that anime is limited to adolescent fantasies featuring well-endowed women in skimpy outfits wielding big guns and guys in orange suits with spiky hair fighting eachother for 10 episodes, Millennium Actress goes a long way towards dispelling that idea. It’s a rich film, creating a tapestry of imagery, memory, loss, and desire that’s quite captivating and moving.