“Millennium Actress” Review

millennium-actress1Millennium Actress (2001)  

All the world’s a stage, [and] all the men and women [are] merely players”, famously stated William Shakespeare. It appears that this quote is given life in the animation “Millennium Actress”. This anime comes from no other than Satoshi Kon, a director known for such great films as “Perfect Blue” (1998), “Tokyo Godfathers” (2003) and “Paprika” (2006). In this story, a team of documentary-makers interview a once top-star Chiyoko Fujiwara as she tells them about her story, her rise to fame and the personal motivations behind her role-taking. Together with the duo of documentary-makers, we explore Chiyoko’s life through a series of events that hint at both make-believe film scenarios and real stories, but which had a very meaningful impact on Chiyoko and her worldview. The historical settings are either Kyoto in the Edo period, Japan in the World War II, or the country in the 1950s, etc. As in other Kon’s films, reality and fantasy fuse deliciously in “Millennium Actress”. The result is that this beautiful animation becomes an engrossing celebrity story, a touching romantic ballad, a historical account of a country through the ages, and a thought-provoking philosophical study all in one.

This is only Satoshi Kon’s second big film after “Perfect Blue”, and there can be parallels drawn between the two. As “Perfect Blue”, “Millennium Actress” is about celebrity-culture and a difficult journey to stardom, even though “Millennium Actress” portrays celebrity culture in a much better light than “Perfect Blue”. Chiyoko Fujiwara, who was once one of the most recognisable leading actresses, is now an aging old lady who agrees to be interviewed by a film director and his cameraman. She starts her story at the point when she was a young schoolgirl dreaming of becoming an actress, and tells of her one-time meeting with a mysterious rebel stranger who gives her the key to “the most important thing there is”. Chiyoko then spends most of her lifetime never losing hope of meeting her mysterious man again and returning the key to him, so much of an impact that he had on her.

In the meantime, Chiyoko rises to fame, being cast in numerous roles in films that somehow mirror her real life too. And here is the most distinguishable feature of this film which is its interesting presentation whereby we see this story within the story being told, and the events unfolding make us question their reality. What events presented are merely the scenarios of her films, and what did really happen? We often have to guess and distinguish the fantasy from the reality, and the director and his cameraman interviewing Chiyoko become part of the elaborate often make-believe settings and events told by Chiyoko in her room in present time. For example, Genya Tachibana, a director interviewing Chiyoko, often appears as her saviour in Chiyoko’s accounts of her film roles, while also representing some kind of an outside presence, bypassing usual timelines and guiding Chiyoko to her true destiny. As in “Perfect Blue”, Satoshi Kon is interested in the viewer’s perception of the picture, as well as in a possible viewer’s paranormal participation and influence on the material presented.

It is not immediately apparent, but the animation is deeper and more complex than first meets the eye. There is the theme of destiny and “history repeating itself” present. Everything in the story must come full circle; the past, the present and the future fuse, and the animation also emphasises the destruction of the past (to make peace with the present), visually presented by controlled demolitions and earthquakes. The predominant theme is whether one should stay true to one’s inner beliefs and desires when everything around (all the external circumstances) changes rapidly, undermining one’s view of what is real. Chiyoko clings to the hope of meeting one day her mystery man and finding the secret behind the key he gave her, but it then becomes apparent that the journey is bittersweet with no end or easy resolution in sight. “Millennium Actress” grapples with the notion of destiny and Chiyoko sees the apparition of an elderly fortune-teller. Also, as in “Perfect Blue”, the issues of jealousy, moral dilemmas and preservation of one’s true identity at whatever cost, are also dominant. For example, throughout her acting life, Chiyoko has to compete with an older and more experienced actress Eiko and, although the relationship is friendly, it also causes tension.

Japanese historical and cultural intricacies are also clearly on display, such as obvious references to the Japanese “idol” culture, and to samurai and ninja. Being traditionally an “enchanted” country, Japan does not differentiate between different aspects of society as the Western world does. Thus, everything is part of everything else; fantasy and reality may together hint at the real truth; and art is life and life is art. For example, towards the end, we see the painting amidst the snow where Chiyoko’s mystery man becomes alive and walks away from her. At the point, she promises to continue searching for him, and it is as though we are being told that Chiyoko, in fact, may be simply chasing shadows and illusions, rather than a real man.

As a romance, “Millennium Actress” is touching. Here is a tale of one young woman who hopes that one day she will meet a man that once impressed her the most. It may sound silly since Chiyoko only met her man once, but it is sometimes the effect of a meeting and the instantaneous connection rather than the length of a friendship that matters. Chiyoko knew that she and the mysterious stranger have developed a strange affinity and understanding between them and she wants to keep that tie more than anything else in this world. In the film, it is precisely because Chiyoko’s new friend mentioned Manchuria that Chiyoko chooses to be part of a film crew that heads to that region to film a movie.

Small details in the film are imbued with meaning. For example, the reference to a lotus, a water flower representing the attainment of enlightenment, is telling in the animation. Chiyoko loves this flower, and Genya Tachibana, a director, names his company after it. As this flower, Chiyoko attempts to rise above her everyday existence and take the final journey into the unknown depth of the cosmos. A lotus also represents destruction and rebirth, a transcendence, and Chiyoko and her mystery man are like to unlucky lovers who never had a chance on this Earth, but, probably, will have their happy time together in another life.

This beautiful animation by Satoshi Kon relies on an interesting mix of reality and fantasy to tell a story, and the result is an intelligent, complex and multi-layered anime that pays equal attention to romance, the philosophy of destiny and the Japanese cinematic history. The story, which is also full of humour, becomes a bit too wild and incomprehensible in its middle part, but it more than redeems itself by the end, with the last twenty-minutes being the most exciting. 9/10

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10 Responses to “Millennium Actress” Review

  1. Looks great! I like the sound of the symbols and metaphors. As always, you provide a thoughtful, interesting review, DB.

  2. raistlin0903 says:

    Well as you know I am a big anime fan, but as much as I would love to, I can’t keep up with the enormous amount of content that is out there. This is a movie that I know of, but haven’t yet seen. After reading this post though…I’m definitely moving it up quite a number of spaces on my to watch list. Love the premise for this one, and everything about it sounds terrific. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one 😀

  3. realthog says:

    I love this movie. Many thanks for the eloquent reminder that I should dig out my copy for another watch.

  4. MIB says:

    Nice write up! I loved the scene where Chiyoko was recaling her time in a western film then it cuts back to present day and she’s pretending to be riding a horse! 😛

  5. John Charet says:

    Great review 🙂 I love this film and it is a shame that Satoshi Kon died earlier this decade because had he lived, I personally believe he would have churned out more masterpieces of anime. He could have possibly ranked up there with the great Hayao Miyazaki at least in my opinion. I did a blog entry on him a few months back regarding my favorite films of his in case you are interested. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

  6. mitchteemley says:

    Will have to check it out. I’ve heard good things about it, and about Tokyo Godfathers.

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