Millennium Actress

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MILLENNIUM ACTRESS

Watched via DVD

WHITNEY

CRYSTAL

PLOT: Millennium Actress is Satoshi Kon’s ode to Japanese filmmaking. The story follows Genya Tachibana as he hunts down and interviews Chiyoko Fujiwara, the most famous actress of early and upcoming film in early 20th century Japan (while dramatized, she really is based off of one or two famous actresses of the time). I have always loved Satoshi Kon’s methods of storytelling and frame stories and I believe that Millennium Actress is the epitome of all of his film techniques rolled into one marvelous story. Perhaps it’s the romance of film making, but this feature film is by far the most relatable and charismatic of all his movies.

As I mentioned, this movie is a frame story. Overall, the plot follows Genya Tachibana and his cameraman as they visit Chiyoko’s house and interview her about her life and career. It has been thirty years since she suddenly quit working as an actress and shut out all of society and mass media. This rare opportunity is a miracle for Genya’s career, but more than anything it is a dream come true as he is Chiyoko’s biggest fan, which he demonstrates time and again.

While interviewing Chiyoko about the various roles she has played throughout her career and her life, reality and fantasy begin to merge and become one. Satoshi Kon draws the audience into Chiyoko’s roles through vivid illustrations, only to break the viewer’s sense of reality abruptly. For example, when Genya is interviewing Chiyoko they talk about some of her earliest couple of films and relive moments of these films in extreme reenactments, only to break out of the story suddenly due to a minor earthquake. Satoshi Kon uses these moments to create the illusion that the story being told by the narrator is so compelling that the listener is losing sense of time of place. In these moments he is also utilizing film techniques such as match cuts to create parallels between the “real” and “story-told” worlds, making them interweave with one another and become more of a metaphor for each other.

By the end of Millennium Actress it is never completely clear on what was real, and what was fiction, but the essence of Chiyoko, who she was, and what she was striving for all come together to show a love story, told through film, that is stronger through fiction than through reality.

I love the way you describe the main narrative as depicting how getting lost in a film’s story actually looks. I think this technique helps make the film so relatable and absorbing, as I lose track of time and place alongside Tachibana and, later, the cameraman.

PLOT: Millennium Actress opens with a woman astronaut preparing to launch a spaceship in search of the man she loves, even though she’s facing certain certain death in the process. As she launches, though, the rumbling sound continues, and it turns out that the scene is a film being watched by a man at home, where a small earthquake has just struck. Turns out the man, Genya Tachibana, is about to interview the iconic actress from that film, Chiyoko Fujiwara, who he’s admired his whole life. Chiyoko (based off of two actual Japanese actresses) began working on films while still in school, having a strong career until she unexpectedly quit acting thirty years before the film begins. Since then, she’s been living as a recluse and turning down all interviews, until Tachibana’s request.

The film follows the basic arc of Chiyoko’s career, working like a fictional biography, which sounds a little strange and potentially alienating if you aren’t familiar with traditional Japanese film (which I’m not at all). However, under the directorial hand of Satoshi Kon, Millennium Actress becomes much more than a fictional biography. More than anything, Millennium Actress is a celebration of film as a medium and the impact that films can have on both their creators and the fans. Furthermore, it’s a fascinating exploration of how memories can morph through the act of sharing them with someone else.

In addition to following Chiyoko’s career, Millennium Actress also depicts her devotion to a painter she met as a young girl. When he was on the run from the law, she gave him shelter in her family’s storeroom, and when he fled from the authorities, he lost a key that he had told Chiyoko was for something precious. Since then, Chiyoko’s furiously worked to find him in order to return the key to him and because she loves him. Coincidentally, each of her films features her desperately fighting to be with the one she loves, and her life story and the films’ narratives blend together to create one compounded, quintessentially Japanese story of a love that transcends time and distance, even if there’s no happily ever after to be had.

Wonderfully put, I think Millennium Actress really demonstrates how a memory of an event, or a story, can be more precious and fulfilling than reality. That there can’t ever be happily ever afters in real life, only in fantasy.

SETTING: As Crystal states, the film technically takes place in modern Japan in Chiyoko’s home where she is being interviewed, but most of the film and storytelling takes place in her memories or moments where she is acting. Many biographies show clips from someone’s life as a method of quoting—instead, this film takes all of these precious moments and collages them together to tell one unanimous story.

Chiyoko began working in early Japanese film in the mid-20th century with several historical time pieces. Therefore many of her memories have a look and feel of Yasujiro Ozu’s films, such as Late Spring and Tokyo Story. These memories tie in closely to pre-World War II Japan and Setsuko Hara’s acting career.

As Chiyoko’s career evolves, the settings transition from movie set to movie set, and “time” changes from more historical and traditional settings to more modern and contemporary locations. Many of these transitions are seamless, and it is hard to tell when one begins and where one ends. Others are more abrupt, and jar the viewer, creating an empathetic moment where the audience can relate more to Chiyoko and how she must have felt when her life was shaken up during that moment of transition in her life. For instance, looking at the launch scene from one of Chiyoko’s films, there is an abrupt shift of reality, a life endangering moment, and a sudden shift in Chiyoko’s career. All of these moments work together to demonstrate the mental strain and emotional turmoil the actress must have been going through at the time of the event. It is almost dreamlike in a sense, how all of these components work together to abstract and speak through metaphor.

Another mixture of settings I found compelling takes place around World War II, with the fire bombings, and I’m still not sure which events were in the film and which were Chiyoko’s life. Thematically, it doesn’t really matter, but I love that this film keeps me guessing.

SETTING: Technically, most of Millennium Actress takes place within Chiyoko’s home as Tachibana interviews her and she recounts the past. Chiyoko’s house is appropriately simple and traditional, and she has a housekeeper who makes dismissive comments and brings out props when necessary. However, Chiyoko and Tachibana get so invested in her memories that they begin to act them out, and the film visits both Chiyoko’s memories and her films’ stories in fully-fledged detail, often depicting the events as slightly grayed-out compared to the present day, with Tachibana and his cameraman visibly filming (and later interacting with) the historical events as they’re told.

Consequently, Millennium Actress includes all of the traditional Japanese settings at some point or other. Chiyoko herself was born in pre-war Japan, so her life covers a lot of Japan in the early and mid ‘90s. In addition to that, her movies take place in the warring states era and the Meiji Era, just to name a couple of time periods, and Chiyoko portrays careers ranging from geisha to a schoolteacher. None of these historical settings are really developed, relying more on the viewers’ knowledge of the tropes associated with ninja films, for example, and building a connection from that to Chiyoko’s search for the revolutionary painter. This technique works well because so many films are full of readily-identifiable tropes, and all together the various settings create a collage-like image of Chiyoko’s feelings over time.

Having watched several of Yasujiro Ozu’s and Akira Kurosawa’s films recently, I had a much better understanding of Millennium Actress than the prior times I’ve watched the film. I’m sure because of the movie’s strong use of Japanese film as vocabulary and metaphor that the experience of watching the film is quite different between Eastern and Western audiences.

CHARACTERS: While Chiyoko is the main character of the story, it is Genya who brings the story to life for the viewer, demonstrating that love of film and research is what preserves these magical moments of history and wonder for a greater audience. He is a stand-in for “otaku” and the fan culture. While many of Satoshi Kon’s roles look at fan culture in a slightly negative light, I would say that this portrayal demonstrates the more positive roles fan culture and media consumption provide. Genya Tachibana has not only always loved and adored Chiyoko’s films, but even made it part of his career. He has worked within filmmaking and takes on an active and creative role as part of his love for the genre. Rather than taking or consuming, he is feeding and developing this passion. When Chiyoko relays her stories he adds to them as a stand-in, driving the story forward and giving it a new life that Chiyoko couldn’t achieve solely on her own.

Ultimately, Chiyoko was just a girl in love. Her passion for acting came as a desire to see her first love again after being brutally separated. Initially taking a job in order to travel, she continued to work for money and the chance to travel and get her name out, all in the hopes of one day seeing him again. These desires manifest themselves in her roles, where she continually chases after the man of her dreams, while always ending up at a dead end. In the end, it is the love of the chase that keeps her going. Despite this being a “biography” of Chiyoko’s life, it still somewhat remains more of an exploration of her personality as a character in a film. Millennium Actress demonstrates how actresses can never be seen just for their roles or lives alone, that they can never be separated out from their various roles once they have been formed. Genya’s devotion is a prime example of how intertwined an actor is to their role and iconography in society.

The rest of the cast become more of archetypes. The cameraman, as Crystal mentions, is more of a straight man to add to comedic moments, while Chiyoko’s counterpart actress ends up being more of a rival or even “villain”. Even these tropes end up being played with over and over as the roles change and shift from movie to movie.

CHARACTERS: Millennium Actress is primarily about Chiyoko and Tachibana, as they arguably create the essential relationship within the film: that between artist and art consumer. Tachibana is a perfect depiction of a true fan, doing everything he can, including sacrificing his body, to help Chiyoko and remaining just as dedicated to her over the years as Chiyoko was to her mysterious painter. Tachibana’s devotion could be considered creepy, but I think it’s the flip side of Chiyoko’s devotion, and an even more relatable feeling for me. After all, who hasn’t been deeply moved by a piece of art? Who hasn’t felt great respect for at least one artist at some point in their lives? Tachibana doesn’t see much development outside of his love for Chiyoko and her movies, but that alone is explored well enough that I feel a deep connection with him throughout this film as a fellow art lover and fan.

Chiyoko, like Tachibana, is defined by her love, though hers is a love she actively pursues in that Japanese way where she doesn’t get anywhere but still cherishes it above all else and goes to great lengths to find her painter. Outside of her love, Chiyoko’s an aimless woman who doesn’t love acting and doesn’t love many people—really, all she does is for that nameless painter. Despite that, though, Chiyoko’s struggles feel real and meaningful, and I was moved by her recollections and strong emotions.

There are, of course, other characters in the film, but none of them are that important in the end. Tachibana’s cameraman works mostly as a straight man to lighten the mood, though he eventually is moved by Chiyoko’s stories. Within Chiyoko’s memories, the painter plays a large role but barely has any screen time, and there are recurring appearances by a police officer, her main director, and another actress who’s tired of being second to Chiyoko. These characters are all interesting enough, but they’re very much supporting characters, barely received any more development than is necessary for the main characters’ plots. This wouldn’t always work, but in a film so tightly focused on two characters, it’s okay that the supporting characters are barely used.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: As I stated before, the vocabulary for this film visually speaks to references from all throughout Japanese filmmaking. The designs, sets, angles, directions all make references to these master films. It must have taken Satoshi Kon a long time to research and plan out this film to capture these subtle key moments of direction that would speak to his audience almost subconsciously. This really speaks to our consumption of visual media and how much it becomes a part of how we see new stories. For a well-versed fan, every nuanced moment would not only speak of the present story, but would make reference to a rich culture that has preceded the story in other masterpieces. I can only begin to relate to these, but to a Japanese film fanatic, this must be like speaking in a second language. While Satoshi Kon is referencing and playing around with other directing styles, I believe this film is a masterpiece of his own design as well. His directing style shines through all his references and perfectly balances between his ideals of abstraction, reality, and storytelling.

It’s hard to sum up every thought on this movie in such a short space. Really, I think the directing is so magnificent that the rest takes a backseat, but that doesn’t mean the character designs and art style are lacking by any means.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: Like Satoshi Kon’s other works, Millennium Actress uses a visual style that looks simple and realistic, allowing the characters to be differentiated from others and look enough like real people that you aren’t thrown out of the narrative while avoiding anime visual clichés. The animation is also top notch, and the entire film looks gorgeous and vibrant. It’s too bad that this hasn’t been released on Blu-ray, because it completely deserves that treatment.

The cinematography is where Millennium Actress really shines, though, as it seamlessly blends present day, memories, and film to tell a cohesive and coherent narrative. Settings and time periods shift with the change of a scene or smooth visual transition atop moving action, and the shifts can be as major or minor as required depending on how deeply each specific scene mirrors Chiyoko’s past. The film really is a visual masterpiece and uses animation to its fullest extent to bring together so many elements in a way that would be almost impossible with live-action storytelling techniques. Furthermore, Millennium Actress seems to make visual references to classic Japanese films, as I can tell just by visiting Setsuko Hara’s Wikipedia page. I imagine the film’s even more exciting to fans of classic Japanese films and the actresses in them.

OVERALL: I honestly believe that Millennium Actress is Satoshi Kon’s best work. With his works being so distinguished, I’d argue he is the most notable director in contemporary anime. Out of his large and successful directing career, I would say this film best captures his ideal themes and presents them in a way that audiences can relate to in the most profound way possible. While his other films perhaps push the boundaries of perception to their limits, or explore characters to a greater extent, they distort reality too severely to make them approachable to everyday consumers. Millennium Actress may be a film for Japanese film fanatics, but it is also a relatable film that parallels many other movements in film and history and can largely be related to, even in other cultures.

I’m in total agreement with Crystal, this is Satoshi Kon’s love letter to film. We as watchers are encouraged to explore this passion and join in in the wonder of film, through the eyes of animation, another marvelous media. This is not just a love story, this is an ode to fan culture, media, and directing from one genre to another, by one of the great masterminds of animation.

OVERALL: Out of Satoshi Kon’s distinguished directing career, Millennium Actress is my favorite piece of work for how deeply and effectively it approaches the relationship between media and its fans. Yes, Chiyoko’s love story and career path are interesting and moving, but in the end her story’s a pretty standard variant of the very Japanese endlessly-waiting love story. No, I’m most touched by the profound relationship between Tachibana and Chiyoko, and especially by Tachibana’s feelings for Chiyoko and her films. As a fan, I understand that deep connection to a piece of fiction and sometimes desperate need to properly show your appreciation for someone whose work so affected you. That Tachibana gets to support Chiyoko and live through her memories means the world to him, and I get that. In the end, Millennium Actress is Satoshi Kon’s love letter to film, and, even though I haven’t seen any classic Japanese cinema, the underlying emotions are universally applicable. If you love film (or any kind of fiction), you owe it to yourself to watch Millennium Actress. This is a film that not only shows the depths of what animation can portray, but it also is all about being a fan in the best, most profound sense. Watch it.

FINAL SCORE: (10/10) FINAL SCORE: (10/10)
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