Millennium Actress [千年女優 Sennen Joyu] (2001)
AKA Chiyoko Millennial Actress
Starring Miyoko Shoji, Mami koyama, Fumiko Orisaka, Shozo Iizuka, Shouko Tsuda, Hirotaka Suzuoki
Directed by Satoshi Kon
This is perhaps Satoshi Kon’s least well-known film, but after watching it, I have to wonder why. Perhaps it is the PG rating, but if anyone wants a film that proves that rating has nothing to do with quality, then Millennium Actress makes a great example. The film is extremely well made, and a fascinating experience to watch. It lives up to Kon’s reputation for great filmmaking as well as his reputation for mindbending storytelling.
It begins mildly enough, with a man named Genya making a documentary about his favorite actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara. He managed to get an interview with the aging, reclusive actress whose career peaked in postwar Japan. During the interview she tells the story of how she entered the business, which was all to follow a man she knew only briefly and developed a crush on. It is during these flashback scenes that the majority of the film takes place, and where the reality warping style of Satoshi Kon kicks in. Genya and his cameraman stand by in the flashbacks, recording and commenting on the events as they transpire, sometimes even interacting in the past as it unfolds before them.
But that is really just half of the equation. The flashbacks also play out as if they were scenes from Chiyoko’s films, with the principle characters in costume, acting out the roles of her films. Those films encompass a variety of period dramas, a sci-fi space travel film, and even a kaiju film for good measure. So the story of her quest to find the mysterious artist that captured her heart unfolds to the backdrop of ninjas and samurai and bombed-out cities.
It leaves you wondering constantly just where the line between reality and fiction lies. Are all those struggles real, just dressed up in period clothing? Or are they metaphorical struggles that capture the emotions of her struggles while also showcasing the history of Chiyoko’s films? It is pretty much impossible to say, but it is always as fascinating as it is bewildering. This film constantly left me saying, “I have no idea what’s going on, but I love it!”
All this confusion does play into the themes of the film. Chiyoko is not really in love with the man she met so briefly as a teenager; she is in love with the image she has of him. Likewise Genya is in love with the glamorous and elegant actress he sees in the films, not the real woman behind those roles. They are both in love with the fantasy, not the reality, of their paramours. In that sense, the fantasy scenes of the characters reenacting her films is actually the more realistic view of their relationships, an idealized romantic quest, which is what the characters truly adore.
The film also surprised me with something that was almost entirely absent in Satoshi Kon’s first film Perfect Blue, and that’s humor. Woven into the narrative so subtly and so seamlessly are little jokes and visual gags that spontaneously appear out of nowhere and vanish just as quickly, leaving laughter that never even fazes the pacing or the dramatic tone of the film. It reminds me in a way of the humor that permeates Mamoru Hosoda’s films, especially The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, though in this film it is not as central. I’m sure I’ve mentioned elsewhere how much I love it when anime combines both drama and humor into one package, and I can think of few titles that do it better than this.
Obviously this film is strictly for those who love a good mindbending story open to interpretation. Anyone else is not going to be impressed. If, however, you want to stick around for the surreal stuff, then this is a fantastic film, and it is certainly no minor entry in Satoshi Kon’s filmography.