I’ve heard a lot about Satoshi Kon over the years, but my familiarity with his works has been fairly restricted. There is, of course, Tokyo Godfathers, which was an enjoyable film that earned quite a positive review from me, but I’ve been told that it is the least indicative of his general style. After watching Millenium Actress, I think I might have a better idea of what that “style” may be, and it is indeed a very interesting one.
Millenium Actress is about Fujiwara Chiyoko, an aging and reclusive former-actress who has finally agreed to be an interviewed by a documentary director (and major fan), Tachibana. He surprises her with an item of hers that he has kept for her ever since she first went into seclusion – a memento which contains a significance that only she knows of. The film delves into her mind and swims through her memories as they come tumbling down – from her experiences as a child to her life as a famous actress. The key event is one from her youth, when she had accidentally met, and then sheltered, a dissident artist who then was forced to escape. Her desire to find him once again is what drives the narrative forward, and is etched into nearly every scene from her memory.
I think that for most, Kon’s approach to storytelling will be the most immediately obvious quirk. Tachibana and his cameraman are literally stepping right into her memories, observing them as if they were there, and often directly interacting with them. Sometimes this is done for humour, such as when Tachibana inserts himself into the role of being Chiyoko’s protector during one of the memories of past films – but even that, which seems superficially to be comic relief, has a purpose, reaffirming a true event which happened in Chiyoko’s life. Tachibana’s cameraman mostly contributes a sense of cynicism which grounds the film before it could possibly become melodramatic. The memories also mix with one another in their presentation very frequently. Memories of Chiyoko’s true life frequently merge together with those from her films, which then merge with the present day, and these transitions are mostly left for the viewer to interpret and understand. Judging by many of the opinion pieces I’ve read, however, some people may find this approach disorienting. Personally, I feel that as long as you’re attentive, it should be perfectly comprehensible.
There is a lot of warmth and humour in the film, just like Tokyo Godfathers, but the climactic moments and ending contain a tremendous emotional impact. The depiction of Chiyoko’s life, her emotions, her regrets – all of it is done in such a superb, mature, and poignant manner. If I had to describe the film in one word, I would choose “poetic”. It allows its narrative to drift and wander as needed to encroach slowly on a single unifying theme, one that is different from the potentially simple love story we had at the beginning, one that is so perfectly captured in a final line at the very end of the film. I feel like discovering how the theme subtly change is part of the joy of the film, so I will keep the spoilers to other posts. I just can’t emphasize enough, though, the level of satisfaction I felt as the film neared its conclusion, to have had that window into Chiyoko’s life for that brief period of time.
Another enjoyable aspect of the film is the way it traverses through Japanese history, both military and film. Through Chiyoko’s film memories, we are brought back into feudal Japan, and through her life memories, we live through the Japanese occupation of Manchuria through the post war era. And because of the ways that her memories mix together and complement one another, every memory reflects or comments on the ongoing exploration of her life and deep-seated longing to find the artist from her youth. In some ways, the passage of time reminds me of Omohide Poroporo. In that film, seeing the main character as a child in a visibly different environment added so much to her modern personality and gave her immense depth – here, that feeling has been multiplied as we watch Chiyoko grow from an infant into an adult in one of the most tumultuous periods of Japanese history.
As with the works of Studio Ghibli, the artwork in Millenium Actress is typically exceptional, and that is a significant achievement when you consider how many different types of architecture and clothing had to be covered due to the varying time periods. While the music wasn’t always top notch, there was one specific piece of music, the theme for Chiyoko, that succeeded very well in conveying that satisfying and slightly bittersweet feeling that characterized the film as a whole. It’s effect towards the end of the film is particularly noteworthy – you’ll know what I mean when you see/hear it. My only complaint on this front is that I felt that the song which begins as the credits roll was a tad ill-suited. While I’m voicing complaints, I might as well mention that I also felt, once or twice during a film memory, that the scene in question was perhaps going on a little too long. These are, of course, very minor complaints in the big picture.
I really loved Millenium Actress. I think it is both one of the best anime as well as one of the best films I’ve seen, and its a textbook case of how to deliver a film with real emotional impact without resorting to cheap melodrama or forced conflicts. Despite being very different from a typical Ghibli film (which usually top my lists), it has that same level of sincerity and heart that make them so universally appealing, combined with a delicate, touching exploration of its central character. It gets nothing less than the highest recommendation from me, and is a fine example of what anime with artistic purpose and vision behind them can accomplish.
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