317. MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (2001)

Sennen joyû; AKA Chiyoko: Millennium Actress

“I find memories and dreams belong to the same category of artifacts. In other words, if we want to make a contrast, we have reality on one side, which is opposed by the dream, the memory or even a fantasy… They are on a different ‘layer’ than our reality and can be superimposed on it.”–Satoshi Kon (translated from the French)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Shôzô Îzuka, Shouko Tsuda, Miyoko Shôji, , Fumiko Orikasa

PLOT: A film producer and a cameraman interview Fujiwara Chiyoko, a famous retired Japanese actress. As she tells the story of her life, they find themselves absorbed into her flashbacks, which seem to mix scenes from movies she acted in with her actual memories. Genya, the interviewer, delivers a key Chiyoko had left behind at the studio, and reveals that he has personal motives for visiting the actress.

Still from Millennium Actress (2001)

BACKGROUND:

  • After making Perfect Blue, Satoshi Kon intended to adapt Yasutaka Tsutsui’s novel Paprika (which he eventually made in 2003), but financial considerations led him to tackle this less expensive project first.
  • Kon co-wrote the film with Sadayuki Murai, who also wrote the screenplay for Perfect Blue.
  • Tied for the Grand Prize in the Japan Agency of Cultural Affairs Media Arts Festival (in a deadlock with Spirited Away).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Because they are striking, suggest transcendence, and bookend the movie, it’s the shots of Chiyoko in a spacesuit linger in the mind. Her discovery of a mysterious easel set up on the moon’s “pure white landscape” ends up as one of the strangest sights in Millennium Actress.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Free cameraman with flashback; Godzilla cameo; lunar easel

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An interviewer tries to get to the root of a famous retired actress’ life, including the significance of a mysterious object (a key) from her childhood. A series of decades-spanning flashbacks paint a portrait of a life spent chasing an unobtainable goal; only, the memories get mixed up with scenes from historical epics she starred in. It’s like Citizen Kane, but with ninja battles.

U.S. trailer for Millennium Actress

COMMENTS: Although much of the movie is a retrospective of Japanese cinema from the 1920s on, fictional screen icon Chiyoko Fujiwara’s career spanned less than a century, much less than a millennium. So how does the title Millennium Actress arise? From the fact that the movie was coincidentally released at the dawn of the millennium? Is the  word “millennium” used to conjure up the idea of a new era, with Chiyoko representing a past age which is now fading away, and a transformative hope for the future yet to come? Perhaps; but the movie supplies another explanation for its title. In an Edo-era historical movie scene from Chiyoko’s early acting career, a witch (with a spinning wheel, like the Greek fates) tricks her bereaved noblewoman into drinking “thousand year tea,” resulting in a curse: she will “burn forever in the flames of eternal love.” The character, who was about to commit suicide to join her lover in the afterlife, will now, it is implied, be unable to find him for at least a thousand years (or perhaps forever). It’s the actress, and not merely the character she plays, who’s the target of the curse: the apparition returns at several points in the film to taunt her with reminders of the prophecy. This is the “millennium” of the title: the dispiriting chronological gap between the onset of our heroine’s longing and its uncertain fulfillment, a sentence spanning more than any one lifetime.

Millennium Actress is a movie which is never what it seems, which should be clear from its very first scene: a female astronaut climbs into a rocket on what is implied to be a suicide mission. But her farewell is quickly revealed to be nothing more than a movie scene playing on a VCR in an editing bay, one which is interrupted by an earthquake. The movie is edited so that it seems that the rocket’s blast-off itself shakes the editing bay: the first of many subtle and not-so-subtle instances of Satoshi Kon’s blurring of fiction and reality. The forth-wall-free confusion of narrative, memory, movie re-enactment and fantasy becomes so jumbled that, after he’s been jerked into his second or third new historical era, the comic relief cameraman complains, “Wasn’t this supposed to be a documentary?”

If the viewer believed that this was going to be a straightforward, linear fictional biopic, they are likely to be even more confused than the increasingly exasperated cameraman. Chiyoko’s life does reveal a story and a trajectory, but Kon deliberately makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction. But while eras and details change, but the thrust of the story stays the same. Chiyoko’s whole life grows out of one formative event in her childhood, an encounter with a wounded painter hunted by the authorities, a scenario that replays itself in different ways across her career. She strives to reunite with this man throughout the rest of her life; he is both muse and MacGuffin. She encounters nemeses—a man with a scar and an envious, older rival actress—over and over, sometimes in different guises. Curiously, the plots of the films she acts in, whether set in ancient times, modern times, or the future always repeat the same theme: a loyal woman separated from her oppressed lover, searching for him, following clues, just missing him…

Millennium Actress has the lowest budget of Kon’s four feature films, and at times the animation shows it. The scenes often have a stiff, Saturday morning cartoon quality to them. The animation quality is not universally mediocre, however; the production team focused their efforts on certain bravura scenes, and Kon’s imaginative design often compensates for the lack of kinetic movement in the frame when the animators are taking a breather. The battles are often impressive, with flaming arrows pinning the cameraman to a door in one amusing sequence. The earliest flashbacks occur in near monochrome, with more color gradually entering the frame as the timeline advances towards the present day. Kon scatters his own detailed still artwork throughout, often in the form of magazines or movie posters featuring Chiyoko; one mural of eight of the actress prime roles—from nurse to geisha to astronaut—would make for delightful desktop wallpaper. And there are even a couple of short, nearly psychedelic montages that are actually more ambitious than the sequences of 1997’s Perfect Blue, though not nearly as trippy as the hallucinatory triumphs of Paprika. There’s a portentous dream sequence with abstract spinning wheels sliding over the witch’s downturned face. A couple of elaborate montages invoke journey motifs, with Chiyoko riding or running through landscapes that shift in time and space: in one, her horse ride through a battlefield turns into a rickshaw ride past a cherry blossom-lined boulevard. A much longer voyage happens near emotional climax of her story; the actress runs through various incarnations of her past, pursued by memories, chasing her mystery love all the way to the moon.

Millennium Actress‘ initially confusing plot reveals more connections on a second watch—connections which, rather than tying things together, only suggest more interpretations. Perhaps the most fascinating element in the tale is the role of Genya, the interviewer, who is an active participant in Chiyoko’s stories, not an impartial observer. Sometimes, he even inserts himself into her memories as a chivalrous defender, appearing as a samurai who rescues her from a burning building or facing down a horde of enemies so she can flee. He rewrites the story at times, or at least nudges Chiyoko into entering the next episode of her career. Is Millennium Actress really Chiyoko’s story, or is it Genya who is the true protagonist? Are these Chiyoko’s memories we see, or Genya’s reconstruction of Chiyoko’s life, informed by her movie roles? Or a mixture of both, with viewer and actress collaborating on her character? At one point Genya says “I remember this.” He’s watching a story that seems to be from Chiyoko’s life, but actually turns out to be a take from her first movie, one that coincidentally happens to have exactly the same plot as her reality: a girl in Manchuria searching for a man she knows only by a vague description. As an actress, Chiyoko is a professional symbol: does she have a real identity we can know, or do we understand her only through the personas she adopts? Ultimately, there is too much richness and detail in Chiyoko’s story, and too much lack of wish fulfillment for Genya, for us to conclude her biography is a complete fabrication of a fan’s imagination. Chiyoko’s story, however, can’t help but be colored by Genya’s adulation, and his own backstory. Chiyoko is to Genya as the mystery man with the key is to Chiyoko; an idealized image he searches for through a lifetime, who disappears as soon as he thinks he has found her.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“While the story does get a little weird (what anime flick doesn’t?), leading director Satoshi Kon tells it all in a cinematically thrilling, moving and gorgeous way.”–E! Online (contemporaneous)

“Unfortunately, the trippy disorientation ultimately devolves into outright confusion.”–Ben Kenigsberg, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

“… Satoshi Kon’s anime answer to Mulholland Drive. This radical work by the director of Perfect Blue mainlines into a cosmic crawlspace between reality and fantasy from which it never leaves.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Millennium Actress – An archived version of the American distributor’s Flash-based site; the film clips are no longer available but Kon’s reflections appear in text

IMDB LINK: Millennium Actress (2001)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Millennium Actress – TV Guide’s review includes a video interview with Kon

Midnight Eye Interview: Satoshi Kon – An interview conducted after the release of Millennium Actress

‘Millennium Actress’: The Struggle to Bring Quality Animation to Theaters – Animation World Network explains why Millennium Actress did not earn a wider release in the U.S

ASIA 1111: Millennium Actress – This Millennium Actress message board for a class on Japanese culture contains some interesting discussions

Millennium Actress (Anime) – The TV Tropes entry for Millennium Actress

MILLENNIUM ACTRESS: How To Open A Movie – Oswald Iten’s detailed analysis of the opening scene (contains spoilers)

Chasing the Millennium Actress – Originally published in “Science Fiction Film and Television, Volume 7, Issue 3,” this academic article by Janine M. Villot argues that the movie’s “plasticised indexicality implies the plastic nature of abstracted referents” (whoa!). Requires a Project MUSE subscription.

O.S.T. [Chiyoko – Millennium Actress] – Track listing for the original soundtrack, including short samples and the lyrics to the closing song

HOME VIDEO INFO: Among Satoshi Kon’s four feature films, Millennium Actress has been the most neglected, but DreamWorks released it on DVD in 2003 (buy). On my copy the subtitle track is, annoyingly, left off by default. It features a 40-minute “making of” fetaurette with interviews with Kon and others, alongside the U.S. trailer.

The film is not currently available on Blu-ray or video-on-demand, but occasionally pops up for a limited time on streaming services. At the time of this writing it was available free on Tubi TV.

One thought on “317. MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (2001)”

  1. Thank you for bringing this movie to our attention again! Very enjoyable movie, as I get older I can even more related to this movie’s theme ‘memory’…

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