Every now and then, ya just need to have your brain bent a little.
Well, I do. I dunno about you guys. I highly recommend it, however. Does wonders for the old thinking capacity. Gets them neurons and such firing away nice and proper. Like an enema for your mind.
That… got kinda weird.
Anyway, for my next feature length anime spotlight, I decided to go with something that dips its toe into the surreal just a little bit. Which was a great experience, but made it kind of hard to figure out where to start having any kind of a proper discussion.
This movie is strange. Not bad, or off putting, or anything like that, but in a way that does make it hard to properly explain it. Which, I think, is the point. This is one of the movies that is meant to start a debate, not just about the overall themes it presents, but about the manner in which it is told.
Let’s get the due diligence out of the way first. Millennium Actress is a 2001 movie by the late, and unarguably great, Satoshi Kon, in a collaboration with mega studio Madhouse, who just keeps crawling their way back into everything I do, like some kind of a zombie anime studio.
I saw Supernatural: The Anime, Madhouse. I know what you did. God help me, I know.
The story revolves around Genya Tachibana, a television interviewer of celebrities and other people that are allegedly famous for things, and his camera man, Kyoji Ida, as they head out to cover the demolition of a once great film studio, Ginei Studios. While Ginei was once the MGM of Japan, it has since gone bankrupt, and is now being leveled to make way for a strip mall, probably, or maybe a karaoke bar. Who knows. A piece of history is being paved over for something nobody will care about five minutes after it opens.
In order to properly capture what Ginei Studios once was during their heyday, Genya and Kyoji decide to track down the studios most famous star, Chiyoko Fujiwara, who after a long string of highly successful films, simply vanished. It’s after they find her that the story begins to take the surreal turns, however, starting with Genya giving the now elderly star a key.
This key serves as the means of unlocking Chiyoko’s life story, which began in pre World War 2 Japan, as she is discovered by a famous director. While her mother at first refuses, Chiyoko soon after encounters a mysterious man, who is on the run from the military police. A painter, and anti-war revolutionary, the man hides out in a storage barn behind Chiyoko’s home for several days, during which, she falls in love with him. However, he soon must flee, leaving with her the key Genya has returned.
Determined to meet this man, whose name she doesn’t even know, once more, Chiyoko defies her mother, and becomes an actress, traveling to Manchuria to film the movie she was approached for, in the hopes of finding the man once more.
This is where things get odd. As Chiyoko relates her search for the painter, her filmography begins to overlap with her real life, the characters she has played becoming extensions of herself, searching for her lost love through various eras from the distant past, to the distant future. Various figures both real and make believe attempt to hinder her search, while Genya and Kyoji find themselves drawn into her narrative, as active participants. Genya as her rescuer, and Kyoji as the one who simply watches it all happen.
The film blurs the lines between fantasy and reality to the point that it is often hard to tell what is real, and what is imaginary, moving from one era to another, and jumping between film sets and reality fluidly. About the only point where the story jars back to concrete reality is in the final days of the war, after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with Chiyoko being in the vicinity of one of them.
The rest of it, though, is a mix of both her real life, and her film history, mixing and mingling in a surreal manner, dragging Genya and Kyoji along as both witnesses, and active participants, as she keeps searching for her lost painter. Even her brief close calls are told in this way, as she glimpses him in her various characters, making it difficult to be certain if it was real, or part of the movie she was filming.
Which is sort of the whole point. It isn’t about what was real and what wasn’t. It’s about how the line between reality and fantasy can become blurred. How fiction can become as real, or even surpass actual reality, to those who wish it to be so. Chiyoko, in her desire to find her painter, often eschews reality for the fantasy worlds she lives in as an actress, and the characters she portrays, who are often more aggressive and capable than she herself is.
The key serves as the focal point, as her only connection to the painter. So long as she has it, she feels he is with in reach. When a rival actress, jealous of Chiyoko’s youth, steals it at the behest of a director who wants to marry Chiyoko, she briefly gives up her search, only to resume it once more after discovering the key again.
This happens again, later on, when an earthquake briefly interrupts filming on her final project. The key is briefly lost, and Chiyoko realizes how much older she has gotten. She gives up being an actor, and retires in seclusion, never knowing that a young Genya, who was an assistant at Ginei Studios, found the key, and has been trying to return it to her for years.
Much like Chiyoko, who often blends reality and fantasy to make herself appear more capable, Genya does the same, influencing Chiyoko’s fantastical life story with his own presence, for his own reasons. Taking up the mantle of secret agent, samurai, and more, Genya rejects his own reality in favor of the fantasy, where he was a more important part of Chiyoko’s life than he actually was.
While at first, it might seem the film is being derisive of fantastical imaginings, that isn’t the case. It’s actually a celebration of this, as in their shared imaginings, both Chiyoko and Genya find better aspects of themselves to embrace. When another earthquake shakes the house during the interview, Genya is quick to act as he would in his fantastical versions of Choyoko’s life, and shield her from debris with his own body.
There’s nothing wrong with being imaginative, or even in being overly fantastical. This often leads us to becoming better people, as we attempt, in reality, to live up to the more heroic aspects of ourselves we create.
Well, that’s what I got out of the movie, anyway. As I said, the film is designed to spark debate, not just about the themes, but the very manner in which it is told. The fluid movements between reality and fantasy make it impossible to determine what was and wasn’t real at times. Chiyoko’s fixation on the painter is as much part of her imagination as any of the parts she plays, and interweaves with her own life story, creating a lot of uncertainty about him, as well.
The entire thing is kind of a giant brain twister, really. While we do know the painter actually existed, and likely, even reciprocated Chiyoko’s feelings or him, who he was, and why he left such a huge impression on her are harder to define. The final scenes of the film make this all the more mysterious, as Chiyoko herself comes to decide that none of that really matters, as it was the search for him that was what she cared about.
Again, this might just be me, but with the way the story shifts between real and fantasy, this felt almost like an admission that reality in story telling is of no real consequence. It’s about the story being told. It’s the journey we are taken on. How believable it is, and how realistic, is a minor concern, if any concern at all.
All things considered, for a film maker to state that, is kind of amazing.
Of course, this was Satoshi Kon, so yeah, I totally buy he’d make a statement like that. If the story was good, literally everything else was just set dressing, and wasn’t worth arguing over.
When it comes to animation, this is a now seventeen year old film, so yeah, it looks dated. Beautiful, vivid, impressive, lush, grand, and amazing, but still, clearly dated. Not that I minded that much. I’m okay with older animation styles in anime. Still, if you are not accustomed to it, it can be a bit startling to see actual hand drawn animation, instead of the computer animation we are all accustomed to today.
That aside, the movie really is just amazing to look at. Everything is sprawling, ambitious, and amazing. Which honestly, isn’t that surprising. Both Satoshi Kon, and Madhouse are well known, and rightfully respected, for the quality of their work. Sure, Madhouse has a few missed marks in their past, but considering the studio is older than I am, that’s to be expected. In general, Madhouse is an anime giant for a reason, and films like this are why.
The film was, of course, directed by the late Satoshi Kon, who made Paprika, Perfect Blue, and Paranoia Agent. Considered by many to be a revolutionary thinker in film making, watching Kon’s work makes it hard to argue, as he frequently utilizes very abstract thinking in how the story unfolds, and often uses the blurring of reality and fantasy as a story telling tool.
With Millennium Actress, he really showcases what made him such a great director. It isn’t just in framing, or pacing. It’s in everything. The surreal nature of the movie itself is pretty much Kon’s signature. The whole thing moves and breaths with a life of its own, and while you are never sure what is real, and what isn’t, you can’t stop watching.
While Kon is much better known for Paprika, and I admit, that is definitely a superior film, and probably the best example of his directorial prowess, Millennium Actress is a great film in its own right, and an important part of Kon’s own personal journey as a film maker before his untimely passing in 2010.
Of particular interest, and somewhat unrelated to this actual movie, is that prior to his death, Kon teamed with Mamoru Oshii, and Your Name maker Makoto Shinkai, to create the 2007 series Ani*Kuri15, a sort of anthology series of short stories, that one day, I have to make time to try and figure out how to properly review, as it is a brilliant little show.
What grabbed my interest, however, was Kon working with Shinkai, who is frequently hailed as the next Miyazaki. At first, I leaned towards agreeing with this, at least, tentatively, as I did see some similarity between the two and their work. Having watched Millennium Actress, and going on to watch Paprika again right after that, I have to say now that I think this is woefully inaccurate.
Makoto Shinkai is the next Satoshi Kon. Not just because the two knew each other, but because when you look back at Shinkai’s body of work, you see a lot of similarities between how they frame a story, and what they seek to explore in their work. It’s obvious, in hindsight, that Kon was a massive influence on Shinkai, but learning that they actively worked together at one point really kind of drives it home.
Personally, I’m pretty okay with this. The world only really ever needed one Miyazaki, but we lost Kon far too soon, and could certainly do with a new film maker that shares his sensibilities.
Yes, that was totally off topic, but c’mon, you see it now, don’t you?
The screenplay for Millennium Actress was written by Kon and Sadayuki Murai, based on a story by Kon, and inspired by the real lives of actresses Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine. Admittedly, very loosely based, but still. As a work of writing, the screenplay is pretty brilliant, with my only gripe being the English dub. The actors do a fine job for the most part, but the dialogue suffers somewhat, and at times, just feels stilted. The original Japanese is much better on this one, kids, so do yourselves a favor, and watch it that way. Other than that, Chiyoko’s journey is a great piece of writing, and the seamless blending of fantasy and reality is just expertly handled.
The soundtrack was composed by Susumu Hirasawa, who also composed the music for Paranoia Agent and Paprika, though he is better known for his punk rock days in the late 70’s, and the experimental music of his solo career in the 90’s. Basically, the guy is a huge part of the Japanese music scene, and has been for decades. Which I never would have guessed from the OST, as while it is good, it isn’t amazing.
It’s not bad. I don’t think Kon ever would have accepted bad. It is a good soundtrack, and there’s a lot of good pieces in there. It just doesn’t blow the doors off anything, and considering the nature of the film, I guess I would have expected it to. Hell, having seen Paranoia Agent, I expected the music to be stunning. Instead, it’s just good, and that’s okay, if slightly less than exciting.
Overall, Millennium Actress is a film that has something to say about the nature of fantasy, imagination, and how it can influence our reality. It’s a thoughtful exploration of life, film, story telling, and how we find meaning in all of it, from a true master of the craft.
While Kon left us far too soon, his work does live on, and is just as relevant today, as it was when it was made. If that isn’t a legacy worth leaving, I don’t know what is.