Anime Movie of the Week: Millennium Actress
Millenium Actress Review
This is Con-fidential, the not-so-well-known anime blog that reviews all things anime and anime-related on a not-so-weekly basis! This week, the hot point of praise and discussion is directed towards the critically acclaimed Satoshi Kon classic (that isn’t Perfect Blue) i.e. Millennium Actress! People are talking about this movie because the recent August 13th and August 19th release through Regal Cinemas & Fathom Events is one of the only airings of Millennium Actress to occur in the last decade, the previous release having been aired exclusively in New York and Los Angeles in 2003. With most American audiences finally getting a chance to see this film right now, a good question to ask is whether Millennium Actress has held up after all these years. Does this film stand against the test of time like its sister movie or is it as doomed as is Chiyoko is, constantly on a pursuit of something she and the film might never have?
Plot: TV Interviewer Genya Tachibana and cameraman Kyoji Ida have the once-in-a-lifetime chance of interviewing acclaimed movie actress turned social recluse Chiyoko Fujiwara after the old movie studio she worked at finally shuts down. As the interview starts, it becomes clear to the audience that the nature of the interview is rather unconventional, as rather than a typical conversation about nonsense like the state of the Japanese film industry, Chiyoko reminisces about her long life starting as the daughter of an inn manager to eventually becoming the most recognizable face in Japanese media. And as Chiyoko continues to reminisce, the world starts to change around both her and the television crew.
Characters: Satoshi Kon has designed these characters to be remarkably simple, but also unique enough that their designs and motivations can still stay consistent and clear amidst the visual chaos of the film. Despite her design and outfit changing in every single scene she’s in, the audience can always tell who Chiyoko is based on two constant things: the key Chiyoko usually holds and her eyes, forever determined to meet a painter turned war criminal she fell in love with long ago. Genya and Kyoji also have strong designs, with Kyoji being lanky and relatively lax compared to the rather heavy set and goofy Genya. And that’s to say nothing of their motivations, which I would argue are the thematic centerpiece of the film.
WARNING: From around here to just before the final thoughts, this section will go into some pretty heavy spoilers. I’m not saying anything about the end of the movie, but I will be referencing later details, so do be warned.
Themes: Now, the main theme at the heart of this movie is how people have the capability to do nearly anything when they have something to work towards. For Chiyoko, love and pursuing love is what motivates her. Love allows her to leave the home she’s stayed in her whole life, go to an entirely different country, trek unprepared through a blizzard, and live through the entirety of something catastrophic like war. For Genya, admiration for the talented and beautiful Chiyoko Fujiwara is why he joined the film industry and can endure constant abuse from the film director. Admiration is why Genya kept trying to find Chiyoko after having not seen nor heard from her in thirty years. Whether for admiration or for love, these two can do just about anything, because they have something to work for.
But just as motivation and the pursuit of something can be what allows people to do amazing things, it can also be what blinds them to the horrors of what they’ve experienced and any more horrors that they have yet to. Pursuing love was what kept Chiyoko a delusional fool chained to a toxic movie industry with lying directors and cutthroat actresses. For Genya too, the pursuit of admiration was what almost killed him when he dove to protect Chiyoko from falling stage props during an earthquake, injuring his back for the next thirty years. He didn’t even learn from it when the same thing almost happened again during the interview thirty years later. Are Chiyoko and Genya really brave for enduring so much trauma for so very little, or are they just fools for trying?
Another major theme in this movie is the relationship people have with the art that they consume and create. The movie industry was such a major part of Chiyoko’s life that she cannot fully recall her own memories without it. What allows Genya and Chiyoko to really bond during the interview is how they can recreate scenes from Chiyoko’s movies and laugh about them. It’s how they can both recontextualize painful memories and cope. People affect art, but art affects people too. AND SPEAKING OF ART-
Art: THIS MOVIE IS BEAUTIFUL. HOLY HECK. Whether it’s the animation work or the beautiful backgrounds, every scene is an absolute treat for the eyes. There’s also a lot of love and references towards the Japanese film industry, with almost every flashback scene Chiyoko’s in referencing some famous Japanese property or another. There’s even a silly Godzilla knockoff that briefly appears. It’s a pleasure to see how this movie pays homage to the films that inspired it without being totally skeevy about it.
I also personally enjoyed just how much this movie likes to mess with its audience and break the fourth wall. To explain more in detail, rather than simply cut back to the actual interview every now and then, Millenium Actress does something entirely unique by inserting Genya and Kyoji into every single one of Chiyoko’s flashbacks, complete with a different color layering over them and everything. And these aren’t just normal story flashbacks either, because in her old age, Chiyoko has accidentally mixed up actual memories with memories from films she starred in. So, the entirety of the film is just scene after chaotic scene of Genya and Kyoji not knowing what’s going on as they and Chiyoko recreate a scene from an Akira Kurosawa movie. And to add onto that, the movie will continue messing with its viewers even more by having entire flashbacks set in completely normal or inane situations only to be revealed at the last minute to be on a film set, causing discomfort all around.
Final Thoughts: This movie hit such a weird spot for me. In a way, with how much the movie likes to pay homage to the Japanese film industry, you’d think that it would time capsule itself and leave the final product as a cheeky, referential mess. Yet at the same time, Satoshi Kon isn’t haphazard about directing it. Millennium Actress recontextualizes all these famous scenes and makes them work by cleanly fitting them into the timeless narrative that is Chiyoko in her pursuit of the painter that she loved. After the credits of the movie ended, an interview played with two people who worked on the film: Sadayuki Murai and Taro Maki. In it, one of them stated how in its attempt to create a combination between the referential and the timeless, this movie was able to become something more than either could achieve alone. He also talked about how this movie is surprisingly more modern than a lot of modern movies. I kind of like that.
Rating: 9/10 Confikeys