Unlocking Millennium Actress, Satoshi Kon’s Masterpiece (Review Roulette: #8)
“After the full moon it starts to wane. But with the 14th night, there’s still tomorrow. And hope.”
This line of dialogue has resonated with me for years. When I first saw Millennium Actress, I was startled by the places it took me. As a 16 year old starting to fall in love with movies, here was an animated film like no film I had ever seen. At times it’s a frenzied chase through Japanese history, at times a slapstick comedy, and at times like the scene that gives us the quote above: sincere, contemplative, and bittersweet.
The line is spoken by a painter. He is a revolutionary, on the run from a fierce looking army officer with a scar on his eye. He finds refuge for the night thanks to a teenage girl named Chiyoko Fujiwara. She finds him wounded, takes pity on him, and hides him in the storage shed of her family’s store. Chiyoko and the painter share one night together, one that consists entirely of quiet and earnest conversation. He tells her of the beautiful winters in his home town. He says he will take her there to repay her for her help. He leaves her a key as a thank you present. He is gone in the morning. Their one meeting serves as core from which Millennium Actress derives its boundless energy, as it takes us through Chiyoko’s life. She becomes an actress, and then a major movie star. She marries a successful filmmaker. And she never stops looking for the painter. She holds on to the key like a relic.
The film opens on a documentary filmmaker named Genya and his harried cameraman named Kyoji trekking up a very tall hill to Chiyoko’s home. She is old, her former film studio has just closed, and Genya (an unabashed fan of Chiyoko and her films) wants to get an interview with her for his documentary about the studio. They start to talk, Kyoji films, and the movie begins to unfold.
If this all sounds straightforward enough, buckle up. Chiyoko’s stories from her life weave imperceptibly in and out of memories from her movies. Scenes repeat themselves, in different eras, sometimes clearly on film sets, sometimes clearly from Chiyoko’s life, often apparently both. Genya and Kyoji are always right there in every jump through time and reality. Genya plays along, sometimes inserting himself as a character, or weeping at how a moment that is clearly from Chiyoko’s real life made him cry thirty times. Kyoji, mercifully for the audience, is confused as he is jerked through time and reality, providing a running commentary of dismay.
Confused? Don’t be. Millennium Actress very quickly reveals itself as a film about feelings, not facts. We are following Chiyoko’s emotional quests, not a linear story of her life. Her search for the painter is not a quest in any traditional sense. It occupies her soul and affects her life time and time again.
I love when films take radical approaches to how we perceive memories. In my piece about The Tree of Life, I mentioned how we don’t recall our pasts in perfect, chronological detail. The Tree of Life presented memories of a childhood in sun-drenched fragments that aimed less to tell a story than to bathe us in feelings. Millennium Actress takes an even more audacious approach, disregarding chronology and realism almost entirely.
But Millennium Actress is not science fiction. Chiyoko is telling Genya her life story. Genya is a huge fan of Chiyoko’s movies. Together, their memories might very well combine create something that looks like this movie. That Kyoji is very much afraid for his life as he is dragged through time is another matter for another time.
Millennium Actress was the second film by animator Satoshi Kon. His first was the psychological thriller Perfect Blue. That film was a hot mess in the best possible way, a headlong tumble into a genre rarely broached by animators. In Perfect Blue, a pop star turned actress deals with a violent stalker who is angry that she has abandoned her music career. The film, like Millennium Actress, deliberately blurred the lines between showbusiness and reality. But while Perfect Blue used this device as a thriller would, to disorient the audience and draw us into the world of a character growing detached from reality, Millennium Actress is more versatile. One montage of Chiyoko’s film career at first simply seems to be an exercise in style (a beautiful one at that) until it suddenly segues into something far more serious.
The movie continually informs its narrative during its forays into Chiyoko’s memories. And when Kon makes it clear that a scene is depicting an actual event in Chiyoko’s life, those moments are all the more potent as a result. Consider a wordless scene where Chiyoko finds a gift that the painter left for her in the rubble of her post-war home. Or a scene late in the film when Genya confronts the scar-eyed general to learn more about the painter. The general pops up throughout the film like a specter of Chiyoko’s fears, but he is all too real a person, now broken by a lifetime of cruelty. These scenes are simple but overwhelming in their power. Millennium Actress builds to moments of heartbreak by showing us the contents of Chiyoko’s heart, rather than a point by point rundown of her history. We may not know the precise chronology of her life, but we are fluent in who she is.
Millennium Actress envelops you and then flies. It is a roller-coaster ride through memories and feelings, and it knows that those two things are inextricably linked in ways that movies all too often forget. Its is heartbreaking and uplifting, often at the same time, in ways that only a movie about an entire life can be. Chiyoko looks back through her life, one with seemingly far more regret than triumph. She dedicated so much of it to a chase that seemed destined to be fruitless. And all she can do is smile. It was the chase, she says, that she really loved.