My Timely Blogathon Entry: Millennium Actress
In July two of my favorite movie bloggers- Anna at Film Grimoire and Rob at Movierob– ran a blogathon centered around movies that are 90 or fewer minutes long. I contributed a review of Millennium Actress. You can find all the essays here.
“What does the key open?”
“The most important thing there is.”
Memories are all we have, really. The present is fleeting. The future hasn’t happened. Everything else is memory. Memories define how we see ourselves, and how others see us. Love of all forms is built upon and sustained by memories. There are two love stories at the center of Millennium Actress. One is based almost entirely on one memory; the other is built on the accumulation of decades of memories.
Milliennium Actress jumps right into its story. Genya, a documentary director, drags his cameraman, Kyoji, to the home of the long-retired, long reclusive film star, Chiyoko Fujiwara. Genya is making a documentary about her. Upon meeting her, he gives her a present: a key. The key is a memento of hers long lost. What it opens materially is irrelevant. When he gives her the key, her memories begin to flow.
Millennium Actress was the second film by the brilliant animator Satoshi Kon. From 1997 through 2006, Kon had an astonishing run of quality, directing four films (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika) and the 13-episode series Paranoia Agent. He passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2010 while working on a fifth film (the still unfinished Dreaming Machine). Most of his films- Tokyo Godfathers excepted- dance in and out of reality, deliberately challenging the viewer to a point where we have to abandon our usual expectations of narrative flow.
Millennium Actress might be Kon’s most ambitious work in this regard. It plunges into and out of Chiyoko’s memories, those memories blending with scenes from her movies. Genya seems in on the game, popping up regularly in memories and scenes he has no business being in. Kyoji is the audience conduit, offering bewildered meta-commentary on the constant scene-changes.
If it sounds like Millennium Actress is hard to follow, it’s not. This is an enchanting film. Kon knows well how memories are as much about feelings and sensations as the actual events. It makes sense at a level beyond linear narrative. It bursts with energy and heart. Kon’s animation was never lovelier than it is here. His signature lush foregrounds and simple, static backgrounds give it a dreamlike quality.
If I haven’t begun to describe the plot of Millennium Actress, that’s because the plot is fairly spare. We discover early on that the primary catalyst in Chiyoko’s journey is her search for a political prisoner she helped escape from the police. The man was an artist. We see their one conversation, gazing up at the moon that night. He leaves in the morning. That’s as much as I will reveal. The plot is minimal, which makes room for what Millennium Actress is really about. It’s about how a moment so innocent and innocuous can take on a cosmic significance. How a moment of kindness, a conversation under the stars, or a gift that unlocks long-lost memories, can become impassable mountains in the path of the narrative of one’s life. My favorite scene in the film involves Chiyoko discovering a memento left behind for her years before. In a typical film, with a linear narrative, it would be a sweet, sentimental moment. In this film, it’s a moment of equally towering joy and sadness.
With remarkable empathy, Millennium Actress explores how deeply we really are tied to our memories. Memories shape us. We can spend lifetimes dissecting a moment from our past, trying to explore it from every angle. It’s a frenetic tale, yes, but then so is life. Millennium Actress is attuned to life in its full spectrum.