Millennium Actress
Chiyoko's time-trippin' in Millennium Actress
Amy Harlib · September 11, 2003 | A highlight presentation at the 2003 Big Apple Anime Festival was the preview of up-and-coming director Satoshi Kon's sophomore effort (after 1997's well-received Perfect Blue), Millennium Actress, which will be the first anime feature to be distributed in North America by Dreamworks. Perfect Blue was darkly disturbing, a tormented psychological drama about an actress's struggle for success in present-day Tokyo told in Kon's distinct, non-linear style. Millennium Actress, despite its similar non-traditional structure and a plot concerning a female film performer, offers much lighter yet still emotionally charged, deeply romantic and even poetic fare.

Millennium Actress begins straightforwardly enough with Genya Tachibana (Shozo Iizuka), director/president of a small media production company, being contacted by the well-known Gin Ei studios in order to direct a documentary interview intended to commemorate their 70 years of production. Genya's project focuses on Gen Ei's legendary superstar actress Chiyoko Fujiwara (Miyoko Shoji, Mimi Koyama and Fumiko Orikasa at different ages) who inexplicably ended her career at its height 30 years previously and retired from public life.

Genya, fondly obsessed with the reclusive star, eagerly seeks to discover the reasons for Chiyoko's abandonment of the limelight. With only his cameraman/assistant Kyoji Ida (Musaya Onosaka) to help him, Genya finds the elderly Chiyoko living alone, except for her housekeeper, in an elegant, traditional-style home. In the encounter that follows, Genya finds that Chiyoko, despite the passing years, still retains her vigor and charisma and a certain reticence that opens up to disarming candor when she receives his gift. This present consists of an old ordinary-looking key of immense sentimental value, which the actress long ago thought irretrievably lost but which Genya recently, accidentally found. Re-possession of this item literally and metaphorically unlocks Chiyoko's flood of memories that she recounts to the pair of protagonist filmmakers.

Here the narrative structure becomes intriguingly fuzzy. The story doesn't get told in simple flashbacks to Chiyoko's film career spanning the 1930s to the 1960s; rather, the boundaries between memory, imagination and ordinary reality become blurred so that scenes from Chiyoko's movies mingle with the present day documentary/interview process and Genya and his cameraman somehow become able to interact with these flashbacks. At first, the two men just appear to be hidden observers, unseen by anyone else around them but gradually, they get more and more involved in the events of the actress's recollections, though Genya plunges in a bit more enthusiastically than his cameraman.

Millennium Actress
Go Fish Pictures, 2003
Originally released in 2001
Directed by Satoshi Kon
87 minutes

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Genya's and Kyoji's reactions seem almost like a Greek chorus and their commentaries frequently add refreshing wit to the proceedings. These scenes, mingling past and present, fascinatingly portray significant moments and set pieces from Chiyoko's film career, these being various glimpses into productions referencing a range of genres of Japanese cinema set in archaic feudal times (possibly the Heike Period, 1000 years ago); the Edo era (17th–19th centuries); the Meiji Restoration, a time of revolution and industrialization; the imperialism of the Taisho years and the Second World War; the American military occupation; the postwar economic boom; contemporary times; and even the future via a science fiction picture. Chiyoko's reminiscences transform into a great adventure where her history and cinema intertwine, while an incredible romantic quest for the mysterious lost love who gave her the key winds its way through all the scenarios.

The three protagonists become vivid, compelling characters while Millennium Actress's panorama unfolds through dazzling visuals so skillfully composed they overcome noticeable budgetary constraints. Susumu Hirasawa's excellent, dynamic score complements the film's wide-ranging emotional kaleidoscope. This hugely entertaining and mesmerizingly moving film also offers thoughtful subtexts dealing with ageism; sexism; the search for meaningful relationships; and the need for artistic fulfillment and personal integrity, giving Millennium Actress depth and substance rare in anime (but comparable to Hayao Miyazaki's exceptional, masterful oeuvre) and rare in most films in general, for that matter. Millennium Actress, destined to be a classic for its richness, imaginative storytelling and appealing imagery, is a product of astonishing talent and cinematic skill—and deserves to stand the test of time, with Satoshi Kon worthy of the accolade Millennium Director.
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