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“You will burn forever in the flames of eternal love.” —The wraith’s curse, Millennium Actress
It’s a cliché to say that animation can take us places that would be unthinkable in live-action movies. And with the advent of CGI, the medium has become so elastic that the cliché isn’t even precisely true anymore; something like the recent Crank: High Voltage plays more with cartoon physics than Fox’s entire Sunday animation block. So by all means, Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress could have been a live-action movie: It just would have cost about $300 million to make. Within the space of a single sequence, Kon’s movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie zips through a millennia of Japanese history, from feudal and medieval periods to the invasion of Manchuria in the early-‘30s to WWII bombing runs and post-war reconstruction to modern times—and finally, to outer freakin’ space. It’s an uncommonly ambitious and accomplished anime film, a love story that also doubles as historical diorama, meta-fiction, and a sweeping homage to the movies themselves.
Back when Kon’s debut feature Perfect Blue came out in 1999, I penned what in retrospect may be the most wrong-headed and least informed review I’ve written for this publication. I made the mistake of framing Kon’s slippery, adult-oriented mix of fantasy and reality in the context of what few anime films I’d seen—basically Akira, Ghost In The Shell, and tentacle-porn like Urotsukidoji: Legend Of The Overfiend, among a handful of others. I haven’t become anything like an expert in anime in the years since, but I know enough to recognize that Kon is his own man with his own sensibility, someone who likes to use animation to noodle with an audience’s perception of what is and isn’t real. Watching Perfect Blue again, I still contend that it’s lurid and something of a muddle, especially towards the end, when Kon’s taste for willful ambiguity finally breaks down into out-and-out confusion. But through the story of a bubblegum pop star’s naïve attempt to become a serious actress—all while dodging a stalker—Kon gives himself the freedom to riff on the darker side of celebrity, and how it can sever contact with the outside world and consequently from reality itself.
Released in 2001, Millennium Actress explores some of these same themes with more of a sentimental, family-friendly bent, but also with considerably greater sophistication and clarity, and a trickier fusion of truth and fiction. Once again, Kon follows the adventures of a young actress who loses her bearings in the industry, but he discards the violent, naughty schoolgirl edge of Perfect Blue in favor of an ethereal romance that stretches through the centuries—or at least the centuries as depicted in Japanese studio cinema. Also in dramatic contrast to Perfect Blue, the film has a broad sentimental streak, following a woman’s long, hopeless pursuit of a love that keeps receding from her grasp. The one thing keeping the hankies at bay is Kon’s compulsion to yank the rug out from under the audience; just when you’ve invested yourself completely in the melodrama, he pulls back to reveal the lights, camera, and soundstage, and makes you question the authenticity of the emotions his film (and other films) evokes.
Millennium Actress opens in outer space, as a shuttle is preparing for the liftoff, but as the rocket boosters begin to rumble, Kon cuts back to the scene being viewed in an editing suite as it’s shaken by an earthquake. So right away, out goes the rug on the space opera that might have been, but the connection between the rumbling of the shuttle and the earthquake in the editing room suggests that one world isn’t entirely shut off from the other. It turns out that the footage is from a movie starring Chiyoko Fujiwara, one of the biggest stars in the history of Ginei Studios. After 70 years in business, the Ginei lot is getting leveled by bulldozers and Chiyoko has long since retreated into seclusion and semi-obscurity, residing in an estate far from the beaten path.
Chiyoko seems content with her retirement, but documentary filmmaker Genya Tachibana and his goofball cameraman/assistant Kyoji are determined to film her story for the record. From an interview at Chiyoko’s estate, Millennium Actress flashes back through her life and career without drawing any firm lines between the two. To add to the confusion, Genya and Kyoji not only make frequent appearances in these flashbacks with camera in tow, but Genya occasionally intervenes to save Chiyoko from dangers that range from flaming arrows to a Godzilla-like stampeding monster. It’s clear from the start that Genya’s feelings for Chiyoko are a lot more personal than the usual relationship between a documentarian and his subject, and that his fantasies are being projected alongside hers. But Chiyoko’s heart belongs to a mysterious stranger she encountered briefly but would never forget. While shooting a propaganda film about the war in Manchuria early in her career, Chiyoko crossed paths with a dissident painter on the run from police. She helps him escape from the authorities and they meet again later, when leaves her with a key “to the most important thing there is.”
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At the point where she meets the stranger, Chiyoko is still within the throes of adolescence, so it seems plausible that she would nurture these fleeting minutes with him into an eternal flame that consumes the rest of her life. When she meets with a fortunetelling wraith later on—a nod to Akira Kurosawa’s Throne Of Blood, his freeform adaptation of Shakespeare’s MacBeth—her infatuation becomes a curse that neither she nor her many suitors can shake. Kon suggests that her career does nothing to discourage her runaway fantasies: As part of Ginei’s stable of actresses, she becomes so immersed in whatever role she’s playing that it can be hard to tell where Chiyoko the performer ends and where Chiyoko the person begins. Over the course of her career, Chiyoko is seen playing a princess, a geisha, a ninja, a teacher, and an astronaut, just for starters, and Kon’s transitions between scenes are so fluid that entire worlds, separated by centuries, flow right into one another.
The extraordinary scope of Chiyoko’s career gives Kon and his animators the opportunity to recreate scenes out of Japanese studio filmmaking, from commissioned propaganda and war films to frilly aristocratic romances to grand historical epics like Ran and zipper-suit creature features like Godzilla. The hand-drawn style is expressive and at times impossibly lush, with colors that are both marquee-ready and animated by the intense emotions at play. In the film’s signature sequence, the stranger appears as an outlaw samurai in a movie set in feudal Japan and we follow Chiyoko as she careens down a path that leads into another filmic world—and then another and then another. Maybe this couldn’t have been a live-action movie, after all:
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Sequences like that are scattered throughout Millennium Actress, which so thoroughly occupies the fantasyland of Chiyoko’s career and romantic passion that Kon needs to show us the cameras and lighting equipment to snap us back to reality. Chiyoko’s quest to find the stranger and turn the “key to the most important thing there is” strikes an emotional chord similar to Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, which has its hero literally dashing through the recesses of his mind to hold onto memories that are receding from him. They’re bittersweet for different reasons—Eternal Sunshine concerns memories of a relationship that has fallen apart; Millennium Actress is about a passion that’s never realized—but they both attest to how imagination and fantasy can fuel and sustain a romance even when it doesn’t exist anymore (or has never existed). Neither film can be parsed out on a single viewing—the heart is mysterious organ, after all—but Kon creates a kind of seductive confusion. At its best, Millennium Actress brings you back to a puzzle that may not be possible to solve.
Next week: Careful
May 14: The Big Lebowski
May 21: Brick
May 28: Team America: World Police