Millennium Actress is yet another reason why I consider the works of Satoshi Kon to be superior to those of Hayao Miyazaki. Like Kon’s other two masterpieces, Paprika and Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress is a simple story that is made fascinating by the way it is told.
This is a Japanese movie made for Japanese movie lovers. The premise is that the president of a small production company is hired to make a documentary commemorating the 70th anniversary of one of Japan’s largest movie studios, and he decides to make its focus Chiyoko Fujiwara [whose character is based loosely on the actress Setsuko Hara, who was the daughter-in-law in Ozu's Tokyo Story], the studio’s greatest leading woman.
In recounting her life’s story for the interview, memory and cinema blend together. You may recognize the common thread here with Kon’s other films; Paprika blurs reality with dreams, Perfect Blue mixes in fantasy. However, although Chiyoko’s memories and her filmography begin to melt together, the story revolves around her search for the man who gave her a secret key.
Despite the fact that the mystery man serves as Chiyoko’s motivation throughout the film, he can be treated like a sort of MacGuffin because the only three characters that really matter in the telling of the story are Chiyoko, Genya Tachibana [the production company president] and his young cameraman. Although ‘reality’ is set in the sitting room of Chiyoko’s secluded home, the two documentarians are caught up in the star’s stories and find themselves in her memories, traveling through time and space. They anchor the story in reality; they look entirely out of place in the rapidly-changing settings and are often as lost as you are. Nevertheless, they piece together Chiyoko’s story bit by bit, occasionally recognizing one of her famous films mixed in. Mostly, they just watch her and try to keep up.
Kon blends visual and cinematic styles brilliantly. When I said that this is a Japanese movie for Japanese movie lovers, I meant that there are influences from nearly every era and genre of Japanese film somewhere in it. Samurai, check. World War 2, check. Ninja, check. Medieval, check. Sci-fi, check. Monster, check. Although there are obvious nods to directors such as Ichiro Honda and Akira Kurosawa, Kon stated that he was trying to showcase the best of the genres without getting too specific. In the following sequence, which I think is similar to the opening credits of Paprika, Chiyoko and Genya advance through several genres of film. It goes from feudal [note the ukiyo-e style art] to early-modern to pre-war imperial Japan.
I want to stress that it’s scenes like this that draw me in more than any Studio Ghibli film ever has. Miyazaki’s films are beloved by millions because he weaves a fantastic tale and has an eye for beautiful animation. Kon, on the other hand, takes a relatively simple premise and makes it magnificent through the art of cinema. His uses of stylistic and visual techniques to bring this story about the making of a documentary make Millennium Actress more captivating to me than any of Miyazaki’s tales of dragons, spirits and magic. This really demonstrates the difference between the two directors — one of them a master storyteller and the other, the consummate animated filmmaker.
As I stated in my review of Paprika, I feel quite strongly [as a lukewarm fan of anime] that the works of Satoshi Kon are a great place to start for those unfamiliar with Japanese animation. Millennium Actress is every bit as touching as a Disney film, but stands out as being a great deal more sophisticated. It’s engaging enough for the casual viewer, but contains a number of visual cues and references that will please Japanese film veterans. Unfortunately, it might be hard to come by, as it isn’t currently available for DVD rental on Netflix. If you can find it online or elsewhere, I highly recommend checking it out.