Millennium Actress

mactress_coverRight when the countdown ends, the space shuttle engines start to burn, and the room shakes. It isn’t the engines doing the shaking, but the earth. The shuttle’s just on TV, but the moment is an earth-shaking one for documentary producer Genya, interviewing his favorite actress, Chioyko Fujiwara, who has been in seclusion for thirty years. In Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress, the intermingling of reality and representation (in this case, pure cinema) is at the heart of the narrative. The actress’ films become her life story, and propel the characters through the films, each one feeding into their lives, then back again. A similar relationship is explored in Kon’s first film, Perfect Blue. But there, the star’s public persona is a parasite, draining her life and identity. In the much gentler Millennium Actress, the relationship is symbiotic, life and art support systems and enablers of one another.

Chiyoko Fujiwara was discovered during WWII, starred in films for thirty years, and then disappeared from public life. As Genya and his bored cameraman delve deeper into her story, they find her personal narrative and the narrative of her films blending, and become participants in both.

Millennium Actress tells its story elliptically, never quite letting the audience know when they are in a scene from Chiyoko’s films, inhabiting one of her memories, or some mixture of the two. The story of her life is, thankfully, simple: As a child, she fell in love with a dissident who hid in her family’s house, and he left her a key to open…something. She found out when they got back together after the war, but all trace of the man was lost in Manchuria. Chiyoko goes to film there in the country, and her story is told again and again and again – seeking the man she loves, thwarted by the jealous actress she supplants as the studio’s main attraction, or the scar-faced cop who arrested the dissident, or even a weird woman straight out of Kurosawa’s Throne Of Blood.

Almost all of Millennium Actress is a loving homage to the breadth, and even the limitations of Japanese cinema. Chiyoko stars in sci-fi epics, samurai films, Ozu-like family dramas, and even a Godzilla-style kaiju-movie. Each one has a narrative thrust that follows her personal quest. At the same time, we learn the documentarian has his own past with Chiyoko, an infatuation that parallels her unattainable love.

Millennium Actress is equally about cinema, and its audience. The films we most respond to are those that parallel our emotions or needs. I have long held that the entire idea of a subversive cinema does not exist, or is a self-congratulatory description critics give to films they know people they don’t like will hate1. Movies we treasure are almost never the ones that “challenge” us, but ones that speak to us with familiarity, like they know our personal language. All of Chiyoko’s films were an attempt to communicate with one man, to tell him that she existed, that she wanted him. Genya heard the message; he felt it was for him. Millennium Actress is a love story of man for art, the sort of love man can never consummate, because reality and ideals are so distant from each other.

And though this is Satoshi Kon’s lightest film (Tokyo Godfathers excepted), it does have one dark note. The youngest character, Genya’s cameraman, is unaffected by Chiyoko’s story. He’s never rude, but he’s rarely interested, and his frame of reference is as limited as his interest: He knows when Genya is dressed for the wrong era as the two make their appearance in Chiyoko’s 19th century Geisha movie, but he thinks post-bombardment Tokyo is from a sci-fi set. Throughout the film, Genya is deeply involved. The cameraman is merely present, and bored. I feel this is Satoshi Kon’s view of the modern audience, demanding their ignorance and inability to feel or care be constantly rewarded. At every movie I’ve gone to in the last decade, the crowd has been filled with such people. I hope it’s a hiccup, and not the real future, or a film like Millennium Actress won’t be possible in thirty years; not because there’s no audience for it, but because there’d be no artist with the heart to make it, or believe it.

1In his interview entitled “literature is entertainment or it is nothing”, Thomas Ligotti discusses this idea with greater erudition and in greater depth than I am able. Read it.

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