Millennium Actress is, first and foremost, an art film. However, for those who shy away from art film as a category, don't stop reading quite yet, because I'm going to attempt to show you why you'll still love this movie. Millennium Actress is art in all the very best possible ways. Indeed, I see it as a neo-Romantic masterpiece that is aware of and informed by all of the self-consciousness of modern and post-modern thought, yet deliberately chooses to reject nihilism and instead hark back to the nineteenth century's purpose for art: The pursuit of beauty.
For the Romantic poets, composers, and others, the pursuit of beauty could mean a simple appreciation of the picturesque, of small pleasures and a gratitude for life and the world around us. For others with a bit more ambition, art had an even higher goal: The pursuit of the sublime. One of the chief proponents of this endeavor was the poet Wordsworth, who felt art could -- and should -- create a response in the reader, viewer or listener that was akin to a transcendental experience, a resonation within the self that connected with nature (including human nature) and the deepest truths -- a powerful and indescribable feeling of awe.
On the other hand, the post-Romantics rejected the very idea of fundamental truth, made all experience subjective -- including the very concept of beauty itself -- and made the pursuit of pleasure (also a subjective experience), sometimes merely in the form of facile diversion, central to life and to art.
Satoshi Kon has taken the storytelling palette of the Moderns -- leaving behind the necessity for linearity, blurring the lines between what is "real" and what is fantasy -- and combined it with the sensibilities of the Romantics to create something that does indeed achieve the sublime. This is an epic tale of love and loss, of fate and hope -- and, ultimately, of the human spirit.
Ostensibly, Millennium Actress is a fictional biography in which a pair of documentary filmmakers track down and interview the greatest actress of a bygone era, Chiyoko Fujiwara -- who has lived in seclusion for decades. It is also a tribute to the history of Japanese cinema.
The premise seems simple, but that is all that is simple about this movie.
Millennium Actress is like a coherent Citizen Kane, with the story swirling between reality and the movies the actress starred in, and where the mystery of "Rosebud" lies in an old key. The storytelling is nothing short of virtuosic as the filmmakers and the actress seamlessly slip between the present, the past, and the worlds within Chiyoko's films. All of these elements in turn serve to explore the very heart of the story -- a chance encounter between Chiyoko as a girl and a mysterious artist.
On repeated viewings it becomes very clear that every scene, every bit of dialogue in both the "real" world and within her movies serves the purpose of this exploration, as Chiyoko spends her lifetime on a journey to encounter the artist once again.
One of the most compelling themes in drama is unrequited love, and this film breathes very real life into that oft-explored arena.
The frame rate is acceptable, but noticeably choppy if you focus on it. The truth is, I actually didn't notice the frame rate at all when I first saw Millennium Actress, but what with all the computer-enhanced animation coming out of Japan the last few years, during my most recent viewing (just before I wrote this review) it definitely stood out at first. However, as the story progressed -- more for the fact that this is such an engrossing story than for technical reasons -- the choppiness seemed to disappear. This is a film that was obviously produced at the end of the true cell era. However, you can't have much of a history of watching anime if some choppiness is going to bother you.
The art is perfect, however. The character designs, while not entirely lifelike, don't seem to be caricatures while at the same time conveying a solid sense of each character's personality and purpose in the story. The color palette (from vibrant color through the spectrum to almost black & white) is skillfully used to both convey emotional subtext, as well as to cue the viewer into the world in which a given scene is taking place.
The filmmaking itself is superlative -- shot selection, editing, etc. It's been a long time since I've seen so many carefully composed and designed shots -- they serve not merely to move the story along, but many are so skillfully executed they are art in and of themselves.
This is one a of the very few areas of disappointment for me in Millennium Actress. The music is serviceable but doesn't really enhance the story in any way. At least it's not distracting. Remember Ladyhawke? The decision to use Alan Parsons Project instead of a fully orchestrated soundtrack actually hurt that film. That doesn't happen here.
In a feature film (and a short feature at that) it can be difficult to make characters come alive and feel real. It is the hallmark of a great director to use shorthand to make characters breathe, and Satoshi Kon is that sort of director. From the leads right down to the bit players they feel real -- even when they're stereotypes, such as the director who likes to get actresses onto the casting couch.
Chiyoko is intriguing and likable, strong -- who but someone strong can spend a lifetime in the single-minded pursuit of a dream? -- yet fundamentally vulnerable. We want her to be protected and happy, but for the most part she must stand on her own. We both pity and admire her, which is a masterstroke by the filmmakers.
For me, though this is the story of Chiyoko's life, it is the character of the documentary filmmaker Genya Tachibana who is the most interesting and dynamic. The most significant subplot in Millennium Actress is Genya's relationship with Chiyoko, his devotion to her, which is charmingly exploited at times within the context of her films.
It would be easy to make comparisons between this film and Forrest Gump or Woody Allen's Zelig -- it would be easy, but inaccurate. Millennium Actress takes both the filmmaking and the storytelling to a level those films never manage to achieve. They are entertaining, but Millennium Actress takes us on a journey that makes us look both outward and inward and thereby understand human nature just a little more deeply. And through that understanding we find just the sort of beauty the Romantics were seeking, and have just a taste of ineffable awe.
I do have a final nitpick: I hated the very last line Chiyoko speaks in the film. It was almost like the filmmakers were worried the film wouldn't speak for itself, and so they had to put up a "director's message" sign and spoon feed the viewer at the last moment. An unfortunate misstep in an otherwise brilliant example of character exploration and storytelling.
Millennium Actress is that rare work that says something profound while at the same time being profoundly entertaining and skillfully executed. If you enjoy rich, complex storytelling, skillful filmmaking, if you like films where you come to care deeply about the characters, and you're looking for something that resonates with fundamental truth about the human condition, Millennium Actress is a transcendent experience.
In spite of slight issues like frame rates and music selection, this film is a masterpiece of the sublime.
What starts as a simple interview of a legendary actress becomes a journey through the history of Japan. But this is no ordinary lesson; from the perspective of this actress, we learn of the beauty and sadness of love, the pain and regret and joy of the Japanese people and their film, through this film: Millennium Actress.