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.
Kind of hard to rate this. As entertainment, its pretty good, not on par with Tokyo Godfathers, but as an artform: Well, I dont think it gets any better than this. The writing, directing, animation are all screaming proofs that anime is not just about money, but art. The sheer amount of simbolism in this anime is enough to fill 10 literature textbooks. Its hard to rate any of it because if I rate it as a critic, I wont find anything wrong with it. If I rate it for only entertainment, the score will be unfair.
Negatives: Sometimes they kind of switch fast between the times and locations. I liked the beginning of the movie more when it was somewhat more coherent, before everything converged. It did feel a bit overdid. Still, its not a big complaint. I also have to mention the music, which is good, but still, I feel it wasnt on par with everything else.
Positives: Hm...Everything else?! Pretty much. Its an artistic spectacle, a masterpiece. The drama, the humor, everything feels so lifelike(altough a bit idealized) and the way they portayed the whole story is something most Hollywood movies only dream of.
This is not for kids. I dont think you can enjoy the artistic value as a kid. But as an adult, I have to say, this movie stays with you. I doesnt dissipate slowly over a few days, even when you forget scenes, the atmosphere, the emotions it whirls up in you, stay with you. Any movie-, anime- or TV-show-fan needs to include this in his/her repertoire.
What I Liked: The plot and the execution of the idea of "memories vs. make-believe". The characters were engaging, realisitic and easy to empathise with. The stylistic changes between movies (and historical eras).
What I Didn't: Nothing; I liked all of it. I couldn't find a single fault with it.
Final Verdict: A beautiful heartwarming piece exploring the fine line between memories and make-believe from one of Japan's best directors.
Satoshi Kon’s “Millennium Actress” is probably one of the most underrated of all his works I’ve ever watched. It’s a simple story to deal with it but Satoshi Kon is indeed a director whose full of a twist of surprises in each of his works. You can call it such as “Perfect Blue,” “Paprika,” and “Tokyo Godfathers.” These films are one of the timeless classic masterpieces from a genius which would never be forgotten. Besides I have reviewed those films, “Millennium Actress” came as my fourth view. It has a simple yet wonderfully crafted story about recounting a past. Something so simple – for some reason, he can unite it with a magic touch of his own trademark. As usual, he really loves combining reality and dream into one unique story which can’t even be distinguished between the reality and dream. Just like “Paprika” or even “Perfect Blue,” “Millennium Actress” is about an old woman who retells her past while she was young so why her journey could change her shape of life.
It’s opened with a space scene where we cannot tell which one is real, the first scene was executed gently. As the rocket flying, suddenly an earthquake happens which sync with the transition of the main characters are watching it and the real event. It’s a story about two filmmakers trying to interview a famous actress who has retired for several years. They tried to make a documentation to commemorate an anniversary from a studio. Suddenly, the scene goes into Chiyoko Fujiwara’s past, the adventure of her life when she meets someone who makes her feel inspired, full of obstacles how she became an actress until her name goes up, and her final journey to find someone who is the key owner. The audience will be confused with the transition and frequency techniques of how Satoshi Kon combines reality and the past. We see how Chiyoko retells her past and meets the man where she doesn’t know who it is. It combines the two filmmakers that join in the past which are told but are structured in real terms so it’s a dream but it looks real as well as the opposite.
As the point of the storytelling style combines past and reality, “Millennium Actress” focus more on Chiyoko and her past and the man with no name itself – not that Dollars trilogy. The story makes Chiyoko decision about how her love with the man. Does she really love him? Actually, yes because it’s her love for men that made her move forward. While starring in the actress who starred in a variety of films with different genres, the real purpose isn’t only that but to find the man. Therefore, the key owner that the man hold is a MacGuffin for the major plot so that the character continues to move forward and forward. While Chiyoko recounts her past from the past, Genya and Kyoji take part in the story and from here, imagination is left free and the audience determines it. Whatever you think or try to interpret, the point of the movie is kind of like a documentary or filmmaking but not. Some of the moments when Genya became the supporting cast of the film that Chiyoko told sometimes caused the brain to try to interpret the event. It’s according to audience imagination itself and this is what I like about Satoshi Kon how he combines two different things but it’s hard to recognize are the important points of this film and other Kon works.
The art is great but it kinda reminds me a little with “Perfect Blue” even though this is a movie that aired in 2002, five years after the film. The details are actually not very impressive if we distinguish them from “Tokyo Godfathers” but what makes me like this film is the cut and the transition. There is a moment when Satoshi Kon combines all frames, quick cut, and fast transitions but it syncs with the scene and the movement of characters like Chiyoko first past that goes on and on. For example, in each scene, Chiyoko often runs anywhere and anytime to chasing a man who keeps her inspired. The cut between after scene and after scene is so fantastic and the movie does it effectively, illustrating all settings between the cut from this time into the next event. It’s hard to explain how Satoshi Kon did it even though I understood very well. But if you have watched this movie, you might understand what I’m saying. As usual, the moments in this film take a little inspiration from Stanley Kubrick as well as “Perfect Blue” because there are cinematography techniques used by Satoshi Kon in both films that really remind me of Stanley Kubrick like the scene when the there is a serious scene, turns out is a scene that isn’t actually real. The movement also quite reminds me to Akira Kurosawa.
The movie is executed and coupled so beautifully which it creates moments that fit in certain scenes. The cinematography is great and amazing for films at the time. Yet, there are some from Chiyoko’s past about the film that she starred which a bit remind me of the cultural vibe of Akira Kurosawa also. The movie has a simple concept like almost all Satoshi Kon films, he always accompanies it with a little twist and mindfuck for his audience. Apart from playing with the audience’s mind itself, the movie contains many questions after that. Is the man with no name real? Is Chiyoko not pursuing anything and it’s nothing to deal with? What about from Genya’s point of view when the last fact that is known to him alone? I don’t need to talk much about after this, in the end, everything is just up to the audience itself. Because of the key, it doesn’t explain anything either. What is the key for? What do they want to reveal? Is anyone waiting from the distance? Simple, the key is the answer to “open” everything based on each interpretation either using Genya or Chiyoko’s point of view, it depends on your wild imagination.
“Millennium Actress” is actually not one of the films that are taken for granted. Although this film does seem simple from its premise but more than that, it’s a movie that raises more questions as well as draws many diverse interpretations that need to be discussed deeply. Of all the works of Satoshi Kon, “Millennium Actress” in short is the most underrated yet perfect film. With the trademark that’s not lost from a Satoshi Kon, he loves to play with the audience mind. It’s like Christopher Nolan if directing an animated film. Bottom line, it’s not one of those movies that can be watched by everyone other than the use of plots is quite non-linear but easy to keep up to the use of two subjective things between reality and dreams, “Millennium Actress” is a piece of art.
A love beyond reason, distance and time.
Chiyoko falls in love with a man and in order to meet with him again she becomes an actress.
Years later, the studio she worked for is being torn down and a fomer employee has managed to chedule an interview with Chiyoko, but this no ordinary interview, during the interview real life events and movie roles of Chiyokos life start to blend together and it feels like even in her roles she was chasing after her first love.
Story is emotional, heartwarming and bittersweet.
Great animation, having several different time periods and having them all look and feel different.
Amazing sound design, immerses you in Chiyokos adventure, making you forget that they are making an documentary.
All characters are great, I only disliked the directors son for obvious reasons.