“I’m was so impressed by Millennium Actress. The outstanding part of it was the sensation that the characters were ‘acting’ – I really felt as if I was watching a genuine actress when I watched that movie.”
So enthused Ryuhei Kitamura, the director of films like Versus, The Midnight Meat Train and Azumi, when I interviewed him late last year for a book project that fizzled when the publishers’ economic hassles kind of interfered in things.
“I’m a live-action director and movie fan,” Kitamura went on, “not an animation admirer, so I always love the anime that makes me feel like I’m not watching anime at all.”
Things often change dramatically in twelve months, but one thing that hasn’t is my own humble opinion that Millennium Actress (千年女優 Sennen Joyu in Japanese) is one of the greatest Japanese stories ever told. It doesn’t matter that it’s animated, although stylistically speaking the animation does allow the director to get away with a series of superb visual tricks that would blow your typical CG budget out of the water.
That director, Satoshi Kon, was just 46 years of age when he passed away in August this year; he was in his mid 30s when he created this masterpiece.
Put into context, Hayao Miyazaki was a year or so older than Kon when he shot his first feature (The Castle of Cagliostro) and 60 years old when he made Spirited Away – coincidentally released the same year as Millennium Actress (2001).
I’m not about to here debate the worth of Spirited Away, a movie I’ve seen countless times and treasure highly. As anybody who bothers to actually trawl through this blog may’ve noticed, I’m a big fan of Miyazaki’s body of work.
But I’m going to go out on a limb here and declare something I’ve felt ever since I first watched Kon’s Millennium Actress for the first time several years ago: It’s possibly the best animated movie ever made, regardless of nationality.
This presumption comes not just because the anime itself is so worthy, but for the depth of ingenuity at play in it’s conception, in the script, and in the wonderful soundtrack by electro-pop musician Susumu Hirasawa, which also rates in the top three anime soundtracks to date – alongside Joe Hisaishi’s score for Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Kenji Kawai’s for Ghost in the Shell.
Millennium Actress is a play within a play that just so happens to be in animated form. The characters themselves are akin to those created by Akira Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu, the theme is grandiose, there’s suspense mixed in with unrequited love – as well as samurai, earthquakes, World War 2, and even a sci-fi flourish included for good measure.
As heart wrenching as it is invigorating, it goes still further to combine drama with tragedy, comedy with historical fancy, moments of action and violence with a piquant sense of whimsy.
Topping all this off is one of the strongest, more realistic and empathetic animated female characters in central protagonist Chiyoko Fujiwara, the actress of the title.
Kon’s directorial debut, Perfect Blue is a psychological thriller that owes perhaps as much to Italian horror meister Dario Argento (Deep Red) as it does to Alfred Hitchcock – and set the trend for the director’s own predilection for split personality characters and a blurring of the lines of reality/fantasy.
Kon had already cut his teeth as a supervisor on Mamoru Oshii’s excellent mecha anime feature Patlabor 2 (1993), then filled the roles of scriptwriter, layout artist and art director for Koji Morimoto on ‘Magnetic Rose’, the best part of the trilogy present in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories (1995).
He won awards from the Japan Media Arts Festival and the Fantasia Film Festival in Montréal, and the Chicago Tribune newspaper called Millennium Actress “a piece of cinematic art”.
That movie in fact tied with Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away for the Grand Prize in the Japan Agency of Cultural Affairs Media Arts Festival.
“Originally the idea of Millennium Actress was that the main character – the actress – is running through her ‘subjective time’, trying to play catch up with the other key character in the story. It’s reality as well as a play within a play, and for that action we wanted to describe an eventful life story over a long period,” Kon told me in an interview we also did late last year, in October.
“The first idea was the this simple sentence: ‘Once an old actress was telling her life story, but her memory was mixed up, various roles she acted in before started to filter into the tale, and it becomes a dramatic story.’ After that, the idea that the interviewer gets into the recollections of the actress, and if the interviewer appears as a character in those recollections, literally ‘gets into the recollection’, then this would be interesting.
“Then, while padding the plot and thinking deeper about the script, the intention to add in the Japanese film history aspect,” said Kon, a huge Kurosawa fan himself, “and to integrate her development into the changes in Japan over the ensuing period – which I wasn’t consciously thinking about in the beginning. Because of this depth, Millennium Actress became a movie you can interpret in multiple layers.”
The story, on the surface, is deceptively simple.
A film crew set out to make a documentary on reclusive, elderly actress Fujiwara – but what follows is a blurring of reality, a tectonic, unpredictable shift in time-lines, and a haphazard association with the plot lines in the old movies that made Fujiwara famous.
Add to this the actress’ long-time unrequited love, a secret crush felt by the documentary crew’s director, the devastation of Japan in World War 2, samurai battles, vindictive secret police, and rocket ship exploration – all of it somehow tied together beautifully by Kon – and you have yourself an anime treasure trove.
The influences themselves are rich enough to dwell upon: from Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), which rewrote Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a samurai context, to the real-life actress Setsuko Hara – famous from the 1940s to the ‘60s in movies by Kurosawa (The Idiot, 1951) and Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story, 1953), who suddenly withdrew from public life in 1963, the same year that Ozu died – and has only been viewed once or twice in the ensuing 45 years by the prying Japanese media.
Pulling it all together is Kon’s visual palette, as breath-taking as his bold philosophical brush-strokes, which together create a gripping ride that’s been known to tug the hardest of heart-strings.
“I’ve never cried watching animation before,” manga artist Aiko M. told me recently. “Everything about this movie touched my soul.”
On top of this emotional provocation, Kon’s penchant for a blurring of imagination and reality – in this case of documentary and cinema – is at its absolute best here.
“I was thinking of a story which had the structure of ‘trick’ paintings; I wanted to make a movie that’s like one of those paintings,” Kon revealed in that chat last year.
This is a man who’s arguably had a significant impact on two of the contemporary Western trendsetters of cinema – Christopher Nolan (Inception) and Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) – and Millennium Actress is without doubt the director’s foremost lifetime achievement, a classic piece of cinema unto itself that deserves all the recognition, respect and love it can get.
In fact I can’t think of any better present to buy someone for Christmas, regardless of your religious persuasion or lack of one.
Any excuse to give this to someone you care about is a good one so far as I’m concerned, and the yuletide season gives me a good opportunity to get up on my soapbox and lecture a bit even if no one reads the cheat notes.
I got my copy of the Millennium Actress DVD from the fine people at Madman in Australia, who’re wise enough to support this kind of magic – check out their version online here.
It’s not often I play the capitalist tyrant demanding you spend your hard-earned dosh on something, but this movie wins one over in unexpected ways and it’s just plain brilliant.
In the meantime, here’s the trailer – which doesn’t really do the movie justice at all.