2001’s Millennium Actress opens with shots of a determined female astronaut breaking free of Earth’s gravitational possession. Reminiscent of several popular science fiction films, she’s the resolute hero, determined on exploring the cosmos alone, on her own terms. Pulling back, director and writer Satoshi Kon soon reveals that it’s actually a scene from a film being watched by television documentarian Genya Tachibana. The blurring of reality and cinema continues when the shake of a rocket’s powerful lift-off is conflated with a powerful earthquake that jostles his cluttered studio.
The mélange of reality and mediated image continues when Tachibana and his cameraman, Kyoji Ida, are recording the final days of Ginei Studios. Once a prominent movie studio behind many of Japan’s beloved films, it’s being bulldozed. Kon reminds us that art and its legacy are often deserving of preservation. Watching the splendor of Millennium Actress almost two decades after its original release, it’s difficult to disagree with that sentiment. Much like 8½, Cinema Paradiso, or even Inglourious Basterds, witnessing a skilled director commemorate a medium they adore is often rousing.
The two-man crew set out to interview the studio’s most beloved star, Chiyoko Fujiwara, who played the young astronaut. While Tachibana has watched and is constructively enamored by Fujiwara’s films (unlike the frightening stalker in Kon’s Perfect Blue), there’s some apprehension, as the actress has been a bit of recluse for the past thirty years. But when the interview presents the star with a steel key she hasn’t seen in decades, memories rush out with the intensity of water cascading from a broken dam.
What follows in an inventory of period pieces with Fujiwara and a recurring female antagonist, while Tachibana’s knowledge permits him to have a series of stock roles. It’s here that Millennium Actress could have easily succumbed to the lure of motiveless referencing the work of others, with its obvious references to Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, Lady Snowblood, and even Godzilla/Gojira. But instead, the films inventory of a thousand years of culture and its representation feels celebratory. Animation is often referred to as embodying mukokuseki (literally ‘stateless’, indicating an aversion to cultural specificity). But here, Kon inverts that notion, encouraging viewers to get lost in the muddled intersection of distinctly Japanese history and art.
As such, the film supposes an understanding of Japanese history, as it moves from the Heian-era, though the Edo period, past the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, and through World War II. While it possible to deduce the passage of time through a color palette that grows increasingly saturated, many of the movies’ indulgent minutia might be lost without an understanding of context. Perhaps that’s why the film’s foreign box office performance failed to meet expectations. But given the popularity of Japanese media outside of the country, perhaps the output has increased awareness of the country’s intriguing past.
For those not familiar with the subject, there are still a multitude of virtues to be savored. The film also like to blur the line between Fujiwara’s acting and her own real-life motivations, further commenting on the threadlike separation between art and reality. Initially, her intentions might seem simplistic and to some off-putting for a such a strong female character. But the film’s final minutes answer this concern, with Fujiwara demonstrating a strong internal locus of control.
A viewing of Millennium Actress isn’t quite complete without a reading of Satoshi Kon’s final words. Knowing death was imminent and his last film Yume Miru Kikai (‘Dreaming Machine’) likely wouldn’t be completed, its not only remarkably poignant but a fitting companion piece. Like Fujiwara’s imagined output, Kon’s contributions are an imperative part of anime’s past and need to be memorialized.
Millennium Actress is playing on August 13th (subtitled) and
August 19th (dubbed). Tickets are available through Fathom Events.