Satoshi Kon’s MILLENNIUM ACTRESS
Movie review by Dennis D. McDonald
One of the most mature, evocative, creative, and melodramatic movies I’ve seen all year is an animated film, directed by the same director (Satoshi Kon) as the realistic yet disappointing (to me) potboiler Perfect Blue and of the excellent Tokyo Godfathers.
Millennium Actress is a concentrated history of 20th Century Japanese Cinema, told in the form of flashbacks and fantasy sequences. These are related to an interview by a devoted documentary film maker of his beloved and reclusive actress hero, Chiyoko Fujiwara, who is now elderly and retired.
Starting with her youth in the 1920’s and her discovery by a producer creating a jingoistic patriotic film, the interview and the movie follow her career as she seeks a secret lover who, pursued by the authorities, leaves her with a key she treasures and wants to return. And then, 30 years ago, she disappeared into obscurity.
Her story touches on her lost love, her career, and her rivalries. These are shown in flashbacks that combine historic events with popular Japanese filmmaking of the day. We see Manchurian bandits attacking her train, fiery arrow attacks on medieval fortresses, demonic black magic (and floating demons), jealousy, outer space movies, earthquakes, swordplay — even Godzilla makes a momentary entrance. Through the story her interviewers - and his cameraman - pop up first as spectators then as participants in her stories.
If I had to summarize the film in two words, they would be, “supremely cinematic.” Whereas Perfect Blue (I thought) used animation to no good purpose, here the time compression, drama, emotion, subtlety, and imaginative imagery take advantage of all the 2-D animator’s bag of tricks.
Story wise, one film I would compare this to is Wings of Honneamise. Both create fantasy worlds that adhere to their own logic and as a result can be viewed as real; we see a similar effect in Peter Jackson’s decision to treat the creatures and evil of Middle Earth as real. Where Wings of Honneamise uses an alternate world’s marginally different social and political structures as a background to a sporadically funded space program, Millennium Actress uses real elements — Japanese social history and film - then displays them through a lens of fantasy, realistic drama, and emotion.
Somehow, the lovely animation - in many cased subdued and painterly, seems to lend a sense of realism. I’m not sure this could have been done as well with live action.
The “Making Of” documentary on the DVD is quite good. Even though it does copy some of the traveling motifs employed in the film, the interviews with director, writer, artists, and voice actors are engaging and informative. I found most interesting the interviews with the three actors who voice the main character in youth, maturity, and old age. Their personalities sparkle in their interviews and lend depth to one’s appreciation of the film.
My only complaint about the DVD is that it does not contain an English language sound track. That does not make any difference to me — I always prefer the original language — but there are, unfortunately, some people who will be turned off by the need to read English sub titles. Their loss, sad to say.
Review copyright (c) 2007 by Dennis D. McDonald