Millennium Actress (2001)

Satoshi Kon | 1hr 27min

While Hayao Miyazaki was leading the animation industry in the 1980s with his pantheistic, surrealist films Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and My Neighbour Totoro, Satoshi Kon was watching and learning, formulating his own style of surrealism that would soon place him among the great auteurs of animation. His visionary style of dreamlike absurdity is on brilliant display in Millennium Actress, though in his journey towards developing his own voice separate from Miyazaki’s, we witness him here picking at more existential questions regarding reality, fiction, and human purpose.

The documentary interview conceit of the film is simply a springboard for a magnificently collaged narrative that runs across several genres of Japanese cinema, as its subject, the elderly actress Chiyoko Fujiwara, recounts the story of her life. Or is it the story of the characters she has played? Such distinctions aren’t so easy to draw here, as these threads of truth and fiction interweave in a tapestry of history, touching on real events such as the Sino-Japanese war, and then forcing us to question the authenticity of this account as we follow her pursuit of an enigmatic artist through samurai stories, monster movies, period pieces, and science-fiction settings. Meanwhile, our documentarians – the fanatical interviewer Genya Tachibana and the confounded cameraman Kyoji Ida – remain present in the background, and although their slightly saturated colouring stands out in otherwise washed out flashbacks, their interactions with other characters inside these realms only further tests our belief in her objectivity.

Long dissolves used to create gorgeous imagery, as well as to bridge gaps between past and present, fiction and reality.

It is this demolishment of barriers between disparate historical accounts which Kon so joyously relishes in his narrative structure, particularly as it smoothly flows through time in match cuts dissolving between graphically corresponding shots, and edits in the action disguising crafty shifts in environments. In one scene we watch Chiyoko trip over as a samurai, but then as Kon cuts to the ground where she falls she suddenly becomes a geisha, this subtle transition taking place without so much as a pause for us to catch up. She has clearly lived many lives, as each role she plays ingrains itself in her own identity and drive to pursue a singular goal – to find the artist who gave her a mysterious key all those years ago, and who inspired her to become an actress. Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain makes for a suitable comparison here in the deft weaving together of separate realities, especially as Millennium Actress approaches its finale and disintegrates Chiyoko’s reality around her in a skilfully orchestrated montage that sees her run through each setting she has vicariously lived in, obsessively searching across all time and space for the missing man.

Smooth, inspired match cuts between strikingly similar compositions.

And yet even as her memories and imagination expand across all human history, she still remains under the sway of a reality far beyond her control. The collapse of her internal worlds mirrors an earthquake taking place in real time, and just as she departs life having made peace with her lack of resolution in her quest, so too does she blast off in a rocket from a planet somewhere deep in space, confessing her gratefulness for the life she led.

“What I really loved was the pursuit of him.”

Even on her death bed, Chiyoko continues to live in her imagination.

Such is the nature of celebrity that hordes of fans will pursue a seemingly unattainable figure, but even within this idealised icon of fame, that yearning desire still exists. All throughout Millennium Actress there remains an endless craving for more love, more life, more answers, or at least something greater than oneself, and Kon never fails to match that ambition in his own audaciously experimental narrative structure, blending together eras, genres, and settings in a loving dedication to humanity’s never-ending striving for greatness, even as that goal remains beyond the reach of both reality and imagination.

Fading from this dark highway into a hospital corridor with another inspired match cut.
Kon proving he doesn’t need his editing to deliver some truly arresting compositions.

Millennium Actress is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

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