Canon Entry - Millennium Actress (2001)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
When it comes to Japanese anime, it tends to be seen as a medium purely for the fantastical. From giant robots to super-powered aliens, anime has been home to some of the most creative storytelling and art that have ever been seen in the genre. While anime is considered just as niche and “weird” in its home country of Japan as it is in other countries, at its best it can open your eyes to new ways of seeing conventional stories and figures.
So it’s a little strange that Millennium Actress, which is essentially a biopic, was the subject of an anime. Biopics are perhaps my most hated genre of movie. Even though they can possess excellent performances, they are slaves to the facts, even when they diverge from them. In fact, a common criticism for biopics is that they tend to play fast and loose with the facts, but if I wanted to watch a factual representation of someone’s life then I would watch a really boring, thorough documentary for that purpose.
When biopics work, it is when they strive to be more, so much more. Based on the lives of actresses Setsuko Hara (a big star who was very private) and Hideko Takamine (a child actress who successfully transitioned into an illustrious adult career), Millennium Actress follows a documentary crew as they interview Chiyoko Fujiwara, a famous actress who had unexpectedly retired several decades before. This is more of a passion project as the crew is made up of only Genya Tachibana and his cameraman Kyoji. Tachibana is such a devoted fan of Fujiwara that he has seen all of her movies multiple times and can easily reenact famous scenes from her films.
As the interview unfolds, the Tachibana and Kyoji find themselves (seemingly) literally immersed in the narrative, leading to some of the most stunning visual imagery and inventiveness of the whole film. Fujiwara’s career is so rich and varied that following her career is like witnessing a history of Japanese cinema itself. She has starred in everything from Kabuki-inspired dramas to science fiction epics. Apparently she was one of those stars who was so bankable that people would come to see her no matter what genre of movie she was in.
The through line that connects all these films is her quest. We find out early in the film that she falls hard for a young revolutionary who is escaping the police and whom she helps hide. She even goes so far as to take her first acting gig, not because she wants to become a star but because the movie will be filming in Manchuria, where he was last reported to be. Or is it? In one of the countless bait and switches in the movie, a pivotal scene in which her train to see her beloved revolutionary is attacked turns out to be a scene from one of her films.
Satoshi Kon is a brilliant visual artist, with a style so kinetic that it is hard to see just how masterful he is because he packs so much into one frame so quickly. Consider an amazing chase in which Fujiwara literally races across her movies after her beloved, sometimes riding a horse, sometimes a bicycle, even a spaceship. Kon has been so influential that Aronofsky actually bought the rights to Perfect Blue, one of Kon’s earlier films, so that he could copy certain scenes into both his Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. Paprika, a Kon movie that takes place largely in the world of dreams, pre-dated Christopher Nolan’s Inception by about three years and was far more inventive and interesting than Nolan’s weirdly logical world. I would argue that Kon still did it better in his original films, but suffice it to say that good filmmakers know what’s up with Kon.
Kon is also one of the few male filmmakers conscious of the male gaze and thinks it is interesting enough to explore as a subject on film. In Perfect Blue, the male gaze was explored to its most harmful effects on the psyche of the main character. In Millennium Actress, the male gaze mostly belongs to Tachibana who is the ultimate fanboy. Kon’s sly trick is that his admiration of Fujiwara is a more comic reflection of Fujiwara’s own obsession with her young revolutionary. Both idealize their loved ones beyond logic, and both embark on long, convoluted quests.that become essential to their identities.
Despite the seeming foolishness of their quests, Kon’s sympathy is ultimately with the romantics. A jealous older actress informs Fujiwara that she envied her love for this unknown revolutionary because it has kept her young. Kyoji is taken aback and scoffs at Tachibana’s sincere love for Fujiwara’s films although he softens at the end. They are right to be skeptical. Neither Fujiwara nor Tachibana are in love with the actual people that they pursue, and even they know that they are pursuing phantoms, beautiful ones, but phantoms nevertheless.
Their love parallels cinephilia. Cinema presents itself as a real, functioning world, even though it is fake and constructed, and we choose to buy into that illusion and even appreciate it sometimes for its artifice. Kon is no less of a filmmaker because he chooses to work with anime, even though ignorant people would think animation is somehow a lower form of art. In fact, Kon uses his chosen medium to bring life and vitality to a tired old genre and to make some sharp yet empathetic comments about prevalent cultural norms and attitudes.
There is yet another excellent video from Every Frame a Painting about Satoshi Kon and his style. It is definitely worth a watch.