Thursday, August 11, 2011

Millennium Actress (2001)

After adapting Perfect Blue from a novel, director Satoshi Kon decided to take on an original story. While it has similar themes to his first animated feature, Millennium Actress is a more ambitious film in many ways. So lets dive into the second full length feature by Kon and see where it takes us.

Genya Tachibana (Shozo Izuka) wants to create a documentary about his favorite actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara (Miyoko Shoji). The problem is no one has seen her in years. Some sleuthing reveals her hideaway and he is able to meet with her. Chiyoko is willing to talk about her life, especially when Genya gives her a mysterious key which she lost in the film studio many years earlier.

As she tells the story of her life and the Japanese film industry something extraordinary happens. Genya and his hapless assistant are pulled into the story – quite literally. At first the two men are genuinely confused, as they stand in the frigid snow of late ‘30s Japan. But soon Genya dives in, taking key roles in Chiyoko’s life story with relish. As her tale continues, the lines between her story, the reality around them blurs. The significance of the little key is made vital. For all those listening to the story, they realize this is the last performance of the Millennium Actress.

Good Points:
  • Creative visuals and editing
  • Chiyoko is a great character
  • The finale is especially poignant
Bad Points:
  • Budget limitations affect some of the animation
  • The humor is not going to work for everyone
  • The jumping storyline is going to annoy some viewers
Kon’s dynamic visual and storytelling sense is hard at work here. He keeps the story moving by melting the lines between the movies Chiyoko starred in and the story she is telling. And under all the nods to classic Japanese films and fun adventures there’s a lot of heart and humor. Competes for the top spot in Kon’s filmography.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Voice Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 5
Total: 5

In Depth Review
2001 brought us my personal favorite animated film from Japanese master, Hayao Miyazaki: Spirited Away. The movie not only grabbed all my attention that year, but also won an Academy Award for best animated film. It deserved it no doubt. Little did I know I was missing out on Kon’s sophomore effort in the full-length feature department. I ended up discovering this film on DVD a couple years later and what a find.

Millennium Actress is what cemented me as a fan of his work. All the stylistic elements and themes that he introduced in Perfect Blue are present here but expanded upon. In addition we get to see a new side to the director, his sense of humor and his heart. While Perfect Blue focused on bloody sexy thrills, Millennium Actress is all about nostalgia. It’s a story about the past, and the joy and sadness that entails.

Like Mima from Perfect Blue, Chiyoko is the center of the story – a woman who is used to having people watch her. But for Chiyoko, her life as an actress was a pleasure. Kon does an interesting thing here, having Chiyoko as her older self (in her 70s or so) tell the tale to Genya. As the story continues we see it in a flashback form. At least we assume it’s a flashback – until we see Genya and his assistant standing in the snow of Chiyoko’s village back in the 1930s. They are just as surprised to be there as we are surprised to see them. Much like Scrooge from A Christmas Carol they cannot be heard or seen. So they watch the memory unfold and comment on the action. These moments are pretty funny, and Kon’s animation team gives the two men some great expressions to match their dialogue.

But what is most interesting here is that Genya and his pal treat these memories as movies. The assistant is always filming the memories, as if they are going to be part of the documentary. But he is never completely pulled into what he sees. His cynical nature provides for some great one-liners, but also is a contrast to his boss.

Genya reacts as he does whenever he watches any of Chiyoko’s work. He is a devoted fan and is stunned to be watching these memories play out. He ends up cheering her on and even crying in sympathy when the young Chiyoko loses her first love and is only left with the small metal key.

The funny thing is you are watching two men watch a memory like a movie about an actress. How many levels is that?
But Kon goes a step further. Once Chiyoko starts working on films, the presentation twists again. Many times the films she works on mirror what is going on in her life. So we’ll be watching a memory with Genya. He’ll make a comment and then a voice yells “cut”, and the “memory” we just saw turns out to be a scene in her movie. And vice versa. But when these events are referenced later in the film, they turn out to be both films she worked on as well as an event that occurred in her life. This is very reminiscent of Perfect Blue where Mima was mixing reality with her work on Double Bind. But here the effect isn’t sinister, but ties to the theme of Chiyoko’s life being so connected to films that it becomes a movie.

This element is the main one that ends up confusing and frustrating viewers of the film. When I do see negative reviews of it, its mostly because the viewer loses patience with the constant altering of reality. For me its an amazing ride, an done done with animation, but using techniques that you see most often in film: editing, camera placement and acting. Kon and his crew had to plan each shot of this film with the utmost care and get the animation just right, so we could see from the characters visual cues, which scenes were real and which were not. I love animation’s ability to flesh out new worlds and create the impossible. But this is a subtly you just don’t see too often, and the way its employed here in an animate medium is really something else.

For those who do get confuse while watching Millennium Actress, Kon provides some clues. Genya is just like us, confused by the constant switches in reality. But after a few sequences, he gets into it, cheering from the sidelines or even better, getting caught up in the action. This is what Kon is telling us to do. Forget logic and reality. Just go with the story, get pulled in and enjoy the flow. Genya embodies this by going from watcher to active participant. He literally becomes some of the key characters in Chiyoko’s memories/films. Most often he comes to her rescue at a key moment, dressed in some outrageous outfit (but perfectly natural for the memory/film). My favorite scene with him is during the time when Chiyoko films a Kurosawa inspired samurai epic. He suddenly appears as her devoted samurai general who is willing to do anything to save her. If you’ve seen Hidden Fortress by Kurosawa the scene is even funnier.

Genya is an interesting character in a lot of ways. Basically he’s a middle-aged fan boy. He grew up idolizing Chiyoko and knows quite a bit about her. We begin to wonder why he wants to make this documentary in the first place. He’s too kind hearted to be a stalker like Mr. Me-mania from Perfect Blue. The truth is that he knows more about Chiyoko than she really guesses. For Genya this last storytelling session with her is a bit of closure. As the movie goes along Genya goes from comedic audience surrogate to a main player in her life story, even though she didn’t know it at the time. It’s a great twist that stays true to the characters and leads into the poignant finale.

But the reason Millennium Actress works is the fact that Chiyoko is really a great character. In the film three different voice actresses perform her character: one for the scenes where she is a child, one for her adult years and the final one for the elderly version. But the casting is top notch, each woman sounding like a natural extension of the previous. Kon’s character design is also masterful, again skewing more toward the realistic than the typical anime look. Chiyoko looks like the same woman as she grows up, and this allows us to feel like we are watching her life story unfold in reality, film and in her mind.

Like Citizen Kane there is a mystery at the heart of the story. Genya is able to interview Chiyoko because he found a small metal key she lost long ago. He returns it to her and it triggers a whole bunch of memories. The story of how she got the key and the search it lead her on is fused to the reason why she became an actress. Throughout the story the key is a MacGuffin, but one that actually has a neat payoff.

There are so many things I could write about that this review could be endless. This movie has a lot of little treats hidden away, moments of amazing visual power and a great musical score that works perfectly with it (as long as you don’t mind Vangelis style electronics). It also helps if you know a bit about Japanese film. There’s a ton of little nods to the movies of Akira Kurosawa as well as Godzilla. But if I keep talking about the movie, it will spoil some of the surprises and it’s really a movie that plays out better as you make the discoveries on your own.

As of this writing, this movie is still available on DVD in the US. Dreamworks picked up the distribution rights and gave it a pretty solid presentation.

As much as I like Perfect Blue and appreciate how it is an amazing first feature, Millennium Actress is a superior film. It delves deeply into Kon’s take on reality and memories, something that will pop up again in Paranoia Agent as well as Paprika. But most of all it introduced us to his humor. This takes center stage in his next film Tokyo Godfathers, and would turn warped and dark in Paranoia Agent and Paprika
But here Kon presents an ode to nostalgia, the memories of the past colored by our loss and the need to look past our history and into the future wherever that journey may lead. If my description of Perfect Blue turned you off, I suggest you start with Millennium Actress instead. It’s got all the visual elements I love about Kon and has a great story at heart of it too, can’t go wrong there.

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