Is it possible to admire a film and not really like it? Because that is how I feel about Millennium Actress.
This is a good movie, a great movie, easily one of the smartest and best anime I have ever seen but at it’s core it is one of the most frustrating and upsetting cinematic experiences I’ve ever had too.
The conceit of Millennium Actress is absolutely brilliant. Two documentary film makers Genya Tachibana (played by Shoozoo Izuka) and his cameraman track down film actress Chiyoko Fujiwara (played at various parts of her life by Miyoko Shooji, Mami Koyama and Fumiko Orikasa) to interview her about her life. As Chiyoko recounts her life story the film moves the three characters from standing in a room to actually inhabiting scenes from the various films Chiyoko has starred in, facing armies of samurai, Manchurian bandits and ninjas.
But it’s not just a case of inter-cutting the life story and the fiction of the films but that the film scenes actually stand for the events of Chiyoko’s life. So her starring as a nurse that has gone to Manchuria to find her lost love stands in for her becoming an actress travelling to Manchuria to star in a film and also look for her lost love. Or her becoming a Geisha and being refused to allow to leave her dwelling to see her love one last time before he is executed stands in for her being an actress and not being allowed by the studio to spend time searching for her lost love.
I’ve seen plenty of films that blurred the lines between fiction and reality before but never before have I seen it done so fluidly and confidently as Millennium Actress. There are barely any scenes in the film at all that take place in the reality of the plot, almost everything we see is the scene from a film Chiyoko has starred in, and yet without letting us see much of anything of Chiyoko’s real life we come to understand her life story anyway. That is masterful plotting and directing from Satoshi Kon, director of another excellent anime about an actress Perfect Blue.
And there are further moments of inspired confusion, one scene which is clearly supposed to be Chiyoko’s domestic life after she gets married is revealed mid-scene to take place on a stage; another has the background turn into a ukiyo-e wood block print, and on and on.
Visually the film is phenomenal both in the quality of the animation and the varied and interesting imagery employed. This is a film that gives us samurai battles, geisha, acrobatic ninja fights, space rockets, Godzilla, etc, etc. The acting is confident, the tone is perfectly assured switching between humour, pathos and drama smoothly and effectively. It’s a damn near perfect film in many respects.
It’s just a shame then that the actual story is so frustrating and often so dull.
Very briefly Chiyoko’s life story goes like this. She’s a school girl born in 1923. She gets asked to star in a movie as part of propaganda for the war in Manchuria. Her stifling mother refuses on her behalf.
She then bumps into an artist who is a dissident rebel protesting the war. He has been injured and is running from the police. She saves his life by directing the police the wrong way and helping him to hide. He flees to Manchuria the next day to help his friends but not before leaving her with a key that he says opens “the most important thing in the world.”
Chiyoko then decides to become an actress because this will let her go to Manchuria and look for him.
All of the above takes place in the first 10 – 20 minutes of the film. The remaining hour goes like this.
Chiyoko looks for the man, fails to find him repeatedly and then dies.
Kind of a bummer ending guys.
We don’t learn much of Chiyoko’s life at all really. We don’t know what her married domestic life was like, we don’t know if she enjoyed film making, we don’t really get to know her as a person beyond her love for this strange artist and hr obsessive need to find him, And she doesn’t find him, the whole film is about her search and it ends with her ultimate failure.
Which could work if the love story was convincing but it isn’t. If we got to know the artist better, got to see the love between him and Chiyoko blossom and then watched as fate cruelly tore them apart that would be one thing. It would still be a sad ending but it would be a tragic sad one and somewhat satisfying.
But it is impossible to shake the feeling that Chiyoko and the artist don’t really love each other at all. Chiyoko and the un-named man meet for two days at most, they share very few words and no names. They talk but the conversation they have in no way implies some kind of loving connection between the two of them, especially from his side and we see no evidence of their deep and abiding love for each other at all in the film. It is just impossible to believe that someone would spend their entire life obsessed with a person they met for two days and whose face they did not see.
And that’s a problem because that is all there is to the story. For all the clever plotting and imagery the story is incredibly simple and just isn’t very good, leaving a gaping void at the heart of what should have been a fantastic film.
But Adam, you cry out at your computer, which, seriously guys won’t work. Write me a comment instead or something. Adam, you type furiously in the comments, surely this is all a symbolic work right? We aren’t supposed to really believe that she loves the man, clearly the man is a symbol for something like the history of cinema, or the need to keep changing oneself in life, or the search for a national identity for Japan in the post war period?*
Well, yes, obviously. The thing with Millennium Actress is that what we as the audience see happen isn’t what actually happened, we’re seeing bits and pieces from Chiyoko’s films. And she says at the beginning that she sometimes can’t remember things very well so for all we know she’s just confusing reality and her film roles and there may never have been any dissident artist. And the film is rife with obvious symbolism like a key for the “most important thing in the world.”**
But it doesn’t matter if a film has some kind of deeper symbolic meaning; it also needs to have a decent narrative to hold the viewer’s interest and pull them through the story. If you’re just showing symbolic imagery divorced from a proper narrative what you have is moving art installation not a film.
So yes, a skillfully made film with a wonderful conceit and a terrible story.
*no seriously, I read a review that tried to argue that. It was pretty compelling actually.
** so what symbolic reading do I have for the film? Well for me it all hinges on the very last line of spoken dialogue. “After all, it was the chase I loved.” This throws the events of the film into a completely new context, acknowledging that yes, Chiyoko didn’t really love the artist, she loved the idea of searching for the artist, of having some great lost love. I still think that doesn’t work as a character study because it implies that Chiyoko never found anything in her own life to love she just dreamed about love, and that is depressing and slightly repellent. However, this is a film about films and I personally think that the last line is a commentary on the nature of cinema. That we as the audience love the chase, not the happy ever after. Films with a romance plot are typically about the two characters in love with each other struggling to be together over the obstacles life throws at them. Once they get together the film ends, it doesn’t concern itself with their life together. It is the chase we love, the goal of the chase is seemingly irrelevant. Chiyoko basically isn’t a character but a stand in for cinema itself (since she has no life out of cinema, literally in the reality of the film) and her failure to find her lover is symbolic of how cinema will never end and how love stories will carry on forever. The device of having her love story take place across a thousand years in different settings and periods also suggests this as it shows that these love stories re-occur again and again.
Like I say this is a very smart film, I don’t doubt that all the character faults are deliberate to the symbolism but it doesn’t stop it being a frustrating watch.