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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.

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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.

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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.

Spoilers.

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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.”**

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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.

 

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Hello again tonight I aim to finish up my talk about Kyoto.

But first.

BLOODY HELL THERE WAS AN EARTHQUAKE LAST NIGHT!

Alright fair game, it was a piddly little earthquake. It was a 4 on the ricter scale. To put that in perspective the earthquake in Lincolnshire earlier this year was a 5.0 on the ricter scale. The only damage I know was that my friend Laura’s chair fell over.

I mention it mostly because I’m annoyed. You see I slept through the whole bloody thing. This means I have slept through an earthquake and a hurricane and walked through a bloody tornado without noticing any unusual conditions at all. I’m a bit like Mr Magoo, blindly stumbling through a world of disasters.

Anyway Kyoto.

Finishing up at Kiyomizu-dera me and Fran went into the main temple hall and onto the veranda to look at the views. Both Fran and myself have seen the temple hall before and it is largely unimpressive compared to some of the ones I have seen so it didn’t really draw much interest.

By far the most memorable part of the entire hall was this little chap, a picture I took on my last visit.

Isn’t he just adorable. Ah Japan, sometimes you’re so deliciously oblivious you make me smile. Actually he reminds me of Mr Popo from Dragonball.

Although apparently he isn’t even meant to be a black person. He’s modelled on one of the ancient Japanese deities, the one that’s in charge of wealth I think.

Leaving the temple we nipped into one of the tents at the approach to the temple and had some lunch. This was easily the classiest tent I have ever eaten in. For starters we had to sit on tatami in the Japanese sitting position (you know the one, on your knees with your bum on your heels). I had soba (buckwheat noodles) and Fran had udon (wheat noodles) and we both split some tofu.

Now a lot of people badmouth tofu and I’m here to defend it. Tofu is bland and flavourless, yes, I agree but that isn’t the point. It’s healthy and a good source of protein and has an interesting and delightful texture. You add flavour to it. It’s basically savoury jelly. Jelly is flavourless too until you add fruit but nobody ever complains about jelly. Well actually I do, never really did like it, or custard, or cream and I’m indifferent to sponge. In fact when it comes to desserts you could say I’m a trifle picky.

Anyway this particular tofu was great. It was served in a bucket of hot water. You sieved the tofu out of the water and put it into a bowl containing soy sauce, chilli powder and sliced welsh onions (negi). Good eating, actually it’s one of my favourite snacks.

Having gathered sustenance we had a flick through our lonely planet guide to decide where to head next and chanced upon a walking tour included in the newest edition. This promised to take us down some odd, old and interesting streets. Being a fan of winding ancient alleyways I jumped at the prospect and off we set. First stop teapot lane.

Teapot lane is so called because of the vast numbers of potters plying their wares along it. The entire street is given over to touristy shops but classy touristy shops. Cheap tat (which I am not criticising at all because Japan has the best and most interesting tat in the world) was prevalent on the parallel road but teapot lane is full of artworks, expensive but gorgeous teapots and cups, beautiful delicate fans, Yukata and all the other delicate works of art that people associate with Japan. It’s a fantastic place to wander and window shop and Fran was instantly taken with it.

We followed the advice of the guidebook and turned off teapot lane heading towards Maruyama-koen, a park which is famous in the whole of Japan for it’s sakura. The street we were headed down was amazing my dream Japanese street. Thin, crowded, twisty with ornate slated roofs overhanging into the street and everywhere dotted with sakura. Furthermore the shops continued in the same vein as teapot lane, quirky and very, very Japanese. It was bliss to stroll down it and it was very nearly perfect.

Then it got perfect.

As we started to reach Gion we spotted two geisha wandering down the street and after seeing a young Japanese couple get their photo taken with tme Fran plucked up the courage to do the same.

Geisha, sakura, slate roofs, twisty alleys, beautiful pots and a lovely sunny spring day. Perfect.

We paused in our advance to nip into a tearoom and partake of a parfait. A complex Japanese sundae-esque desert. Mine consisted of green tea ice-cream, milk ice-cream, anko (sort of a sweet kidney bean), brown sugar ice-cream, cinnamon biscuits, pudding and warabimochi. I removed the pudding (crème caramel, see “a trifle picky”) and dug in.

Mochi is a very, very sticky dumpling like confection made with pounded rice. Warabimochi was advertised as being “bracken mochi” which intrigued me. What it actually was, was bland jelly. I ate it but I wasn’t happy. The rest of the pudding was delicious though. Green tea ice cream is slightly bitter but fantastically refreshing, milk and anko are a nigh on perfect combination and I would kill for those biscuits again, particularly covered in brown sugar ice-cream.

Japanese people love their sweets, I love certain sweets but it seems that may tastes do not match up with those of the Japanese people. So until then I had never happily eaten a dessert in a Japanese restaurant. But, MY SWEET GOD was that pudding nice.

We ate happily, drank tea, people watched the young girls wandewring by in yukata and spotted more Geisha than I have ever before seen in my life.

Further sated we continued to amble through glorious scenery and eventually made our way to Maruyama-koen.

Hanami can be done in two fashions, we were trying to accomplish both in one day. The first is to amble along lanes underneath sakura looking at the trees. The second and more popular is to find a park and picnic in it sat underneath a sakura tree. And by picnic I mean drink copiously.

Maruyama-koen was packed by the time we got there, absolutely full to bursting with Japanese people of all ages partying wildly. Sitting, dancing, singing, running, playing games. Seldom have I ever seen a Japanese crowd so relaxed and free. Some students had set-up a mixing desk and some speakers and were running an impromptu disco. Well they were, until the police shut them down. Their fun and infectious tracks were then replaced with the same students singing (well, making a sort of noise anyway, an animalistic one) loudly to inaudible songs and inentionally badly, and off key. Nice one mister policeman, this is so much preferable than the music.

We made a circuit of the park to take a photo of the famous “weeping” sakura tree in the centre of the park and then headed off to go get food, drink and join in. Having procured some beers, chu-hi and tako-yaki we started looking for somewhere to sit. There were tarps everywhere but there were also people sitting on tatami and piles of tatami everywhere. I went to grab some tatami and was shouted at by a man.

“hey, hey you have to rent that.”

“oh, never mind.”

Sadly we were on a time-limit to get home and I wasn’t going to rent a tatami for an hour so I put it back.

He then started speaking in Japanese which Fran tried to translate. The gist of it seemed to be that he was inviting us over. We went over to see him and he explained that he rents the tatami and he was inviting us to use some of his for free.

So we sat and chatted (alas awkwardly) and generally had a pretty nice time. He and his friends gave us some free umeshu (a sort of plum wine/liqueur which you drink diluted in summer. It is delicious and Fran is mildly addicted). He also gave us free peanuts despite me explaining repeatedly that I a) had some takoyaki and b) didn’t really like peanuts. I ate some anyway to make him happy.

They were really, really nice people and I wish I could have stayed all night drinking and chatting. The whole thing reminded me of being a student, going to the green festival and just spending a day in a park getting hammered without a care in the world. But we were on a time limit, I had work the next day (in fact I needed to try and get back home before the dry cleaners closed so that I could retrieve my suit) and we needed to get a train back from Kyoto.

Before we left we were treated to one final absolutely magical sight.

I can honestly say that bar some of the stress of trying to get a train home in time (we didn’t manage it in the end and had to get a friend to pick up my laundry) this was one of the best days of my entire life. I will remember it fondly.

Hello people I bring greetings from spring.

Not that it actually is spring here. It bloody snowed on Saturday night and it’s still incredibly cold but Sunday was the 3rd of February and that means and it was Setsubun and thus it is now spring.

Setsubun means the coming of the new season and happens at the start of each new season in Japan. Technically the one in February is called Risshun but nobody calls it that so neither am I.

Setsubun is one of the bigger Japanese festivals and there are a number of traditions that should be observed. The big Kansai thing is to eat maki-zushi (sushi made from Maki) whilst facing the compass direction for the year. This is something to do with the kanji for maki being the same as lucky direction but that’s all lost on me because I can only read about 4 kanji and 2 of those are just the kanji for Japan. Japanese culture is absolutely chock full of kanji puns by the way. They love puns here, not necessarily because they’re funny, they just really, really like puns. However, despite knowing in advance that Kansai people did this I completely forgot to do it and actually had a Chinese on Setsubun. Whoops.

The other big tradition is to eat roasted soy beans. 1 for each year of your life and 1 more for good luck. I did do this but eating 22 soybeans is bloody hard work. Roasted soy beans aren’t bad though. Kind of like peanuts but much more bitter. They go really well with beer.

The final big tradition is to do Mamemaki (bean throwing). People throw beans out of the door of their home or at somebody wearing an oni mask. I have absolutely no idea what the legend behind this is and neither do any of the Japanese people I asked. Wikipedia only says “In the Heian era, a famous Buddhist monk was said to have driven away oni by throwing beans.” So that’s helpful. Anyway the jist of it is that there is some half-legend about two onis that bring plagues and bad fortune attacking a shrine. A monk inside chased them away by throwing beans at them and thus saved his land from plague and misfortune. Now Japanese people throw beans to have good luck in the new spring.

Oni is typically just translated as “demon” and there are a host of magical creatures called “oni” in Japanese mythology but there is also a specific creature known as an oni. Oni’s are giant ogre-like creatures. Roughly humanoid in appearance with curly black hair, two horns, ferocious grins, tiger skin loincloths and big clubs. They’re usually either blue or red.

Here are some oni.


Well rather than doing mamemaki at home I opted to head out to Yasaka-jinjya again to see a mamemaki apparently featuring geisha. Patrick in tow we set out on the loooong journey from Sannomiya to Gion.

When we got there the celebrations had already started and this is what we got to see.

Dragon Dance

First up was a traditional dragon dance. The dragons split off and dance and then come together to fight. This was pretty cool. The flute was really atmospheric and the actual dancing, while not really exciting, was still cool purely because it was something I’ve never seen before.

I have a video of the entire dance but Youtube has been a git again and hasn’t let me upload it. I’ll try and get it up tomorrow.


Taiko Drumming

Much, much more fun. Sorry no video but the sound on my camera is so naff it wouldn’t do it justice. Taiko is Japanese traditional drumming in groups and it’s fantastic. It is impossible to listen to this beat and not want, in some small corner of your brain, to mount a horse and ride to war. It’s furious, driven and mesmerising.




Later on the Taiko drummers started wearing oni masks and did a version of oni attacking the shrine. Some drummers in oni masks started hitting drums (still in rhythm) dancing about the stage and acting like monsters. Not as cool as the pure drumming but again it was nice to get to see something I’ve never seen before.

Geisha

Ah, here’s what I came for. Yes ladies and gentlemen I have now seen a real life, honest to god, geisha. Three of them! And they are gorgeous. Actually gorgeous probably isn’t the right word. They’re not conventionally attractive, nothing is sexy about them rather they’re beautiful, like a piece of art is beautiful. The actual human being kind of disappears behind the make-up jewellery and clothes but what’s left is beautiful. It was really, really exciting to see them, like something from a lost age living and breathing and dancing in front of me. I feel privileged to have seen them.

So did the Japanese crowd too it seems. They went mad for the geisha and tried to mob the afterwards as they left the stage. I guess even if you live in Kansai your opportunities to see geisha are still fairly slim. And they are truly magical to share a presence with.

However with all due respect, their dance was a bit naff.

Following the geisha dancing the geisha and priests (complete with silly hats) started chucking beans at us all and there was a mad scramble to catch them. Despite being tall Gaijin Patrick and I lucked out, so we had to go buy our beans.

But wait, the beans come with some kind of tombola ticket do they. Oooh things are lucking up.

And they were, the prizes included a bike, DVD players, ornate Japanese crafts, food, sake and sweeties amongst other things.

I however won a bottle of cold tea and some freezer bags.

WHAT KIND OF A PRIZE IS FREEZER BAGS!

Patrick at least got some slippers.

And then bar a wander and some food we went home.

Misc.

One thing I have to mention before I forget it is a conversation I had with a student today.

The 3rd Grade (san-nensei) are preparing for their high school exams soon and I’ve been helping the students that will be studying English next year. They have to do an interview in English as part of their exams and they have a list of questions the examiner is likely to ask. I’ve been helping them prepare stock answers and practise speaking in an interview situation.

Today I helped one of my students with her application to keimei high school which is, of all things, a Christian High School (there are almost no Christians in Japan so it seems so out of place here). One of her questions is what does she want to study at keimei and she had written “I want to study christianity habit”. Now leaving aside the issue that the grammar really should be “I want to study Christian habits” I had to explain that habits wasn’t really the best choice of words to go with Christian as it implies that she wants to study nun’s clothes. Cue on of the most awkward and downright strange conversations I have ever had in my life. Have you ever tried to explain what nuns are to someone who doesn’t really know about Christianity and doesn’t really speak English? Saying they were married to god just caused even more unnecessary confusion.

In the end I told her I’d explain nuns with the aid of pictures in her notebook next week. She left still confused but apparently satisfied and we changed the sentence to “I want to study Christian beliefs.”

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