Satoshi Kon paints a magnificent picture with 2001’s Millennium Actress, a stunning and dramatic animated feature. Featuring a screenplay by Kon and Sadayuki Murai, this film contends with some significant symbolism but never gets carried away. It weaves a human tale, telling a story of love and longing and consumption.
There is some speculation that Kon is at least leaning on inspiration from great Japanese actresses like Hideko Takamine or Ozu favourite Setsuko Hara, but the tale is universal. It’s also more complex than any evaluation of fact-based concerns, with a toying timeline and an amalgamation of the historical with the cinematic.
The picture begins as TV interviewer Genya Tachibana (Shōzō Iizuka) and his cameraman Kyōji Ida (Masaya Onosaka) track down movie star Chiyoko Fujiwara (Miyoko Shōji) for a retrospective. Fujiwara was the top star of the now-bankrupt Ginei Studios and is now living a cloistered life in the middle of nowhere.
Tachibana and Ida are taken in by Fujiwara’s extraordinary life story, with the interviewer giving his subject a key he thinks she left at the studio. It turns out the key is much more than mere artifact, as it signifies a thread of love that held fast to Fujiwara throughout her career.
Fujiwara’s life is explored as Tachibana and Ida walk through the paces, visiting a teen version of the character (Fumiko Orikasa) and exploring the birth of her career. She receives the aforementioned key from a revolutionary (Kōichi Yamadera) and desperately wants to see him again.
This desire drives her to become a movie star, with the farfetched hope he’ll see her in one of her pictures. This drive may be passé and even miserably adolescent, but there’s something defiantly beautiful about it.
There’s also something remarkable about the way the tale develops, with Tachibana and Ida observing Fujiwara’s life – cinematic and otherwise – through their own eyes. They walk through the captivating plots of her films, from Edo period historical epics to kaiju-like movies. They see how each picture is a step along the path of her hunger, how she never releases the key.
Facts and fiction entwine into insignificance as the tale deepens and Fujiwara inches toward her curtain call. Kon’s use of animation allows him to escape the limits of the documentary and to play with colours and textures, drawing a multi-dimensional world with intense precision.
The audience walks with Tachibana as he details his sentiment for Fujiwara and the cinematic wonders she occupies. In this sense, Millennium Actress serves as a love letter to the arts and the artists whose personal sentiments are never far behind.
For all of Tachibana’s affectionate observations, there’s a person behind the actress and his interview process allows him to realize that. In the yearning looks and fond gazes she exhibits up on the big screen, there’s something going on behind the material. There’s something living and breathing, something with questions.
Kon’s Millennium Actress is splendidly animated and brilliantly rendered. It tells a tale of the human spirit, of fascination and desire. It’s about perception, about the pungent gaze that may yet slip over arcane secrets. And it’s about cinema itself, about the soaring iconography that may conceal more than it could ever hope to reveal.