At the turn of the millennium, Ginei Studio's dilapidated buildings are set to be demolished. Ex-employee and filmmaker Genya Tachibana decides to honor this occasion with a commemorative documentary about the company's star actress: Chiyoko Fujiwara, the reclusive sweetheart of Shouwa Era cinema. Having finally obtained permission to interview the retired starlet, an enamored Genya drags along cynical cameraman Kyouji Ida to meet her, ready to put his lifelong idol back in the spotlight once more.
Hidden in this secluded mountain retreat is a thousand years of history condensed into one lifetime, waiting to be narrated. Chiyoko's recollections take them on an illusionary journey through Japanese cinematic history that transcends the boundaries of reality; the saga of her acting career intertwines with her filmography, the actors in her life blend seamlessly with the characters on screen, and the present melds with the past. Though the actress may have retired at the height of her career 30 years ago, the curtain on her life's stage has yet to fall.
The film won the awards of Best Animation Film and Fantasia Ground-Breaker at the 2001 Fantasia Film Festival. It was also awarded the Feature Film Award at the 8th Animation Kobe. In 2002, it won the prestigious Ofuji Noburo Award at the Mainichi Film Awards, and was honored with the Orient Express Award at the 2001 Festival de Cine de Sitges in Spain. The film was nominated for four Annie Awards in 2004, including Outstanding Direction and Writing.
Millennium Actress is a wonderfully crafted story about a fateful encounter of a young girl and how it shaped the rest of her life. Though I am always a little hesitant about awarding such high marks to anything, this movie was one of the most riveting and unique anime experiences I have had.
The story follows a pair of filmmakers who are interviewing a famous actress who has been retired for many years to celebrate the studio's 70th anniversary. Millennium Actress features one of the most original story telling methods I have seen. We see the majority of the movie told through the
actresses various movie roles. We shift from feudal Japan, World War 2, and a futuristic moon base, amongst others. You are never actually sure what is real and what is the movie all the time. I also found it interesting that the two filmmakers were always observers during the entire process. Their presence provided an interesting way of narrating the story and kept the viewer from getting confused by the constantly changing scenery.
Though many will perhaps not be able to relate to Chiyoko's devotion to a man that she hardly knew anything about, I still never felt as though it was too farfetched. Whether or not she truly loved him the way one might feel for a lover is beside the point. Her love is what shaped the remainder of her life and allowed her to accomplish the things she had. I think this is summed up best by her last lines from the film when she comments that finding him was not that important, because it was the chase that she loved the most.
The two filmmakers Genya and Kyoji provide a nice anchor for the viewer. Of the two Genya is the most important and as the story unfolds we learn about his past and why he idolizes Chiyoko. As for the object of Chiyoko's devotion we really learn little about him other than has ultimate fate. I think it was a good decision from a storytelling standpoint because his mysterious nature was what kept her looking for him.
The art was really exceptional. There were sometimes that some of the backgrounds looked like actual photographs and perhaps they were but they seamlessly fit in with the rest of the animation. The film as does a wonderful job at portraying many different settings. Everything feels so authentic from the prewar Japan costumes and architecture to the 50s styling and fashions.
Overall I really can’t recommend this movie enough. I don’t think its appeal is limited to just shoujo and romance fans. Give this movie an hour and a half, you will be glad you did!
"What does this key open?" "The most important thing in the world."
STORY - Millennium Actress's story is very simplistic and very sweet. I'm not usually a fan of unquestioning, devotional love, especially to such a crazed, obsessive extent, but the way this movie presents things makes it very easy to like. Just the extent of everything, the lengths to which Chiyoko had been willing to go; all of it was incredible. Even better still, was the idea that we in the audience could not know just how much of it was real and just how much of it was fantasy. The lines seem permanently blurred
and any one scene might have just as easily been a memory or a dream, especially since all of the recollections are coming at an age where forgetfulness is common, making everything all the more tragic.
The use of movies to convey a fantasy was brilliant, especially considering the story's form as a movie. The way people in the present are thrown into the past (or fantasy) was also a wonderfully creative way to tie the two times together, and there's even a bit of tongue-in-cheek self-commentary on this way of handling things. Really, it's Satoshi Kon's phenomenal storytelling that transforms Millennium Actress's exceedingly simple plotline into a masterpiece.
CHARACTERS - I have mixed feelings about the characters in this movie. I've said before that I'm not a fan of sudden, unquestioning love; thus, I definitely wasn't a fan of the fact that Chiyoko essentially fell into eternal love with a man she'd met once, briefly, for several short hours. At the same time, the extent to which she took this infatuation seemed strangely realistic, despite how incredible it was. Indeed, people obsess over little things all the time, irrelevant people, incidental meetings; there are short moments that they will remember for the rest of their lives, so perhaps it isn't so strange that Chiyoko should cling onto something like that. Besides, it wasn't as if she had thrown her entire life away for the man, even if she did build up everything she had in order for him to see her. Aside from the obsession, I really enjoyed the way the elder Chiyoko was portrayed. It was very believable that she would become a recluse, and the way she told her story, the small revelations that came along with it -- all of it was wonderfully interesting to watch and very touching in the end.
The other characters in the movie are all relatively minor and their characters subsequently less complex. Mostly, their personalities are sculpted so that they contribute directly to moving Chiyoko's story along, whether by acting as antagonists or by wanting to discover more. In the end, I find them more to be tools to help Chiyoko along more than being characters of their own, but in a movie like this, I think that's fine.
ARTSTYLE & ANIMATION - Millennium Actress has some absolutely gorgeous animation. The art style is rather typical of Satoshi Kon, and you'll easily notice that many of his middle-aged and older male characters look startlingly similar across the movies and series he's directed, but the same can be said with a number of other prominant artists and directors. What I loved about the animation itself was how smoothly scene transitions were handled, especially considering that we moved back and forth between present day and past recollection and between reality and movie fantasy constantly. The inclusion of the present day interviewers within flashbacks is one of my favorite touches and really helps weld everything together in the end. It was especially nice too, to see so many different kinds of scenes animated since they were just scenes within Chiyoko's movies.
MUSIC - Maybe I was too wrapped up in the pretty animation and storytelling, but I didn't note very astounding music, though nor did I note anything bad.
VOICE ACTING - I saw this movie subbed. The voices were pretty average for the most part, though I didn't rather enjoy elder Chiyoko's performance for some reason. Her emotion, especially near the end of the movie, was just very touching. :3
OVERALL - I really enjoyed this movie, though if I had just been given a synopsis, I probably wouldn't have been very interested in the first place. Having Satoshi Kon's name attached to it did help though, and I think this is one of the better examples of his works. The way the story was told just changed everything, including the fact that the plot itself was very simple.
Satoshi Kon's "Millennium actress" is a breathtakingly brilliant film. It was so breathtaking that I'm still in awe and I feel forced to write my life's first unconditionally positive review.
What primarily needs to be noted here is that it is brilliant as a work of art, and not only as a piece of entertainment. It is clearly a traditional cinema movie, not an "anime" of the type Westerner is accustomed to. As such you shouldn't expect almost any typical elements you learned to adore in the works you treasure in your anime list. It's also not advisable to judge the movie by classical MAL
categories, especially in "Story" and "Character" sections. "Sennen Joyuu" doesn't tell any substantial story. Ok, it does, to a degree, it can be potentially described as simplistic yet gripping romance melodrama. And I saw the movie advertised that way by many people. But it is doing the movie a great injustice, because simplistic story is certainly not its main goal.
The movie is rather an unusually skillful meta-narrative, it is the story about stories, tropes and plot devices, about what role they play in each individual's life and how powerful driving force they can be, despite being simplistic. And it focuses on very specific types of stories - on these told using cinema as a medium, thus on numerous different cinema genres at once. As such film "Millennium actress" pays homage to many (mostly Japanese, but not only) movies. While it is not necessary to pick up references to these films, if one is able to pick at least some of them (fortunately some will be rather obvious) it enhances the viewers' enjoyment. On a side note - Japanese cinematic references notwithstanding, it's probably the most culturally Western anime I've ever watched, second being, by peculiar coincidence, Paprika by the same director.
The movie doesn't indulge itself in character portrayal much either - you shouldn't expect captivating protagonists or antagonists or development thereof. Or again, to an extent you should, because, as I noted before, on the surface level it's the story about the journey in search of love. But as a meta-movie it's more about how the character is created (or how she creates herself) in act of being portrayed.
"Millennium actress" is also kind of an ironic proof that anime is sort of ghetto medium. The movie is apparently in love with "cinema" as a whole, even more with "live action cinema" than specifically with "animation", yet it itself is animation. And I'm afraid it's the main reason it's not as notable as it could be.
But what it's so great about "Millenium actress" that it should be so notable? What comes to mind immediately - It is told by using intertwining layers of different narratives coming from different movies thrown together into individual scenes in an exceptionally masterful way. Every passage from scene to scene, from layer to layer and simultaneously from style to style is smooth and barely noticeable, yet with every turn it creates entirely different reality. And through different turns the story remains coherent and never looses itself on anything unneeded. What's interesting, these ever-changing sceneries gave the creators chance to make the movie even casually entertaining - it contains for example genuine action sequences and even comedic reliefs. That combined with all these setting changes practically excludes possibility of boredom.
Art style closely follows every turn of the scenery - it recreates all different movie genres in their own unique style, often adding some distinctive touch. It's creative and pure pleasure to watch. The soundtrack of "Millennium actress" may be not as infinitely exceptional as the whole movie but still it is pretty much perfect. It resonates with the viewer, it fits the mood of the scenes and it stays in the head after ending.
The movie has also the trait of being simple yet complex. My analysis of the movie is not necessarily the single correct one, the movie stays open to many others. The film provokes the viewer to come up with her own interpretation, without forcing anything on her. Yet it's not vaguely about everything and it gives the viewer strong sense of fulfillment.
The only flaw one could find in the movie is that its unrestricted love for cinema results in film being in love with itself and becoming self-absorbed in playing with different settings and references to other famous works. The movie is by no means bombastic in it, so I didn't find it pretentious. But still, someone could complain about it. And one can possibly call such type of film parasitic or even fundamentally empty - it's not great on its own, its greatness manifests when it plays with genres and conventions, when it builds its world, its story and its moral from borrowed pieces.
Although I'd understand such objections I personally don't regard such flaws as diminishing my final reception. I think that they are inevitable consequences of creator's choices, of what this movie intends to be. I find such movies important and I cherish them immensely. I mention these para-flaws as a warning for people who don't particularly like post-modern self-obsessed meta-narratives - they definitely won't find in "Millenium Actress" anything worth special acclaim. For all the others - it's truly magnificent. Check it out ASAP.
Millennium Actress is a movie that shows us that remembering the past and reliving the past might actually be the same thing.
*THIS SECTION OF MY REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. Here I'm going to mostly do some hardcore analysis of the themes of the movie, so if that's not your thing then feel free to skip this section. Just leave knowing that I think the story is hard to follow on a first viewing, but if you like stuff that makes you think, then this movie is definitely for you. If you want a movie to relax and watch mindlessly, then this is
not for you.*
In a way, there are two stories in this movie. The first is the surface-level story. The surface-level story is that two guys approach the titular character in order to make a documentary about her life as a famous actress. She tells them the story of her life, which seems to come alive to the viewer. The theme of her life is that she loved some guy and was basically chasing him for her entire life. She did this all the while becoming Japan's most famous actress.
The other story, the "meta" story, is the one that only the movie-watcher has access to (and the characters when they are, in a way, breaking the fourth wall). The meta-story is actually more of a reflection on the nature of recollection, and one's relationship with the past. The key to understanding this story comes from Chiyoko's statement near the end of the movie, when she thanks the interviewers for asking her about her life; she says she enjoyed talking to them, and it felt like her younger self had come alive again.
That last idea is the key to this movie. One can speak poetically about the nature of recollection, that one "relives" one's past, that one feels "alive again" when one remembers the past, etc. It seems that in this movie Satoshi Kon (the director) gives these phrases a visual meaning. If I had to guess what it is the audience is seeing when they watch this movie, I would say it is the content of Chiyoko's mind as she tells her story. In her mind, her life and her career as an actress are one, and overlapping in many places. In her mind she can freely jump from one place in time to another, as she recalls each movie she was in and each major event in her life, and see how they all relate. What further confirms this for me is how, in her past, she sees her future self, all old and withered (with that spinning wheel), which appears as a ghost. This ghost did not really exist in her past, which confirms for us that we are not seeing the actual past, but the past as it has been constructed by Chiyoko who is currently telling us a story. The ghost appears in the story to represent Chiyoko's current feelings about her past. That is why the ghost is able to say "I hate you more than I can bear, and I love you more than I can bear." Chiyoko hates her past self for dwelling on an unrequited love and suffering for all those years, for basically no reason. And yet Chiyoko also loves her younger self for her capacity to love, and to feel alive because of it.
At the very end of the movie, Chiyoko basically says that she didn't really love the man, she loved chasing after him. The basically resolves the tension in Chiyoko, and makes for a basically satisfying ending to her character development. This amount to self-acceptance: coming to terms with her life and being okay with it. Her life was basically chasing this man. In saying that she loved the chase, she's saying she can finally love herself. One can almost imagine the old hag with the spinning wheel disappearing in a cloud of dust after Chiyoko makes this statement.
So in the end, I think the meta story is this: the movie provides a visual representation of Chiyoko's phenomenological experience of recollecting her past. She feels alive when she remembers, and so her memories actually come to life in the film. When we recollect, we are also telling a story to ourselves. I think this is the significance of Chiyoko being a movie actress. Making a movie is telling a story. So when Chiyoko tells the interviewers about her life, she is doing something very similar to acting. This is another way in which she is reliving her past. This is why her movies mix into the story as well. Thus what the audience sees is a mixture of Chiyoko's memories, her movies, and her actual life. The key Chiyoko owns is the key which unlocks her memories, her past, and her love. That is why the key is the key to the most important thing. It is essentially the key to her heart, which includes her memories and love, etc.
The art is very colorful. If you like more abstract and surreal kinds of art, then you will probably enjoy looking at this movie. It has a slightly older art style, being made in the early 2000's. It also uses limited animation, so less than 24 fps and there are times when only the mouths are moving, fore example, and some of the backgrounds are pretty simple. But overall this is still higher quality than a lot of older animes. There are times when the fps seems to get better and the art improves as well. So overall I'd say the animation is better than average but not stellar. The beauty of the art can make up for what is lacking in actual animation.
This movie has an awesome OST by Susumu Hirasawa. Really great stuff. The music really matches the visuals in the sense that both are kind of fantastical and surreal and magical. The voice acting is also good. No complaints here. I also remember some specific instances where the sound effects sounded particularly good as well, like when a character is running and slips, or when a key hits a glass or something.
The characters are interesting for the most part, though they aren't super-likable in the way anime characters are in a lot of other shows or movies. They aren't super cute or over the top or anything. They are basically normal old people. I think you will like them to the extent that you are able to identify with people who are unlike you. So for instance, I'm a young American guy but the main character is an old Japanese lady. How much can we possibly have in common? The viewer will be able to identify with her to the extent that he/she realizes that Chiyoko's experiences are very human and transcend cultural barriers. The film does say something about human nature in general. If the viewer is able to appreciate that, then he will start to identify with and love the characters. So, the characters aren't exciting in the sense that they are living super extraordinary lives or that we have a lot in common with them on the surface level. They are interesting because of their life experience, they are fairly well-developed, and what their story/dialogue tells us about ourselves.
I mark down this category simply because I think this movie works more as an intellectual exercise more than straight entertainment. The first time I watched this movie, a lot of the themes went over my head. It's stuff that you will likely miss on a first viewing. In that sense, the movie is really hard to follow, and so it loses a lot of entertainment value in that respect. It is still possible to enjoy the surface level story, the art, the music, its overall artistry, etc. The romance is enjoyable enough though not super original. What really makes this movie unique is its meta story and its themes. But like I said, this can really go over your head. Without the meta story, what remains is a better than average romance movie which can only entertain one so much.
In terms of creativity and themes and all that, this movie approaches the level of masterpiece. The more I think about this movie, the more brilliant it seems. It is put together so well. The whole idea behind the meta story seems quite brilliant to me. The only flaws are perhaps a limited budget, and the fact that it sacrifices entertainment for complexity to a certain extent. And yet this is subjective. There are some who straightforwardly enjoy complexity, but there are others who don't. So really what I'm saying is that this is a movie which will probably never have universal appeal in the way that something like a Miyazaki movie can have universal appeal. It is too complicated for universal appeal. But it is not so complicated that it can win the hearts of a fairly wide audience. Again, this is near masterpiece level stuff here, I think. Give it a shot if it sounds like anything else you've ever liked.
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