As part of a film studio’s seventieth anniversary, film maker Genya Tachibana travels to interview one of his idols: the retired actress Chiyoko Fujiwara, who has lived as a recluse since removing herself from the industry several years earlier. As Tachibana and his cameraman interview Chiyoko about her experiences they are thrown into the dramatic events of her remarkable life story, told through her memories and scenes of the films she starred in.
At its simplest, Millennium Actress is the story of one person’s life, told with the history of Twentieth-century Japan as a backdrop. As the story progresses however, it becomes so much more: through symbols, metaphors and Chiyoko’s memories of real events, it tells the tale of seventy years of both one individual and an entire country, then an entire thousand years of history. This is achieved through a combination of memories and scenes taken from the films Chiyoko starred in, with the interviewers being taken directly into the action itself. This aspect is quite difficult to convey through words alone: in true Kon style, fact and fiction are seamlessly blurred into one breathtaking whole with the surreal and realistic side by side.
While Perfect Blue and Paranoia Agent made use of Kon’s very true-to-life animation styles to make tense and chilling scenes that were bizarre yet still grounded in reality, Millennium Actress is a very differently themed film that is a sweeping biopic rather than a psychological thriller. Once again Studio Madhouse has done an absolutely stunning job with the visuals, capturing the dreamlike feel of Chiyoko’s recollections that are in such contrast to the bright backgrounds of real life. The result is a breathtaking imitation of classic film making styles and camera techniques, with authentic colours (either washed-out or vibrant, depending on what each scene demands) and dramatic scenery that are among the most beautiful that I’ve ever seen in an animated film.
The characters may not be as well-developed as might be expected and there are one or two plot details that are left unresolved but it must be remembered that this film is told from what Chiyoko has experienced and remembered from her own perspective. Throughout there is a distinct feeling that the heroine is being swept along through life by events that are beyond her control; yet she maintains the innocence and youthful sense of hope for her lost love that has earned her the respect and affection of her interviewers.
It has to be said that on its first viewing Millennium Actress is a rather confusing experience. Memories of real life and those of Chiyoko’s film roles are intentionally melded together: quite literally, life imitates art and vice-versa, but the best way to enjoy this film is to sit back and become lost in the gorgeous atmosphere and think on the finer points of the themes and ideas afterwards.
Thematically different from the likes of Perfect Blue and Paranoia Agent, Millennium Actress is no less impressive and is a shining example of how animation can be as much art as entertainment. Is it history, a life story, a love story, or a film about films? The probable truth is that it is all of these things. It is not as dark as some of his other work and leaves some questions unanswered but it ably demonstrates his versatility as director and makes for emotional and compelling viewing.