Millennium Actress

Robin Clifford of Reeling: the Movie Review Show
Robin Clifford 
Millenium Actress

Laura Clifford of Reeling: the Movie Review Show
Laura Clifford 

Documentary filmmaker Genya Tachibana has traveled, with his cameraman in tow, to a remote mountain lodge to interview the great Japanese actress Chiyoko Fujiwara who, 30 years ago, disappeared from the screen and public life. He is one of her greatest admirers and he presents her with an old key, a key that opens up Chiyoko's memories as she tells Genya her story of devotion, hope and love in "Millennium Actress."

Anime artist and filmmaker Satohi Kon has created a deceptively simple looking animation that tells an incredibly complex tale of the life of Chiyoko Fujiwara, her films and her quest to find her true love. This journey, as told by the now 70-year old former star, also weaves in a pretty fair history of Japan, depicting the period of the Warring States during Japan's medieval era in the 15th and 16th centuries; the time of rule by the Shogunate; The Meiji Period during the late 19th century when the divine power of the Emperor was restored; the militancy of the Showa Period which came to a crashing end with World War Two; and, life in post-war Japan through the Occupation and the country's painful recovery.

This concise history lesson is given depth and beauty by using Chiyoko's films to tell her moving story. She tells Genya, under the watchful lens of his assistant Kyoji Ida, the tale of her birth during the Great Earthquake of 1923 and her subsequent discovery as a young actress. Although her mother vehemently resists her daughter's entry into what is considered a tawdry business, the young girl lands a major part in a movie and her career begins. She tells of a day when she met an injured young man and helped him escape the clutches of the authorities. He gives her a key, tells her it is to "the most important thing there is" and disappears. Chiyoko spends her life making movies and trying to find the man who impacted her so strongly.

This story, unto itself, would be considered an interesting possibility for emotional and romantic consideration but Satohi Kon and his team take it a dimension further. Rather than tell Chiyoko's story in a linear fashion, the actress's films are the backdrops for her journey. The actor becomes the character as we watch each of Chiyoko's movies in which she searches for her true love. But, just as she is a different character in each film, the mysterious love interest also changes. During this journey through Chiyoko's film life, documentarian Genya and Kyoji are also a part of the memories, with Tachibana getting increasingly involved as a participant, and not just an observer, in the various tales. We also come to learn about the filmmaker's devotion to Chiyoko and how it came to be.

The anime technique is reminiscent of the old "Speed Racer" cartons with simplistic drawings and often-used still images to move the story along. This minimalist style helps to allow the complex story be told in simple visual terms and permit the key to unlock Chiyoko's melancholy memories and, thus, allow us into her life. "Millennium Actress" brings the viewer into the story and, like Genya, we feel like a participant in this epic story and not just an observer. The structure of this telling results in a beautifully told tale.

The emotional impact of Chiyoko's life story is much the same as another Japanese anime, the excellent "Grave of the Fireflies." But, where the latter story tells of the tragedy of war and the loss of innocence, "Millennium Actress" is about unrequited love, devotion, perseverance and hope told in a startlingly simple manner yet with epic proportions. There is an element of the supernatural in "Actress," as I have seen in many anime films, but this is in keeping with the Japanese culture and devotion to the spiritual world. I give it an A-.

Genya Tachibana (Shozo Iizuka) is a documentary filmmaker thrilled to have been granted an interview with legendary screen actress Chiyoko Fujiwara (Fumiko Orikasa, Mami Koyama and Miyoko Shoji) three decades after she mysteriously withdrew from her career.  He presents her with a gift - a key - which unlocks her memories and connects Genya to her past as she relates the history of a "Millennium Actress."

Director/cowriter (with Sadayuki Murai, "Cowboy Bebop")/anime artist Satoshi Kon ("Perfect Blue") has developed a unique story structure that tells a mysterious love story within the history of Japan from the 15th century to the present as well as the history of a Japanese film studio.  Tachibana and his cameraman Kyoji Ida (Masaya Onosaka) fancifully find themselves documenting Chiyoko's memories both as they happened and as they weave themselves in and out of the films she starred in.

Chiyoko was born during Tokyo's Great Earthquake of 1923, which killed her father. Against her mother's wishes, she becomes an actress at a very young age, but it is the chance encounter with an injured painter (Kohichi Yamadera) wanted by government authorities that shapes her life.  He leaves her with a key which she is determined to return, beginning a quest that haunts her as she runs from one historical adventure to the next, even taking a rocketship to the moon.

As centuries change, from the Warring States Period of the 15th and 16th centuries to the Shogun years, through the Meiji Period of late 19th century and two World Wars, Chiyoko becomes a princess haunted by a castle wraith, a peasant girl, a ninja, an innocent, always fighting against older actress Eiko Shimao (Syouko Tsuda) and a man with a scar (Masane Tsukayama) while occasionally being saved by the adoring Genya.  'I cried 53 times at that scene,' says Genya as the elderly Chiyoko remembers. 'When did this become a movie?' asks Ida, who provides comical astonishment as he's whisked through history.

Satoshi Kon emphasizes his heroine's running with her panting on the soundtrack, ultimately leading up to a montage of her running through a thousand years near film's end.  Film sets appear to capture the different genres of Japanese filmmaking, the Samurai film, the costume drama, the 1950's family melodramas and even Godzilla flicks.  In his most surreal moment, Chiyoko lands on the moon, her breathlessness echoing within the confines of her space helmet, to find a picture on an easel. Her beloved becomes animated, walking off into his own painted horizon, eluding her once more.  Chiyoko is undeterred, however.  'After all, it's the chasing after him I really loved.'

This wonderfully unique film is classic anime, but its story is so ingenious, it seems a genre unto itself.  "Millennium Actress" requires attention to keep up with its movement throughout time and realities, but it will reward those do.

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