Satoshi Kon made a spectacular directorial debut with Perfect Blue, the 1999 psychological thriller that disturbed audiences worldwide. With Perfect Blue, Kon delved into the head of a young idol singer who starts to lose her grip on reality as she falls headlong deeper and deeper into the fame game. Pushing the boundaries of anime storytelling (as well as the boundaries of the R rating), Kon served up an exciting, intriguing spectacle that was nevertheless too brutal for casual viewing.
Kon returns to the themes of filmmaking, actresses, and distorted realities in Millennium Actress, and despite the recurring motif, he has turned in a film even better than his last. Though certain concepts remain constant, Millennium Actress is a love story at its core, and one told in a manner that will draw in a very different audience from Perfect Blue. In remolding these ideas, Kon has created a new masterpiece...arguably the first classic anime of the 21st century.
As Millennium Actress begins, we meet documentary filmmaker Genya and his cameraman Kyoji as they brave an earthquake on their way to meet Chiyoko Fujiwara, a legendary actress during the 1950s. Genya wants to document the story of the fascinating, isolated performer who's now a recluse in her 70s. Though frail in her old age, Chiyoko has vivid memories of her youth and what made her into a film idol so many years ago. She tells the story of a young man on the run who left her with an important key back in her youth...a young man she would cross oceans to find. As she discusses this obsession, she weaves back and forth between reality and the films she made, taking Genya and Kyoji on a journey through a tangled life that must be experienced to be understood.
Millennium Actress is a hard movie to describe accurately because, like its predecessor, its technique is part of the form of the movie. The narrative comes at us in unique ways, as the documentarians wind up a part of Chiyoko's flashbacks. We can't always tell the reality from the fiction, and yet we're not supposed to. Millennium Actress is less concerned with telling a true-life story and more in blending together a love story for the ages that incorporates all of Chiyoko's life experiences together in a ninety-minute microcosm. Chiyoko's story isn't limited to the experiences she's had but expands to the world of films she's starred in.
In some ways, it helps us realize that the vicarious experiences we have through reading books, watching shows, and experiencing dramas become a part of our own lives. If someone were to recount our lives stating only what we did, not what we thought and felt about situations and how we were affected by our experiences, so much of our lives would be left out. Millennium Actress weaves together those experiences of Chiyoko's--her thoughts, her experiences, and her career--into a whole that more fully gives us the reality of her life.
At the same time, Millennium Actress is not that complex at all. The layers are there to analyze, but they won't impede your enjoyment of the picture, either. Although some violent passages would frighten young children, it's simple enough at a basic level that middle school and high school students would enjoy it. It's also one of the first anime films to come out that would potentially appeal to a whole family, including women in particular. My wife is not an anime fan, and yet she was excited about seeing it and thoroughly enjoyed the movie.
Normally, I speak critically about animation details for those who appreciate that sort of thing. I won't do so for Millennium Actress other than to say the graphics are flawless for what they were trying to accomplish. Even skeptics should be impressed by the animation here. There is amazing use of color, giving the film a visual motif virtually unlike other anime I've seen. It would be worth seeing for that alone.
However, Millennium Actress gives you so much more than appealing artwork and characters. It has the creative juice to make this a landmark and the touching appeal to stir the hearts and imaginations of its audience. It's a love story with a unique charm that has as much to do with our desire to find love as it does real love itself. And on top of it all, it's exciting and fresh. I rented this one because of dwindling funds, but that was a mistake...it's a keeper.
Millennium Actress -- violence -- A+