Millennium Actress Review

millennium-actress-new-634bed0788d856e9f459f213f9c0131e
AKA: Sennen Joyuu
Genre: Experimental/Drama/Docufiction

Year Released: 2001
Distributor: Shout! Factory/Eleven Arts

Origin: Japan
Running Time: 87 minutes

Rating/Recommended Audience: PG

Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Millennium Actress is a very unique film, and I don’t know anything outside of other Satoshi Kon works that would come close to this one.

Notes:

-I watched the Japanese language version on the Shout! Factory DVD.
Fun Facts:

-Millennium Actress is the first of two original screenplays by Satoshi Kon and it’s the only one that became a feature length film. The other one is Paranoia Agent.

-Chiyoko Fujiwara is played by three different actresses during the different stages of her life. I’ll focus on the Japanese language version. When Chiyoko is in her teens and twenties, she’s played by Fumiko Orikasa whom you might know as Rukia from Bleach, Hikari from Haibane Renmei, and Chise from Saikano. When she’s in her late twenties to her forties, she’s played by Mami Koyama. One might know her voice acting work as Zabi from the original Mobile Suit Gundam, Arale from Dr. Slump, and Big Mom from One Piece, her seventy-something self is played by Miyoko Shoji who was Monica Arno from Gundam F91, Kyoko from Chihayafuru 2, and Helen in the 2003 Astro Boy Remake. Speaking of Kon and voice acting…

-Hilarious in Hindsight: In the 2019 English dub, Chiyoko’s elder self is played by Cindy Robinson who has also been a dub voice for a Kon film. She was the English voice of Dr. Atsuko Chiba in Paprika! Another hilarious aspect is the constant talk of going to a promised place should remind anyone of The Place Promised In Our Early Days. The fact that Hokkaido plays a part in both films makes it even more fascinating (relax, Shinkai didn’t ripoff this movie).

-Film Buff Bonus: Millennium Actress homages and references Throne of Blood, Godzilla, and even Ninja Scroll briefly as Chiyoko tells her story.

-This movie was scored by Susumu Hirasawa who has also done music work for Detonator Orgun, Paranoia Agent, and all versions of Berserk (the original anime, the remake series, and the Dreamcast game).


Yes! Part of one of my 2020 reviewing goals have been achieved. This is another entry into Satoshi Kon’s work that I covered. Can you believe this year will be an entire decade since he passed away? I’ve said this before, but this bears repeating. Satoshi Kon died way too soon and I know he would’ve had way more good movies in him before he succumbed to his illnesses. He deserved so much better and I wished more people would know about him and his works. Kon-sensei may have passed on, but his legacy will still be here with the movies he was able to create during his time on this planet. Anyone who thinks animation is childish or stupid needs to get slapped with one of his DVDs. We’re not covering some crappy Saturday Morning advertisement or overrated animated feature in the silver screen.

No, we’re going to deal with something worth so much more. I hope it doesn’t take a millennium for others to discover Kon’s work.

Millennium Actress takes place after Ginei Studios is demolished after being in business for several decades. After parting with that legendary studio, documentary filmmaker Genya Tachibana wants to start a new project involving the actress Chiyoko Fujiwara. She has been in a Zsa Zsa Gabor or Greta Garbo-esque seclusion by herself for thirty-years and one main reason why Tachibana wants to interview her besides being a fan of her work in Japanese cinema is that he holds a key that belonged to her. Him and his younger, yet disillusioned cameraman Kyoji Ida get her address and the elderly Chiyoko is thrilled to be involved in this documentary and to get her key back. As she’s being interviewed, the film becomes very experimental as she tells her life’s story, but in the form of her filmography as Tachibana and Ida happen to show up as people “filming” her genre roulette of a story with war dramas, samurai chanbara stories, tokusatsu, sci-fi, and various period pieces. It all started by meeting a draft dodger who gave her a key as he painted while avoiding the Sino-Japanese War and World War II, but this story becomes quite elaborate in her life. However, she insists to do this for the whole day at all costs.

I first saw this film when I was a teenager when I rented the DVD back when Dreamworks (Yes, THAT Dreamworks) originally licensed it. Watching this again was something I was extremely thankful in doing with the re-release. The animation may not be as grandiose as his final work Paprika, but this was still very impressive. Madhouse certainly delivers on that front not just with the normal slice-of-life kind of moments, but with the elaborate genre-changing aspects that move seamlessly in different parts of Chiyoko being interviewed, mixing in photography with animation, creative usages of gradients, and this was all hand-drawn, so that tactile element was amazing. The overall concept of making a documentary in a fictional environment is incredibly innovative and the movie wouldn’t have the impact if this were done in a live-action setting (same with Perfect Blue although for completely different reasons). Sure, some people are going to make comparisons to Forrest Gump and/or Titanic with the aspect of the main character telling others their life stories, but the similarities are skin deep. I guarantee you both films have nowhere near as much depth or creativity in their methods of storytelling. Chiyoko’s story was so powerful and insightful with how she grew up when Japan was ultra-nationalistic in her youth with two wars she lived through and the first movie she was in had propaganda aspects since they were filming in Manchuria. If you know anything about history or saw my review of Nanking that was a part of China that was annexed by the invading Japanese forces. She comes back after they surrendered and then things improve culturally in that country. However, she kept on hoping and wishing that the man with the key was somewhere waiting for her even into her seventies. It gets so heartbreaking and wistful seeing her become a recluse for thirty years. She didn’t deserve this, but she still had that optimism for him long after she stepped foot into a movie studio. There were some twists that I didn’t see coming after not watching this film for over a decade now. Things were handled very well. Even the more antagonistic characters had human elements to them like the military officer or Eiko, the haughty veteran actress were believable in their personalities and goals. Any other director would’ve made them one-note villains, but they had dimensions to them in their screen time. Tachibana certainly can come across as a fanboy, but he’s still professional and actually had an indirect role in interacting with her decades ago during his younger adult years (spoilers minimized). What I really enjoyed was that he was an actual character with agency instead of a plot device to just get answers from Chiyoko like so many whodunit movies for example. He was someone who really wanted her story told for the right reasons even if he has moments where his fandom gets into filming like how he plays multiple characters in the films she references along the way which was quite funny.

It was also a treat with the movie imagery and references. I’m sure hardcore film buffs will love the stealth references to Godzilla, multiple Akira Kurosawa flicks, and even a brief Grave of the Fireflies reference of all things when Chiyoko’s character is in danger of being firebombed. One thing that caught my eye was the recurring rocket imagery in the beginning and end of the film. I assume it’s a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey although other sci-fi movies could also work as well. Chiyoko’s destined to find that person and when that scene is repeated at the end, the metaphor is very tragic and some of you might even shed a tear once the gravity of the situation really sinks in. The imagery of Chiyoko’s filmography and references to real movies adds another layer. It’s a convergence between reality and fantasy with is a Kon thumbprint over several of his works. There was truth in what she said, but the movie life and her own personal dreams all collide to the point where Tachibana and his cameraman are caught up into her own visions (Tachibana more so by energetically quoting lines from the movies she references in the “real life” scenes). Strangely enough, the music adds to it. There are some traditional and periodic works, but there are some electronic pieces that are set in between some of the scenes that involve the samurai movies that take place hundreds of years ago. That shows the anachronism of modernity converging with these historical plots which worked surprisingly well and it can show that she couldn’t escape the condition of “now” even when she plays a character from the past. Even her own life was like a movie in itself when she sees the mysterious man with the key. His arc words of “Tomorrow means hope” would’ve been so cheesy anywhere else, but it meant so much to her with searching for him no matter what and also that sense of hope that things can get better just by living for that tomorrow which is never promised. Those three simple words really have a new dynamic during the finally in a subtle way which is quite powerful given who said it and the aftermath and revelation of his whereabouts. Kon may do weird things with his movies and animation, but he knows how to tug on the heartstrings so well.

Millennium Actress does have a few issues. While the animation is still impressive, I thought his later films were better animated. There were a couple of points when the production quality did dip a bit which was disappointing. I understand that Chiyoko and Tachibana get the most development and characterization, but some of the people in the former’s life get underdeveloped. The biggest one was Junichi Otaki who is Ginei Studio’s founder’s nephew who eventually inherits the company. He comes off as some showoff filmmaker who is a jerk, but his arc with him and Chiyoko could’ve had more insight especially how those two interact later on in their respective adulthoods. I don’t want to spoil what happens, but they blow pass one major plot point in under a minute and they could’ve explained more about what they were like. The last thing that I can think of was the overall time allotment of Chiyoko’s filmography. I’m fine with how they handled the sci-fi aspect which was her last film according to the plot, but they emphasized a ton of the Kurosawa analog works and the early 20th century period pieces she would be involved with. The Godzilla parody felt a tiny bit like movie-reference padding even if it added to the conflict (metaphorically of course) with searching for the man with the key. Yes, that was the most painfully obvious reference that even those who don’t know about Japanese cinema would get, but I thought it did reach a bit.

With all of that being said with analyzing this film and rediscovering Kon’s second work as a director, I thought long and hard about this before coming to a certain conclusion. Millennium Actress is not just Kon’s most underrated and overlooked film, but also my favorite. The level of originality and creativity was outstanding. The main characters really made this film click with me. The story starts out very understated before transforming into something grand and even tragic at times. The animation despite a few errors is still very unique and impressive. I do with some of the other characters would get a bit more development even if Chiyoko was the primary focus of this movie. Millennium Actress is a beautiful piece of work that deserves to be in the highest echelons of animated classics, but it’s a shame not enough people know about this work from the late great Satoshi Kon. Seriously, this is a huge masterpiece that you seriously should see at least once. This is very strongly recommended.

Kon-sensei, much like your character Chiyoko, your works will live on and inspire others.


Adjustable Rating System:

Subtract 1-2 points if you want your animation to be more normal.
Subtract 1-2 points if you like more high-impact stories.

Pros:

-Wonderful and artistic hand-drawn animation
-Highly unique and original story concept
-The drama is very moving and will tug at your heartstrings

Cons:
-Some animation hiccups
-Underdeveloped side characters in Chiyoko’s past
-The Godzilla homage was a bit shallow

Final Score: 10/10 points

Content Warning: Compared to other Satoshi Kon movies, Millennium Actress would look like Sesame Street in hindsight (especially next to Perfect Blue). This film got a PG rating which is the lowest rating a Kon film got in America, but I think it’s a good judgement from the MPAA. There is some blood with some of the fight scenes and with the man with the key who was injured. There is only one instance of profanity and it was only the word “damn”. Some characters drink and smoke, but it’s really more in passing. One character is tortured to death off screen which is mentioned as a plot point. It would be possible to watch this with older children, but I think they might be bored because it’s nothing like anything Disney or Dreamworks would make. The subject matter with the wars, Chiyoko’s frail health in her elder years, and some political elements would fly over the kids’ heads.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Millennium Actress is property of Shout! Factory and Eleven Arts. The poster is from Fathom Events and is property of Shout! Factory and Eleven Arts.

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