Films that are biographical are known for being quite emotional – you’re taken on a journey through someone’s life, usually from their perspective, you become attached and the big ending happens and you’re left contemplating life. Millennium Actress is no different.
Millennium Actress is the 2001 film, directed by Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Paprika, Tokyo Godfathers) which focuses on merging reality and the imagination. It follows two filmmakers (Genya Tachibana and Kyoji Ida) on their quest to interview and produce a film of retired actress Chiyoko Fujiwara, a former star of the now bankrupt Ginei Studios. A simple idea, perhaps, but it’s done beautifully, as expected of Kon’s work.
The beauty is first shown in the first couple of scenes. The film starts with Genya Tachibana sat in an office of what we can assume to be a part of Ginei Studios, watching footage of Fujiwara’s films. As he rewinds the tape, we have a sneak peek of what’s to come within Millennium Actress, with the title of the film fading in as we watch the tape rewinding. The scene transitions into one showing a journey using the same pattern made by the blurred lines of the tape rewinding as what can be seen to be a tunnel and this style of seamless transitioning is seen throughout the film. Clips of Tachibana’s reality fade into clips of Fujiwara’s films and they fit perfectly, like a jigsaw puzzle being put together. Not only that, the fact that Fujiwara’s films fit well with the reality that is set, arguably, in the time period the audience is sat in, adds to the reminiscing-like feeling that Kon places onto the viewer, and this is particularly noticeable when the viewer is able to see how Tachibana is looking out of the van’s window deep in thought.
The scenery within Millennium Actress is something that cannot go unnoticed. How Kon progresses from a bright and colourful cityscape to one destroyed by warfare, all whilst having a seamless transition of having a van involved, really puts things into perspective for the viewer – it gives the viewer perspective on when Fujiwara was an actress, what sort of movies she was involved in, but also context of the history of not only that city, but Japan and the world as whole. It gives insight on what the cinema was like then, insight on what lives were actually like. The colours used within the different types of scenery, whether it’s a cityscape or the bamboo-lined path to Fujiwara’s house, all make it seem so reminiscent – a common theme within this movie, but it works so well and makes the entire setting idyllic in some sort of, arguably, manipulative way. However, if it’s all so reminiscent, what happens when the film enters a flashback of Fujiwara’s movies? Well, the colours turn to add some, at times slightly sepia-like, faded tones – something that works really well and makes the entire film look incredibly pretty.
The soundtrack is also something you can’t avoid being aware of. As with the majority of Satoshi Kon’s films, the soundtrack is a masterpiece in itself. The music in Millennium Actress is as nostalgic as the visuals, but there’s somewhat of a twist in the effects. As nostalgic as it sounds, the soundtrack can also sound futuristic and, acting as an oxymoron, these two feelings seem to come together to produce perfection. The music has an oriental sound to it, with at times a horror-movie feel to it. There’s so many different sounds within the OST that there’s pretty much a piece of music in it for everyone to enjoy.
The true beauty within Kon’s movie, however, is the fact that it raises many issues from within Japaense society, all by using the story of Fujiwara and her movies. The fact that women were expected to raise a family instead of working, how trivial the movie industry was, the concept of falling in love and marriage… These are just a couple of the issues raised in this movie, but each issue is showcased in a way that makes the viewer think. They’re often disguised by the smaller narratives of the story, only really being able to be seen if you’re aware of the cultural issues within Japan before viewing the movie. (At least, that’s how it came across within the group whom I was watching this film with..)
The film, however, is not without its negatives. Many members of the audience could in fact become confused with the ever-overlapping visuals that occur within the movie. It requires some out-of-the box thinking at times, simply due to the amount of visual metaphors that occur, so this probably won’t be ideal if you’re looking for an easy-to-view movie. However, the film does have one big disappointment. If you’re a person who prefers to watch anime in dub, I’m warning you now that the English dub for Millennium Actress is downright terrible. The voice of Tachibana, John Vernon, rarely suits the character and reminded me of the voice acting displayed in children’s TV – admittedly something that Vernon is most known for, according to his IMDb profile.
Personally, I find the voice of Kyoji Ida contrastingly brilliant, despite what other people may say. Kyoji is meant to be lazy, he’s meant to be pessimistic, and this is shown in Stuart Milligan’s performance. Milligan’s performance is definitely one of the best from such a small cast. Saying that, however, the script also needs to be criticised. Although part of his character, the one liners that come from Ida seemed a little out of place at times and quite unnecessary. Those that were appropriately placed, however, were funny, despite the film itself not really being one to laugh at.
Millennium Actress is a piece of art. It’s a masterpiece. Conceptually, that is. I like the idea of going back in time and looking at someone else’s life, particularly by going through various different works by Fujiwara herself. However, my enjoyment of the film wasn’t particularly up to scratch. For one, the dub was terrible and it took a lot of effort just to ignore how bad it was, but secondly, the ending also ruined the fun of it. Of course, I’m not going to reveal too much about it here for the sake of spoilers, however this does link back to criticising the script somewhat. Despite that, Millennium Actress is a movie I recommend, just not if you want a film that’s easy to watch on a Sunday night.
Cover art illustration by abbytorrendon