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Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon, 2001) 

    A tepidly conceived ride through the psyche of an aging actress, Perfect Blue director Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress would deserve credit for being more thematically ambitious than the average animated film if it incorporated those themes with any aplomb. Set in the present day, the movie opens as a documentarian and his cameraman travel to the home of reclusive actress Chiyoko Fujiwara, whose life has more or less mirrored the tumultuous trajectory of the Japanese sound cinema. As the two filmmakers begin to interview the actress, they find themselves so captivated by her telling of her past that they seem to be cast into active roles in her memories and film roles. At times, it appears that the film is commenting on our active role as spectators of cinema, but as the movie continues, and reveals its perception of Chiyoko’s life to be one extended chase scene, it becomes apparent that it’s not very engaged with any such concepts. As it searches for a consistent thread throughout the roles that Chiyoko has played, it ends up simply making her life’s work seem trite. 

    Like Perfect Blue, it doesn’t really feel like Millennium Actress is significantly better as an animated film than it would be as a live action feature. There are only a few moments where the animation itself becomes truly expressive by realizing the potential of the medium, and they don’t convey more emotion than a good actor would. The approach taken here begs comparison to such live action films about actresses such as Good Men, Good Women, Esther Kahn, and Stanley Kwan’s Actress, but it comes up way short in comparison to any of them. Though, by virtue of looking at the entire life of a seventy-year-old actress through her work on screen, it addresses themes of memory and history, it seems to actively get in the way of a serious consideration of either. The scenario offers a perfect opportunity to incorporate historical events like the censorship of Japanese cinema by the United States that occurred during the postwar occupation, but the script is blissfully unaware of such things. To describe her feelings about the postwar period the actress narrates, “Wanting to make good films was all that kept us going.” While that might accurately reflect the state of mind of the character as written, one has to wonder why she’s been written so blandly. Even more irksome than what Millennium Actress doesn’t include is the way it handles what it chooses to. Throughout the film, as the movie delineates Chiyoko’s versatility as an actress, it attempts to show us the roles that she played. Inexplicably, though, she seemed to star in anomalies such as a Samurai film from the 1940s with a female lead, shot in the rapid fire style of a modern action film. I appreciate the effort that Millennium Actress makes in when trying to pay homage to one of the world’s great cinematic cultures, but when it gets the details so wrong, it plays more as an affront to history than a celebration of it.




Jeremy Heilman