Enthusiastic documentarian Genya – and his wry, tagalong camera guy – track down retired movie star Chiyoko Fujiwara, a recluse who graciously agrees to talk about her career, her mysterious personal life and a huge slice of Japanese 20th century history. In Chiyoko’s memories, her life melds with the movies she made, so her story keeps shifting genre and style, as contemporary characters are pulled into a samurai epic or a giant monster film.
Writer-director Satoshi Kon, who died in 2010 at the early age of 46, left behind a slender filmography, bookended by the stalker thriller Perfect Blue and the mind-expanding science fiction picture Paprika. Millennium Actress (2001) is Kon’s richest, most personal film, infused with a fan’s love for Japanese popular cinema but given a beating heart by its evolving portrait of a heroine seen throughout her life (voiced by three different actresses), refracted in the many roles she plays. As a child in the 1930s, Chiyoko has a tiny meeting with a fleeing political dissident who gives her a key she carries throughout her life – except for significant periods when it’s taken away from her then given back. She only becomes an actress – against the wishes of her mother, who wants her to run the family sweetshop – to follow the escaping rebel to Manchuria. Her search for the mystery man becomes the dominant factor in her life … and perhaps the secret of her onscreen glamour.
Following Perfect Blue, this is is acute about the stresses of showbusiness on a young woman who struggles to live her own life while fulfilling the fantasies of fans, coping with manipulative (mostly male) producers, fending off a jealous rival who’s been through the same mill but now resents someone younger taking the spotlight, and retaining her own essential character while taking on a succession of images that spring out of reality but threaten to overtake it. Prefiguring Paprika, it’s dizzying in its shifts of levels of reality – shuffling through past and present and movies and real life. It’s always anchored in strong emotions, whether in the aching romanticism of the heroine’s impossible lifelong quest or the poignance of her return after the War to the rubble-strewn ruins of that sweetshop.
That Kon completed only four features tends to mean he gets relegated to footnote status while Hayao Miyazaki soaks up all the attention due the wide field of Japanese animation – which is a huge mistake. Millennium Actress is one of the key films of the turn of the century (it includes a sweet tribute to 2001 A Space Odyssey) in that it’s a handy run-down of Japanese film history inside an emotional rollercoaster.
NB: a format change means that a couple of pieces which would have featured in my Empire column are now going to be web exclusives. This is one of them.