Millennium Actress’s credits open with the view from a train, as light flickers past in a tunnel before giving way to city skyline. It’s fitting that an animated movie about the deception of film begins with those flickering lights; the light of a train on a tunnel is itself one of the simplest forms of animation, a series of starkly lit shots creating the appearance of motion. As the view transitions to a bombed city under blue skies, the image shifts, with a plane overhead melting into first a modern passenger jet, and then a rocket in space. Fluid transitions across time and space are an accepted part of reality in this world; what matters is not the base nature of the world, but the dramatic throughline of the object in flight. What catches the eye is what remains. What we remember is what exists.
Satoshi Kon is obsessed with versions of reality, both ones we inhabit ourselves and ones we impose on others. His works often question the validity of a communal world, or at least demonstrate the profound power our individual worlds can hold. Paranoia Agent expresses this through a collection of character-specific vignettes and an examination of rumors; Perfect Blue digs directly into one fraying mind, and transposes it against the fabricated reality of a media idol. The running thread of each of these works is “we inhabit many different worlds.”
Millennium Actress is a journey through many such realities, a melding of them that through its medley seems to imply the absence of any “real” truth. Its central character is Chiyoko Fujiwara, an actress who rose through wartime and postwar films to become an icon of the 1950s. And in the context of this movie, “becoming an icon” is more than an easy turn of phrase. Becoming a movie star made Chiyoko something eternal, something beyond herself – the titular Millennium Actress, a symbol of something more than human.
Chiyoko never really cared about being an actress; as we learn early on, even that was a performance, a choice made to pursue a maybe-lover from an adolescent story like a war romance dream. As Chiyoko chases a man she barely knew across a lifetime of film history, we see her life story reinterpreted again and again. Scenes from warring states epics segue into bandit raids and ninja battles, and then collapse into melancholy post-war dramas. Through all these scenes, Chiyoko pledges to return the key that opens “the most important thing in the world” to a man of mystery, as her own identity is captured and reframed and invented again and again.
All of the central characters in Millennium Actress interpret the image of The Star in their own ways, for their own purposes. The film’s framing device is that an old fan of Chiyoko’s, Genya Tachibana, is making a documentary cataloging her life, and to him, she is as enduring as her movies. Her roles live on in his memory and tears, and each new movie setpiece leads to him donning a new outfit in order to become her faithful servant once more. The camera’s constant presence, both in the films Chiyoko actually starred in and the documentary being made of her memories, feels like an inescapable thing, a fact of her reality, and we see what that type of interpretive lens makes her to the director. He screams at the beginning that “she’ll never grow old!”, and as the movie proceeds, we see what those words really mean. Though Satoshi Kon often paints the obsessive fan in a deeply unflattering light (both Perfect Blue and Paranoia Agent are fairly down on the notion), Genya’s obsession is laughed at but not truly despised by this movie. Considering how often Kon returns to this topic, he clearly must see at least some element of himself in Genya’s one-sided love.
Other characters interpret Chiyoko in far less flattering ways. At one point, Chiyoko is cursed by an old crone in a samurai epic, who condemns her to spend a thousand years in search of her love. “I hate you more than I can bear,” screams the old woman, “and I love you more than I can bear.” Hers is the view of the inescapable audience, the jeering crowds facing all stars. The famous are loved not for who they are, but what they are assumed to be – they are loved for a brief snapshot, a moment in time. They are loved as a symbol and then despised for not remaining that symbol, or simply for existing and inspiring jealousy in those who feel their fandom love grants them some ownership of their obsession. They are loved like a butterfly under glass.
That kind of public framing and ownership, where fan and performer realities are never quite aligned, isn’t really something stars can rise above; it’s a reality they either accept or flee from. While Chiyoko has her own passions that “keep her young,” her career is regularly contrasted against fellow actress Eiko Shimao, introduced as the studio’s lead star when Chiyoko is just a beginner. As Chiyoko’s star rises, Eiko’s inevitably fades, and she expresses this through a constant resentment towards Chiyoko. As Chiyoko is cast in one or another defiant lead role, Eiko is cast as the jaded elder, screaming “I taught you everything you know. And now, you’ve shamed me” in both the movie and the real world. Eiko’s role reflects the commodified nature of both actresses and women generally across the ages, and in the end, she even ends up being cast as the betrayer in Chiyoko’s life story, by one more man in a position of total power.
But female stars aren’t the only one cast in arbitrary roles. Every character in this film is trapped in roles they’ve either chosen or been cast in, from the skeleton documentary crew to the government man who stands in Chiyoko’s way. Consistently reoccuring as a nefarious scar-faced villain, he appears at the end as a broken man, repentant for the things his government made him do, unforgiven. His ungenerous casting feels like a reflection of the actual weight of Millennium Actress’s questions, and the power of the realities it implies. When Chiyoko is first propositioned by a studio, her participation is framed as “contributing to the country” through the creation of wartime propaganda films. When her mysterious painter states he must leave for Manchuria, he states “my friends are fighting in Manchuria. A paintbrush isn’t much help, though.” And yet, in spite of this, he is captured for his views, and ultimately tortured for his actions. Even Chiyoko’s film actions are inherently political, regardless of her emotional distance from them. Framing reality as fiction may be a coping device, but it is not without merit, not when you accept that fiction itself has real power.
And fiction is more than just a tool for good or evil, or a way we identify others. The overall structure of Millennium Actress implies that fiction is often the way we parse the world. Chiyoko’s memories are scrambled by film scripts, but that doesn’t make the key points any less real. Brilliant usage of swipes and match cuts hammer this point home visually all throughout the movie, as moments are connected not by their temporal links, but by the filmic techniques and dramatic variables that brought them to life. Millennium Actress feels like an homage both to classic films specifically and to the enduring power of film in general, even as it questions how stardom makes distant icons out of individual human beings. The filmic is simultaneously beautiful and dangerous, fabricated and real.
In the end, Chiyoko even defines herself outside of the context of a human being. Reflecting on her decision to quit acting, she states that by the end, she “wasn’t the girl he’d remember anymore.” The actress stays young and beautiful not by living forever, but by retiring young, and letting her on-screen adventures be her memorial. Just as fans damn the idol for daring to express their humanity, so too did Chiyoko fear being made human herself.
But unlike many of Kon’s cynical stories, Millennium Actress does not seem to condemn the film lie. Even Chiyoko’s fabled lover was essentially a fantasy, and the movie does not begrudge her that love. It is terrible when our worship of the ideal makes us condemn the human being; what happened to Eiko was unconscionable, and even outside of wartime propaganda, the power of media to make us believe a lie must always be examined. But as Chiyoko sets forth on one more grand adventure, she does not seem to resent her dreams for only ever being dreams. “Maybe it doesn’t matter,” she says, the stars blurring into blinding stage light. “After all, it’s the chasing after him I really love.”
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