Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Genya and his cameraman Kyoji are assigned of making a documentary of an studio that is being torn down. Genya though sees this as a great chance to interview the meanwhile 75-year old actress Chiyoko Fujiwara, of whom he is a great fan of for decades. The two meet Chiyoko in her house and she starts narrating her life: as a teenager, she met a painter who was the government rebel and saved him from the police. He gave her a key and she fell in love with him. Since he was sent to Manchuria, she accepted a role in a film that was filmed there, hoping to find him. In the post Word War II period, she made many movies, hoping he will see and contact her. Finally, she gave up and retired from acting. Back in present, she becomes ill and goes to the hospital, while Genya confesses to Kyoji that an old Japanese soldiers told him he tortured and killed the painter back when she was a teen.
Satoshi Kon's 2nd feature length film, "Millennium Actress" is arguably the best of all his four films: a gentle, melancholic, wonderfully emotional story with humor that is at the same time a sly homage and synechdoche to Japanese cinema as a whole. The 75-year old heroine Chiyoko - loosely based on the life of actress Satsuko Hara - narrates her life and film career, yet Kon used a genius, inventive idea of the two interviewees - fan Genya and his cameraman Kyoji - getting so sucked in into her narration that they find themselves in the middle of her films, almost as a "3-D narration", which gives the conventional biopic storyline a fresh, comical and creative momentum. For instance, in one scene, Chiyoko plays a princess in a film set in the Middle Ages, but just as she is about to get killed by a collapsing wall, she is saved by a samurai - whose face belongs to Genya! This is especially memorable for Genya, who was Chiyoko's fan all his life, and actually saved her life for real when he was an assisstant working on her last film as a teenager. This even goes so far that a middle-aged Genya finds himself in the same scene with the teenage Genya.
Similarly like "Perfect Blue", Kon again uses a trick that an event suddenly turns out to be just a clip from a film, but here he developed a better sense for characters and their emotions, which gives the film spark. The story is also a clever essay on the fan-idol relationships: Chiyoko became an actress only to meet her idol again, a painter she met when she was a teenager, and continued making films hoping he will see and contact her one day. The tragic resolution of his fate at the end is both heartbreaking and romantic at the same time. However, this is again mirrored in Genya, who considers Chiyoko an idol, even though their platonic love is also destined to fail. "Actress" is filled with subtly touching emotions that always seem natural and even, never forced or melodramatic (in the midst of WWII ruins, Chiyoko finds her portrait on a destroyed wall, evidently from her painter), whereas the finale is clever (Chiyoko runs after recieving the letter of her painter, and this transforms into all her film characters in a dozen of scenes aligning into running in search for someone), all amounting to a shining anime.