Chiyoko Fujiwara was once a major movie star who dominated the Japanese cinema world. Thirty years ago, she abruptly disappeared from the screen and from public view. One of her greatest admirers, Genya Tachibana, is a documentary filmmaker who has traveled to the isolated mountain lodge where she makes her home to interview her. There, he presents her with an old key, and as if the key had opened a door to her memories, Chiyoko starts telling the story of her life, interweaving moments from her past and future and passing through the boundary between reality and the movies that had made up so much of her life.
As her story unfolds, Chiyoko seems to transcend time and space, traveling freely through the corridors of fictional movies and reality. Chiyoko was born when the Great Earthquake hit Tokyo in 1923, as war was looming in Imperial Japan. At a very young age, she is discovered as an actress, and soon becomes one of Japan's most popular stars. Over the course of her career, her movies and roles encompass all the epochs of Japanese history, bringing her and her audience back more than five hundred years, and then moving chronologically through the centuries to the present and beyond as she pursues her first great love through time and space.
Herself the Elf sez: Millennium Actress is quite a different beast from director Satoshi Kon's last movie, Perfect Blue. Where Perfect Blue was a chilling descent into psychological horror, Millennium Actress is the powerful, touching and bittersweet story of a woman's remarkable life and her pursuit of a love that's always just out of reach.
The same technique of a trippy, surrealistic melding of reality and fantasy is used, but here it's used to show the passage of time and to take us through Chiyoko's varied film career. Unlike with Perfect Blue, the blurring of reality and fiction is not confusing--it's more poetic than dizzying and adds to the sense of time passing. The movies Chiyoko acted in and the events of her own life are inseparably blended, perhaps evoking the blurriness of memory at her advanced age. You could try to pick apart exactly what is reality and what isn't, or try to figure out how Tachibana and his cameraman could possibly be with Chiyoko in the past, but that defeats the whole point of the movie.
The art style is gorgeous, ranging from photorealistic backgrounds showing Chiyoko's journey through time to traditional anime style, in a range of colour themes to suit various settings. The animation itself is very clean-lined but in an older style, and somewhat minimal on the frames, so that might put some finicky people off, but you don't really notice it after the first ten minutes. The music, by Susumu Hirasawa (you may remember his great stuff from Berserk) is simple but evocative, powerful and perfectly suited to the movie, with a sweet, gentle sound subtly underscored by a sense of urgency.
Millennium Actress is at its heart a bittersweet love story; some may see Chiyoko and her quest as futile, but really it's about enjoying the process as opposed to the end goal, and a love that persists beyond time and memory. Ultimately the movie is not about plot, but emotion, and uses the dreamlike storytelling methods to evoke Chiyoko's love, still strong even after so many years. A beautiful and delicate yet powerful story, Millennium Actress is highly recommended.
Available on DVD October 2003.