Millennium Actress
(Sennen joyu) (2001)
Directed by Satoshi Kon

Artistic Value: * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * *

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After Genya Tachibana, a documentary film maker, tracks down a reclusive former movie star, Chiyoko Fujiwara, she relates the events of her life to him and he and his cameraman imagine themselves participating in those occurrences.

While it is burdened with a number of faults, Satoshi Kon's animated Millennium Actress is frequently so visually breathtaking and so narratively captivating that it is a real pleasure to watch.


The director begins his film by showing how Genya and his cameraman arrive at the house where the elderly Chiyoko is living and how she tells the pair stories about her life. Into this scenario, Kon inserts depictions of the incidents Chiyoko is narrating, as well as presentations of happenings from the various movies she has made, in both of which Genya and his assistant envision themselves taking part. The viewer is, nevertheless, always aware that the scenes depicting the events so narrated are set either in Chiyoko's childhood or in one of her films, although which of these two is not invariably clear, so that such sequences do not become confused with others set in the world of the framing story. Kon, thus, does not create a sense of bafflement and delusion, as he did in his earlier work, Perfect Blue, but rather exposes the sheer potency of the enthralled imagination, that wonderful ability so many people have to lose themselves in a tale and to take part in it as though they were participants in the events being described.


Fortunately, the story the director has created with such devices is itself captivating. The moviegoer is, for example, shown how Chiyoko, when she was a teenager, sheltered a young dissident artist who was fleeing from the police and fell in love with this man, though she barely knew him. Kon goes on to reveal how, after this incident, Chiyoko took a role in a movie being filmed in Manchuria, hoping that she could, thereby, find that man, who had left her after telling her he was going there. Although her efforts to discover him are unsuccessful, Chiyoko continues her quest to do so throughout her life. While making more movies and growing ever more famous, she remains intent upon rediscovering that shadowy individual to whom she had given her heart as an idealistic young girl.


Not only are Chiyoko's efforts to locate her lost love involving, but her movie career is so filled with wonders, petty rivalries, and tragedies that it is also a joy to watch. In her various films, which are set in diverse times, from the ancient past to the present day to the future, and which straddle several genres, including samurai epics, family dramas like those of Ozu, and science fiction, she is often cast as a youthful heroine who is repeatedly opposed by an older female. These latter characters, intriguingly, are always played by the same woman, who is ever more jealous of her younger and more successful colleague and who frequently endeavors to hurt her. At the same time, a callous director working for the same studio as does Chiyoko resolves to marry her and eventually succeeds in doing so, although she, in time, learns that he is a less than admirable individual.


In addition to its narrative appeal, Millennium Actress is absolutely stunning to look at. I will admit that I do not greatly care for Kon's character designs, especially those he uses for female characters, but, be that as it may, there is so much in the movie that is beautiful that I was wholly carried away by it. The director's depictions of the events set in Chiyoko's present and those set in her past are both nicely done and attractive, but the scenes which present incidents from her films are truly amazing. At different times, Kon reveals his heroine riding in a carriage through a forest of cherry blossoms, dressed as a samurai and fighting armies of enemies, running across the dusty surface of the moon, or wandering through snowy wastes. There is, in fact, not one such scene that will not transport the viewer out of his ordinary life and immerse him in the fictional world the director has conjured up.


In spite of its numerous appealing elements, I must concede that Millennium Actress is not without flaws. Genya is often entirely too likely to give in to histrionics, his cameraman is an annoying caricature, and the film's final moments are, frankly, silly and unaffecting. As occasionally irritating as these shortcomings can be, they do not, however, so compromise the movie as to prevent watching it from being a mesmerizing experience.


Although it never rises to greatness, Millennium Actress is a frequently beautiful, often inventively realized, and genuinely enjoyable film.

Review by Keith Allen

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