Millennium Actress (2000) is a film about two kinds of love affairs. One, the classic unrequited love for a mysterious stranger, the other, a love for the classic era of Japanese cinema.
As Ginei Studios is being closed down and demolished, a video journalist, Tachibana, has secured an interview with the studios leading actress Chiyoko Fujiwira, who retired from show business and has been a recluse for the past thirty years. The elderly Chiyoko is eager to talk of her days as an actress, and after Tachibana gives her a key that he took from the studio grounds, she begins to recall how she became an actress. The key was given to her by a revolutionary that she met while a girl. After helping the wounded young man escape the police, he tells her of his home, gives her the key, and for the first time in her life, she is smitten.
She becomes an actress, winning a role in a propaganda film in Manchuria, intending to follow and hoping to find this revolutionary. She goes on to become the studios key face. As she recounts her long life as an actress, always searching for this stranger, her real/film life intertwines. Tachibana and his young cameraman fall into these worlds where Chiyoko is a samurai maiden character,... a geisha,... an astronaut. Tachibana, a longtime fan and young apprentice at the studios, also takes on the roles of her benefactor/aide in the film scenarios. Her life spent in search of this stranger with whom she felt a deep connection is mirrored in her films where she chases after, tries to rescue, or reunite with a loved one.
With his previous film, Perfect Blue, anime director/designer Satoshi Kon aimed to chill the spines of viewers whereas with Millennium Actress he aims to tug at the heart. Yet, while inhabiting drastically different genres, they do share the same affinity for "what is reality?", the seamless combination of reality and fantasy worlds. Also, the two have actresses at their center, and in their own way, the actresses each have a stalker- Blue's is deadly and Actress is benign. The look of the animation is pretty much the same, but Millenium Actress has a richness and texture that Perfect Blue, lacked, or should I say, as a suspense film, didn't really need.
The blending of realities is an amazingly realized storytelling device and, in Satoshi Kon's hands, an actual metaphorical plot enhancer rather than a gimmick. At first it is done in a typical cinematic way, elderly Chiyoko's room fading into the studio casting office. At first, Tachibana and his cameraman remaion the same, observers placed in the present then the past, witnessing her life- both her real life and her film life. They must run to keep up with her when she is a teen, hold onto the running boards of a cab she takes, or stand behind her as she tries to escape a burning train. The cameraman remarks, "I feel like a stalker." But, the films themselves have their own reality. When Chiyoko is a samurai lords wife, in a nod to Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, the cameraman narrowly avoids a barrage of enemy arrows. And, it continues, through the ages, through the genres, what was her actual life and her film life merge into one expression of her life spent chasing this ideal of love.
Being a drooling follower of Japanese cinema, Satoshi's love for his countries films, be they geisha dramas, jidai-geki samurai films, or kaiju giant rubber monster movies hit me in my deepest cinema fan heart. On that level the film is a real treat, a love letter to Japanese cinema. Now, that is the good. The bad is that if you actually strip away the visual beauty and the wonderful nostalgia, the film is essentially about the pursuit of some fleeting love. Since the film begins by showing her living as an old woman, basically alone, you know if she did find this stranger, things didn't work out to a lifelong love affair. Also, seeing her reaction to the key he gave her, you also know she still harbors these feelings of him being "the one." Frankly, I find it to be kind of perverse and cruel, these tales of love lost and never had, especially ones where, really, the person is just a stranger with some brief and hollow connection. But still, you've got to live for something, and Millennium Actress hints that maybe, in the end, she lived for the pursuit of this dream itself and not the actual man. I don't find it very warm and fuzzy; ultimately, I find it pretty sad, but it is still an interesting journey.
The DVD: Dreamworks
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Looks great. The animation is wonderful, with nice, subtle details like wood grain and clothing patterns, as well as the movement of the characters which has that old Disney/Fleischer feel like they traced live actors doing the movements. Contrast is adequately deep, and the colors are even and vibrant without suffering from bleeding. Sharpness is also very good, for line animation that is, and overall fans should be very pleased with Dreamworks transfer.
Sound: Dolby Digital Japanese 5.1 Surround or 2.0 Stereo with optional English or French subtitles. Excellent mix, very clear and distinct dialogue, responsive fx, and lush music track. Particularly the audio is very well-balanced, nothing gets too overwhelming, each aspect of the audio flowing along naturally, with only the occasional melodramatic music cue really becoming omnipresent.
Extras: Chapter Selections--- US Trailer--- "Making Of" Featurette (40:42) This is what all featurettes should be like. It takes you from the early inception of the film to the premiere with all the key production points in-between. All aspects are covered, particularly designs, with plenty of interviews and behind the scenes insights.
Conclusion: Very nice work of dramatic anime. Certainly the world of anime needs more creators like Satoshi, that is, artists who won't give us another pandering schoolgirl/demon/space/action/fantasy but will use animation as a radical and offbeat means to present their stories. Dreamworks does a very good job with the transfer and the featurette is a perfect extra, making this a worthwhile purchase.