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In the vast subgenre of movies about movies, Millennium Actress may not have the stature of many American live-action movies, but director Satoshi Kon has crafted something as beautiful as it is complex, elegantly telling three separate stories that intertwine into an overall narrative. Each one of these stories is a necessary complement to the other, and yet each one is individually exciting, requiring a different skillset and touch from Kon. For years, the film has been largely unavailable in America, released once in the early 2000s on a DVD from DreamWorks that has been out-of-print for years, but the recent attention paid to the late filmmaker's impressive catalog (including the recent Blu-ray of Perfect Blue and upcoming US Blu-ray releases of Tokyo Godfathers and "Paranoia Agent") means it is once again available for film fans to discover and enjoy.
The trio of stories start with the film's primary story, in which Genya Tachibana (Shozo Ikuza) and his cameraman Kyoji Ida (Masaya Onosaka) are filming a documentary about retired movie star Chiyoko Fujiwara (Miyoko Shoji), both as a tribute to her and as a tribute to the recently-shuttered Ginei Studios, which produced the movies that made her famous. The second story is of course Chiyoko's (voiced by Mami Koyama as a young girl, and Fumiko Orikasa as an adult), recounting her career rising through the ranks at Ginei, and the changes happening in the world around her as she grew up. Within that story, there is the story she has never told before, the one that informed her career choices, involving an unnamed dissident who makes an impression on Chiyoko before disappearing, leaving behind only a mysterious key. All three stories run simultaneously, with the loop being closed through Genya (a Fujiawara uber-fan) and Kyoji's appearances within Chiyoko's memories of her past, and the movies she made at Ginei.
While there are exceptions, one of the arguable "lost arts" of traditional animation is the ability for the form to synthesize specific details and movement into an evocation of reality. In Scott McCloud's landmark book Understanding Comics, he speaks about the ability of the brain to turn something as simple as two dots and a curved line into a face, and Kon's animation exists on a spectrum with that example, capturing not just the feeling of human physicality, but also the language of filmmaking itself. Every framing decision or composition, every color choice, every movement is chosen so carefully, whether it's as elaborate as an early sequence where Chiyoko runs through the city trying to get to the train station before it departs, or as simple as the shadow of a cloud pulling back to allow the sunlight to cross the shell of a bombed-out building. The film is rich with little artistic flourishes that make it feel more lived-in or authentic, resulting in a certain beauty of familiarity that doesn't exist in live-action and is generally not possible/necessary in modern 3D animation.
Although the artistry and craft is beautiful in and of itself, it also ties directly into the film's themes about art and/or storytelling as a conduit for emotions and memories. The connection between art and the viewer, and blurring the line between art and reality has been one of Kon's themes throughout his career: Perfect Blue is a hallucinatory nightmare about a former pop star being haunted by a stalker who has absorbed ideas about who she is in reality based on the iconography surrounding her career, and Paprika is often cited as a similar story or potential influence on Christopher Nolan's Inception, both of which use dreams in a way that can be extrapolated to cinema and filmmaking.
Both of those movies are fairly disturbing, delving in and out of the surreal in an unsettling way. Millennium Actress is warmer, and bittersweet, with a longing romance serving as the film's backdrop. The dissident who makes such an impression on Chiyoko is a painter, and he promises to show her his art when they finally have a chance to connect without the looming cloud of Japan's turbulent politics threatening their relationship. Chiyoko's movies serve as extensions of their attempts to find one another, transforming Chiyoko's hunt with backdrops of war, of outer space, of societal pressure, as Chiyoko herself transforms into a chef, a geisha, and a skilled martial artist fending for herself on the road. Whether her films are affecting her or she is affecting her films, it doesn't matter: Chiyoko and the art become one and the same thanks to the alignment of Chiyoko's emotion with that of her characters. For her, the bond is personal and unique, and yet the magic of storytelling is that the very same specificity allows Chiyoko to invest in those films with a sincerity that makes the emotions more abstract, more universal, an idea that extends to Kon's art as a filmmaker. Not only does Chiyoko find ways to extract something meaningful to her in her work, the film is a beautiful multi-faceted prison, allowing us to see what Genya gets out of Chiyoko's movies, and what Chiyoko gets out of Genya's experience, and on and on until it finally unfurls out to the film itself, and what the viewer gets out of Kon's storytelling.
Millennium Actress makes its North American Blu-ray debut courtesy of Shout! Factory and Eleven Arts. The two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack is adorned with an image of Chiyoko standing in the center of a montage of herself running in various time periods and in various productions. The same imagery appears on a glossy slipcover as well as the sleeve, and there is another montage on the reverse of the sleeve showing inside the Viva Elite Blu-ray case, underneath the two disc trays, this time featuring Tachibana at the center. There is no insert.
The Video and Audio
According to a sticker on the slipcover, this new 1.78:1 1080p AVC presentation of Millennium Actress is sourced from a brand-new 4K scan. Aside from some logos right at the beginning that look like they were taken off of a VHS tape, the film looks wonderful in high definition. Colors are invigorated and detail is strong, although crisp is not quite the word -- the image is rendered with enough precision to capture the organic imperfections of traditional animation, including the tiny variances in the thickness of hand-drawn lines, and the occasional faint shadow of a cel above a background. There is no sign of aliasing, banding, or artifacting. Although the DreamWorks DVD was pretty strong, fans still holding onto their copies should be pleased with this upgrade (and it makes a nice companion to GKids' recent restoration of Kon's Perfect Blue, as well as the upcoming releases of his work).
Audio-wise, the movie is equipped with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks in both the original Japanese and an English dub. As the movie incorporates a number of fantastical or stylistically diverse segments, there's plenty of opportunities for the track to create a nice immersive experience, such as a train siege, a number of exciting montages, or the many earthquakes that pepper the film both inside Chiyoko's memories and out. The moving soundtrack by Susumu Hirasawa also sounds lovely. English captions (for the Japanese-language track) and English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are both included.
The Blu-ray offers up what the packaging suggests is one extra, but which is actually four interviews with producers and voice talent. The first two are arguably of minimal interest to longtime fans of the film, sitting down with English dub voice actors Addy Trott (7:46), who plays Young Chiyoko, and Laura Post (20:07), who plays Eiko. These are adequate pieces, moving through a series of EPK-style questions (mostly the same for both actors) that appear on screen, but I must admit that I'm a little biased as a subs over dubs purist.
The other two interviews are with the film's original producers, Masao Maruyama (32:28) and Taro Maki (8:32). The interview with Maruyama is very weird, with him explaining the development of the idea and what he would've done differently, even though he ultimately sides with Kon's vision for the picture. He has, let's say, some old-fashioned ideas about gender roles that don't necessarily seem to be reflected by the film itself (Maruyama even notes at one point that "[Kon] didn't listen to me"). He then goes on to talk at length about the animation industry and what's next for the form, memories of Kon, and the legacy of the movie, as well as some other assorted subjects. The second interview, with Maki, is shorter but less old-fashioned, with Maki speaking more matter-of-factly about his interest in Kon's work, the legacy of the film, evolving industry technology, and his impressions of Kon.
The one major disappointment with this Blu-ray of Millennium Actress, it's that it's missing DreamWorks' centerpiece DVD extra, "The Making of Millennium Actress" (40:42). The program mimics some of the framework of the film, and includes substantial interview footage of the late Satoshi Kon, delving into the genesis, development, and production of the film in a far more satisfying and substantial way than anything on this disc. Perhaps some sort of rights issues precluded it from being ported over (it feels like a television program), but regardless, it's a shame. Trailers for the film are also MIA.
Millennium Actress is a wonderful movie that deserves to be widely seen by film fans, and it's very satisfying to know there is finally a nice edition available to American audiences. It helps that this new ElevenArts/Shout! release looks and sounds great. If it had ported the excellent in-depth DreamWorks DVD documentary, which includes Kon's own perspective, it'd be perfect, but as it is, the disc still comes highly recommended.
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