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Millennium Actress (2001)


Satoshi Kon needs no introduction. In the span of his short career, the great Japanese auteur would direct some of the most iconic films put to screen, establishing a legacy so strong that its reach extended far beyond anime fandom and into mainstream cinema. Perfect Blue (1997) and Paprika (2006) would challenge the limits of animated horror and science fiction, respectively, and have inspired the likes of Hollywood greats Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan. Given their influence, it is no surprise that these two titles take center stage while discussing Kon. They do not, however, represent his full potential.   

Released in 2001, Millennium Actress tells the story of Chiyoko Fujiwara, a film star whose career ended when she abruptly withdrew from public life. Now in old age, Chiyoko recounts her troubled past, and the events leading to her retreat, when filmmaker Genya Tachibana approaches her for an interview. From this point, the film cuts to different moments in Chiyoko’s life, with Genya and his assistant directly immersed in each scene as if they were viewing the star’s memories firsthand.

Their journey starts with Chiyoko’s childhood.

As a girl, Chiyoko falls in love with a runaway artist. Wanted by Japanese police for his subversive political views, the man is on the brink of capture when he encounters Chiyoko on the road. Rather than turn him over, Chiyoko takes pity on the artist and hides him in an empty room. Chiyoko visits the man that night and learns that he is trying to meet fellow rebels in Manchuria. After wooing his young savior with a description of the great, snowy landscape awaiting him, the artist promises to take Chiyoko to Manchuria when peace has come. During this time, he also reveals a key wrapped around his neck, saying it is able to unlock “the most important thing there is.” While she never learns his name or the true purpose of the key, Chiyoko falls in love with the artist and awaits their next meeting.

Unfortunately, things do not go as planned. When Chiyoko returns the next day, she finds the hideout abandoned, with no sight of the artist save a trail of blood and his key buried in the snow. Chiyoko learns that he fled for the train station when the authorities caught his trail. Desperate to see him again, she tries to catch the artist but arrives seconds late, reaching the platform just as her newfound love rolls away. Grieved but determined, Chiyoko vows to find the artist at all costs. Shortly thereafter, she is offered an acting job. While at first uninterested, Chiyoko accepts the position when she learns that the film will be shot in Manchuria. Her acting career thus becomes a love odyssey, its sole purpose being to sate Chiyoko’s romantic, rather than professional, wants and needs. 

Millennium Actress has been described as a love letter to Japanese cinema; give the film a single look, and there is no question why. Kon’s time-hopping narrative takes us on a vivid trip through Japanese history, skipping between eras as Chiyoko moves from one role to the next. What truly makes Kon’s film special, however, is the duality of its appeal. While remaining distinctly Japanese, it conveys a deep, spiritual hunger applicable to all viewers. The artist Chiyoko loves is an abstraction. She knows almost nothing about him and, as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that her obsession with him stems less from the love of a man and more from the love of an idea. 

It is not romance but her own insatiability that drives Chiyoko mad. Where that hunger comes from, exactly, is never explained, but its intangibility is what makes it universal. Kon invites us to fill in the gaps ourselves; by merging our own imaginations with his own, we can see ourselves in Chiyoko. We can relate to her, sympathize with her, and, by comparing her own experiences to our own, learn from her, as well. Perhaps that is why Genya appears to physically enter Chiyoko’s memory: Like the audience, he sees himself in the actress. Satoshi Kon is a master of immersion, creating a link between viewers and Chiyoko that is so strong it lingers long after the credits roll.

Visually, Millennium Actress improves upon the aesthetic of Perfect Blue. While the psychological thriller was a masterpiece of its own, the animation could be flat at times. Millennium Actress appears more polished; its sharp shadows, rich colors, and fluid character motion all make it look very cinematic. The movie’s American distributor, Eleven Arts, seemed to pick up on this strength, giving Millennium Actress a second theatrical run after acquiring the film in 2019. Like any great film, Millennium Actress is best seen in theaters. Apart from magnifying Kon’s animation, the big screen gives viewers a deeper look into Chiyoko’s psyche. The Manchurian valley, bombed town, and desolate space frontier are all physical reflections of her loneliness; by experiencing these scenes on a large scale, viewers can understand the true depth and degree of the actresses’ feelings.

Few films are complete without music, and no review of Millennium Actress would be complete without a nod to its composer. Susumu Hirasawa is a true innovator, and his unique sound deftly echoes Kon’s visual experimentation--telling listeners a story that, like the film itself, is by turns romantic and cerebral. For both Kon and Hirasawa, Millennium Actress was a landmark, signaling the start of a relationship akin to that of Hayao Miyazaki and Joe Hisaishi. Kon would work with Hirasawa for years thereafter, featuring his like-minded maestro in both Paranoia Agent in 2004 and Paprika in 2006. Millennium Actress may have marked a more personal milestone for Hirasawa, as well. Kon’s story of a lonely actress differed vastly in tone from Naohito Takahashi’s gritty epic, Berserk (1997), which Hirasawa had previously scored. In this respect, Millennium Actress marked more than the start of Hirasawa’s relationship with Kon; it was also strong proof of the musician’s versatility and evolving potential.  

In the span of just a decade, Kon created some of the most influential films in anime. His work has redefined animation as an art form, and Millennium Actress is no exception to that rule. Its beautiful imagery and somber, poetic narrative has touched viewers worldwide and makes it a worthy watch for any discerning eye. Kon may have passed, but his moving story of a fallen actress will inspire fans for years to come.



IN A NUTSHELL: An elegant, heartfelt drama as timeless as its name.