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Millenium Actress at Fantasia

by Steve Brandon,
Satoshi Kon's Millenium Actress

We don't get the big summer anime conventions here in Montreal, Canada (and our last Big Comic book con was in 1994), but we do have the Fantasia Film festival at the Imperial cinema, Montreal's only surviving single-screen movie palace. I'll take watching anime on the big screen at the Imperial over watching it video-projected in a cramped convention screening room any day.

Inaugurated in 1996, Fantasia is primarily focused on Asian popular cinema, particularly martial arts, rubber monsters, horror and, of course, anime, but in recent years an increasing number of non-Asian films, with some Asian influence, have been featured. The 2000 installment of Fantasia had so many "international" entries that anime was almost totally shut out. Aside from a few episodes of "Albator" (the French-dubbed version of the Captain Harlock TV series), only Blood: The Last Vampire and Vampire Hunter D were shown. This year, however, Fantasia returned to its roots, and six anime films (plus a few more episodes of "Albator") made it onto the schedule.

The anime highlight of this year's festival was the world premiere of Millennium Actress, the sophomore full-length effort from director Satoshi Kon, whose first film, Perfect Blue, also premiered at Fantasia in 1997, and was in fact the Grand Prize winner that year. I wouldn't have thought winning an award at what was then an obscure film festival half a world away would have had any influence on the Japanese filmgoing public, but Mr. Kon credits it for Perfect Blue's success, both in Japan and internationally. On Saturday, July 28th, Kon was back in Montreal for the premiere of Millennium Actress. The Imperial theatre was packed. I had bought my ticket two days in advance; needless to say, if I had waited, it would have been sold out. Anticipating a line-up, I arrived over an hour early, but there already was a line snaking down de Bleury street and around the corner on Sainte-Catherine street, well past Musique Plus (the Quebec version of Much Music, which is the Canadian equivalent of MTV).

My early arrival was all for naught, though; when the line started moving, I couldn't find my ticket, and when I finally did find it, most people were already in the theatre. While there were still several seats that looked to be empty, invariably they were already "taken" for friends that hadn't shown up at the theatre yet. I was still standing when the emcee came on stage and introduced Mr. Kon himself (and his attractive young translator). The way things turned out, it wasn't so bad that I happened to be standing during Kon's introduction of his film, as I was standing close to the stage so I was able to take several photos (which, assuming they turn out okay, I shall scan and add to this review later). The downside of standing was that I couldn't take notes so I've forgotten his opening remarks, but they weren't anything substantial. When the movie started, I was able to get a seat that had been held for a "no show".

The Movie:

On the occasion of the demolition of their original studio facilities, Ginei Studios commissions a documentary on the life of Chiyoko Fujiwara. Chiyoko was their most famous actress who had retired from movies three decades prior and gone into seclusion. Genya, a documentary film director, jumps at the opportunity to interview the actress he has always idolized. Although she's well into her seventies, she retains a youthful attitude and a sharp memory. Chiyoko was born in Tokyo during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, in which her father was killed. As a teenager, she had been approached by a movie producer to star in propaganda movies, but she had no interest in being a star. Then, one fateful winter day, she encounters an injured man fleeing the police. She points the police in the wrong direction and bandages his wounds. He's an artist, but he's about to be shipped off to Manchuria. He gives her a key, which will one day unlock something important. As fate would have it, the film in which she had been offered a role was to be shot in Manchuria, so she decides to do it after all. That's about as much of a straight synopsis as I can give, partly because I don't want to give away too many "spoilers", and partly because after she arrives in Manchuria, reality becomes interfused with scenes from films in which she starred, so it's difficult to tell what is "reality" and what is "fiction", which is the point, isn't it? As an added twist, her story isn't told in straight "flashbacks"; somehow, the director and the cameraman are able to interact with these flashbacks. At first, they just seem to be hidden observers, invisible to the rest of the world, but sometimes they are able to interact with the past, though the director is a bit more enthusiastic about doing this than his cameraman.

As the movie centers on scenes from films of the Chiyoko's career, which started the early forties, peaked in the fifties, and ended sometime in the sixties, the scenes "quote," in cinematic terms, real life films from the same period. Unfortunately, when it comes to Japanese films, I'm mostly an anime fan, and, while it's not like I've never seen any live action Japanese film before, the vast majority of the Japanese films I've seen were produced since the early eighties. Most of the films that inspired the scenes in Millennium Actress are historical dramas, which, I must confess, I have not seen too many of. If I had to guess some of the films which were sources of inspiration, I'd say the Seven Samurai and/or Yojimbo, not because I'm familiar with either film, but simply because these are Japanese films in the Criterion Collection DVD series. The one reference to a Japanese film I did recognize was the truck from Juzo Itami's 1986 comedy, Tampopo, but that was only a brief gag in this film.

In the question and answer session following the film, Mr. Kon didn't really list any particular films that inspired him. Not all of the film references are Japanese; there's an homage to Casablanca, and the sci-fi film which Chiyoko made just before retiring owes a lot to 2001: A Space Odyssey, though, I have to say, the space suit that Chiyoko wears reminds me a fair bit of the space suit worn by "Anna Scott", the actress portrayed by Julia Roberts, in the sci-fi film-within-a-film from 1999's Notting Hill. The space suit also reminds me somewhat of the atmospheric suits that Bernie and Al don before walking on the outside of the Side 6 colony (Rhea) in Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket. But familiarity with the references isn't required to enjoy this film. When asked which films were a primary influence on Millennium Actress, Mr. Kon told the audience at the Imperial that the film wasn't intended as a homage to any particular film but rather reflected his respect for filmmaking in general. He had watched too many films in his youth to be able to narrow his influences down to one or two.

You can tell that Kon has much respect for the viewer's intelligence; never in the film is any explanation offered as to how Genya and the cameraman are able to travel to, and interact with, incidents in the past. Does Genya have some sort of supernatural ability to enter the memories of his subjects or is some sort of time travel involved? Or perhaps the scenes of the past are elaborate recreations on a stage. Kon wisely leaves it up to the viewer's imagination to figure out the "how." Explaining everything would cheapen the experience. You don't even really need to know "how," it's just the way things work in the world of the film, where normal temporal logic is suspended. Of course, there were a handful of people at the premiere that needed an explanation, but Kon didn't give any answer, nor should he have given one. Also left rather ambiguous is whether or not Garyu's actions in the past are able to change the outcomes of future events, but this isn't a time travel movie per se, so such questions really don't matter as much.

Millenium Actress is to Perfect Blue roughly what Unbreakable was to the Sixth Sense in the sense that if you go in expecting Kon to deliver the exact same film as Perfect Blue, you'll be disappointed. Unlike Perfect Blue, there is very little in the way of graphic violence or other disturbing scenes; no characters get gored in the eyes, nor are there any rape scenes. To get Perfect Blue shown on the North American art house cinema circuit, Manga had to make some cuts (to the theatrical version only) just so the Motion Picture Association of America would give it an R rating; Millennium Actress never strays beyond PG-13 territory. Which film you'd prefer probably would have some correlation to how much carnage you like seeing on screen; while I'm not opposed to violence in films if the plot requires violence, I'm not the type of person who goes to see a movie for the sole purpose of seeing violence. I also prefer this film because it does have a certain sense of comic relief. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that I can safely predict that a lot of people will hate Millennium Actress because Kon chose not to make it too much like Perfect Blue.

Both films are deceptively similar in that the lead female characters are famous actresses, but while the dark side of fame is central to Perfect Blue's plot, in Millenium Actress the fact that Chiyoko is a movie star is fairly incidental. It's only important in that it enables Kon to use the characters in a variety of historical backdrops beyond the scope of Chiyoko's lifespan; from the feudal Tokugawa "hermit kingdom" era through the Meiji revolution and industrialization, the imperialism of the Taisho years and the war, the American military occupation, the postwar economic boom all of the way up to today, and even in the future via the science-fiction film.

In the Q&A session following the film, Kon told us that he intended Millennium Actress to be similar to Perfect Blue in that he wanted to "tease" the audience's perception of linear time. Other than that, Millennium Actress is a very different film.

To be perfectly honest, I was a tad apprehensive about Millennium Actress. I was hoping that it wasn't going to be another (I know that I will be flambéed in anime newsgroups for this) Wings of Honneamise, where a perfectly enjoyable narrative is ruined by a none-too-subtle, heavy-handed "message" ending. Fortunately, at least from my point of view, there isn't too much of a message. If there is a message, it would be (and I'm paraphrasing a line from the film to a certain degree) "Don't be disappointed if you never find what you're chasing after; enjoy the chasing." As for the ending, Kon steers clear of a Hollywood "happy ending", where everything is tied up neatly into a bow, but he doesn't deliver a nihilistic ending either. It's certainly not a depressing ending; it's just not "happy" in the way you'd expect.

After the film, Mr. Kon received a standing ovation. I think that most of the audience, myself included, really liked this film, but I'm sure there will still be some "it's not like Perfect Blue so it sucked" fanboys out there. He answered a few questions. In my opinion, many of the questions asked weren't too satisfying, but that's not Mr. Kon's fault. (The previous Saturday, I had attended a screening of Bill Plympton's self-produced animated film Mutant Aliens at the Comedia film festival, and that audience had asked Mr. Plympton, who was present, much better questions.) I already covered the answers to most of the important questions in my review, but he mentioned that he chose to premiere Millennium Actress in Montreal because premiering Perfect Blue here in 1997 helped the film very much, and he wanted to repeat the success. His next film won't be like Perfect Blue or Millennium Actress, though he didn't give any other details. There was a question that I didn't entirely hear about his relationship with Katsuhiro Otomo, of Akira fame, and the influences on his work. Otomo had worked together with Kon on Perfect Blue and also on Kon's "Magnetic Rose" segment from Memories, and their friendship dates back to the early 1990s, when Kon had worked as a background artist on Otomo's Roujin Z. I can't say that I noticed any particular Otomo influence on this film. There was also a question about which scene was the most touching to him, but if I gave the answer here, it would be too much of a "spoiler," so I won't. It's the ending, I can say that much.

After I had left the theatre, I lined up to get tickets for a re-screening of the first three episodes of Boogie Pop Phantom scheduled for Monday afternoon. I was very much surprised to see Mr. Kon pass by me. But he wasn't being Spirited Away to his rented car (which was waiting for him); instead, he stuck around and signed autographs. He didn't just sign autographs; he also did many drawings of Chiyoko (and Mima from Perfect Blue). I've never seen a Japanese animator in person before; it's amazing how quickly he could draw fairly detailed pictures for his fans. I was too shy to ask him for even just his signature, but I did snap a couple of more pictures of him at "work". His devotion to his fans by doing all those drawings is all the more impressive when you consider that he probably was feeling some jet lag from the 13-hour time difference between Tokyo and Montreal. (N.B. Montreal is actually 14 time zones behind Japan, but Japan doesn't observe Daylight Savings Time.)

+ Gorgeous animation and intelligent, well-crafted story.
- Japanese film references will go over many people's heads; hasn't even premiered in Japan yet, so won't be available on video/DVD in North America for a long, long time.

 Millennium Actress won BEST FEATURE FILM animation section + THE FANTASIA GROUND-BREAKER AWARD ( FOR ARTISTIQUE INOVATION ) at Fantasia 2001

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