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The Dreams of Satoshi Kon: Chapter III - Timeless

by Justin Sevakis,

This is the third in a 6-part weeklong tribute to the work of Satoshi Kon (1963-2010). His filmography will be covered in chronological order by a series of different authors.

Few works of fiction, let alone anime, strive to create a fully realized life. Even fewer succeed.  Satoshi Kon's second film, Millennium Actress, not only succeeds, but goes several steps beyond: it takes us deep inside the life of a woman, through her hopes and dreams, the many masks she wore throughout her life, and in doing so, invents a completely new way of telling a story – a trick-camera weaving of eras and of perceived realities that has never been achieved before or since, in any medium.

As in his earlier Perfect Blue, Kon chooses an actress as the center of the constantly-shifting perspective. As anyone who has studied acting in-depth knows, the job requires mastery of these shifting perspectives; the sleight-of-hand Kon is known for neatly parallels the “work” that an actor puts into a role. One must be able to take their own memories, their own sense of self, and be able to mold it into other people, other lives, and other spaces and times at-will. It requires the ability to lose yourself into other realities, to the point where your own actual life diminishes in a significant way. Or, to put it another way, the role becomes an actor's life for a time.

The peculiar genius of Millennium Actress is that it combines these fleeting shifts of reality with the other side of the equation, the audience, and specifically, the hardcore fan. It entertains the wistful, romantic notion that a fan of the cinema, in following the work of a particular talent, sees into their lives, even if just for a moment. That the audience is as important as the performers, and that the interaction between the film star and the viewer is, in and of itself, an intimate moment of magic.

And yet the story of Millennium Actress, on paper, looks like so little. After many years, the legendary Ginei Studios are being torn down, so documentarian Genya Tachibana is marking the occasion by filming an interview with the actress he's been a hardcore fan of his entire adult life, Chiyoko Fujiwara. Finding her was no easy task (she retired in the late 60s and has since lived in seclusion), and as he and his sardonic cameraman settle in to interview the pleasant old lady, the three end up quite literally reliving the roller-coaster of her life, as transposed against the large catalog of films she once starred in.

Chiyoko's life is a turbulent one, marked by earthquakes (she was born during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923), wars (WWII specifically) and turbulent political eras. But to a far greater extent, her life was about a single man, an ideal artistic rebel, whose face she can't remember. The man is a painter, on the run from the increasingly totalitarian government. For one short night she was able to hide the man in her family's storehouse, and at the time he gave her a mysterious key for safekeeping. “We'll meet again,” he promises. Chiyoko lives the rest of her life trying to keep that promise, even as she runs against forces out to ruin her (a jealous fellow actress) or tie her down for themselves (a director she later marries).

Chiyoko, as many fans of Japanese cinema have correctly guessed, is based partly on Setsuko Hara, who was similarly a star in the 30s through the 60s before becoming a recluse. (Kon also references Hideko Takamine, heroine of Mikio Naruse's many films about strong women struggling against poverty or society, but he insisted that Chiyoko is meant as a universal archetype.) The scenes of her life and her memories that we're privy to, of course, didn't happen way we see it, with the threads of reality tangled in her years of dramatic roles, but with the distance of years the two simply can't be told apart. Of course, some films defined her life at various stages, while others are merely fleeting memories (told to us in montage form).

Super-fan Genya is initially there merely to react but soon becomes an important player in her story. First he pops up in various costumes, playing roles of support to Chiyoko, which are obvious flights of fancy. But then, as he got a job at the studio as a boy, he managed to catch up with her in real life. Though she doesn't remember him, he becomes her unsung savior, which seems to be enough for him. As a fan, he simply wants to make a connection with the woman, the artist he so respects.  (Meanwhile, cameraman Ida is a less open-minded, critical viewer, and uses wisecracks to keep himself at a distance from the proceedings.)

There are scenes that, even after years of repeated viewings, still have the power to fill the viewer with unbridled joy. Take, for example, the spirited journey through Chiyoko's youth -- a sweeping montage of the girl as she speeds through films and historical eras, first on a horse, then a bicycle, then a carriage, then an automobile, speeding across eras and lands as the years go by. Those moments of searing pleasure are owed in no small part to the music, an eclectic score by noted experimental musician Susumu Hirasawa. The resolutely electronic sound is a discordant surprise when laid across visuals of ancient times, but the music is just so pleasant that the mismatch only enhances its impact.

The film marks the first collaboration between Kon and Hirasawa, one that would endure through Kon's later works Paprika and Paranoia Agent. Kon had been a fan of Hirasawa's for many years, and often worked while listening to his albums, depending on them for inspiring the images he would put to paper. So, in working together, Kon requested a somewhat backwards approach to scoring: he would give Hirasawa a rough idea of moods and story, Hirasawa would compose, and then Kon would flesh out the script and storyboards while listening, the visuals becoming inspired directly from the music. The process is quite unconventional (music composition is usually one of the last things to be completed in most films), and Kon would frequently apologize for putting Hirasawa in a position where he was responsible for so much creative heavy lifting. Regardless of the difficulties inherent to the process, the resulting marriage between visuals and music is simply spellbinding: the two are coordinated on a spiritual level, far beyond the rote musical swells and emotional cues typified in Western musical scores since the silent era.

I've heard several quibbles with the ending over the years. Some tend to obsess that the key given to Chiyoko by the painter never has a literal purpose in the story, and we never figure out what it might actually open. Similarly, the first reaction of many to Chiyoko's final words is that they speak of something that should be inferred by the viewer; a conclusion that should be reached after thinking about the woman and what motivated her all that time.

I'd say both are missing the point: Chiyoko's search for the man, her driving force through her entire career, was almost certainly futile. The key, her souvenir of him, was destined from the start to remain a mystery. She's a smart woman, and she knew that. Perhaps not from the start, but certainly the thought occurred to her at some point as she reached adulthood. In her heart of hearts, she understood what was real and what wasn't.

This means that living in the world of her fictitious characters, as she clearly still does, was a willful choice. Just as an actor learns their emotional triggers, the parts of their own life that they remember and call upon internally in order to breathe life into their characters, Chiyoko found her inner strength, her motivation, in the fantastic chase towards her girlhood fantasy, her dreamy painter, her bad boy on the lam from a ruthless and ugly reality, who forever chases him until there is nothing left.

Perhaps that's one reason why Chiyoko kept acting. The fantasy worlds of her characters were always more colorful, more vibrant, and more fun than grim reality. She always got to be the heroine, and she always had the support of people that loved her, even if she didn't even know it at the time. And she always was able to keep running.

As the film's many fans recount bitterly, Millennium Actress was given a throw-away American theatrical release by DreamWorks’ Go Fish division, rumored to be part of a strategy to increase the number of Oscar nominees for the best animated picture category for the sake of its own productions. Kon himself was quite dismayed by the experience, and took particular issue with the American-produced movie poster and DVD art, refusing to sign autographs on it whenever it was presented to him. (“That's not Chiyoko,” he said.) With little marketing support, the film drifted in and out of theaters in New York and Los Angeles mostly unnoticed, and arrived on a barely-solicited DVD a few months later. The disc is now out of print, and while it's not too hard to find on the used market, the prices are starting to climb.

The disc is very nice looking, albeit subtitled-only, but few American fans realize that an English dub actually does exist! Manga Entertainment sub-licensed the property for a UK release, and since they don't release anime without a dub, they commissioned one of their own. Produced by Village Productions in the UK, it's not a particularly good dub (in fact, it's incredibly wooden and devoid of the magic of the original), but it does exist, and if you simply must have a dub, it's better than nothing.

There's no Blu-ray release yet, but HD broadcasts on WOWOW indicate that an HD master exists, so hopefully it's just a matter of time.

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