Reviewby Theron Martin,
English dubbed theatrical release
The tearing down of Studio Gin'ei's old movie lots and its 70th anniversary spark the commission of filmmaker Gen'ya Tachibana to track down one of the studio's former brightest stars, the actress Chiyoko Fujiwara. She's been living as a recluse for the past 30 years, and by bringing to her a key that she once treasured and then lost, Gen'ya (who is a huge fan of hers) hopes to get the actress's life story. He finds a surprisingly willing subject, one who uses the key as an impetus for a trip down memory lane. Through roles spanning a thousand years of world history, Chiyoko uses the films that she has starred in to frame her life story, to the point that Gen'ya and his cameramen find themselves not only active observers of her history but also occasional participants as well.
Of Satoshi Kon's five main directorial efforts, my favorite would definitely be his first, the gritty and disturbing Perfect Blue. However, in a storytelling sense this 2002 movie, which was his second time in the director's chair, is the one that I would point to as his greatest masterpiece. The recent advent of an English dub for the movie has brought it back to theaters for a special screening, thus providing a good excuse to examine anew what is arguably Kon's most emotional story and how remarkably well it stands up despite the passage of 17 years.
Understanding where the film is coming from requires the context of its relationship to Perfect Blue. By some accounts this was intended to be a sister movie to its predecessor, one which showed a wholly different angle on an actress's experiences with fame; in fact, commentary after the movie by producers Taro Maki and Masao Maruyama indicate that Kon was specifically trying to make something that was a dramatic departure from Perfect Blue while also still employing the visual and psychological trickery that would become Kon's signature style point. Indeed, the blending of fantasy and reality that was so prevalent in Perfect Blue is also a key element here, albeit in a distinctly different fashion.
Rather than muddling what is real and what is a TV show, this movie boldly integrates the two. The boundaries of reality and fantasy disappear as the story uses Chiyoko's movies to tell her life story, with Genya and his cameraman actually present in the story as witnesses – and in Genya's case, sometimes an active participant, which he can do by assuming roles that he has presumably memorized in rewatching Chiyoko's movies over the years. It is a fascinating process to watch in execution, and the approach suggests that one reason why Chiyoko was so successful as an actress was because she was basically playing out her own life story, her own drives and desires, in her movies, and that kind of passion speaks to people. The story of what drives her, of her chance encounter with the painter-activist and possession of the key to “something precious,” also sounds so much like a movie that how much of the story is real and how much is a movie may not ultimately matter. Up until the time she retired, her life was a movie.
Nearly as interesting is the way Genya fits into all of this. He is clearly a huge fan of Chiyoko's, but not until late in the movie does the revelation come out that he actually has a past professional connection to her. As a result, he is the one person both ideally-suited to drawing Chiyoko's story out and perhaps the one most deserving of it. His sardonic cameraman, meanwhile, becomes the audience stand-in, the figure being dragged along for the ride as he watches all of it unfold. As much as this is Chiyoko's story, it would not be complete without them. After all, what is an actress without an audience?
The themes of the movie are not especially complicated but they run deep and true. The overarching theme – that it's the ardent pursuit of a goal, rather than its completion, that makes life exciting – does not fully come to completion until the movie's famous final line, but in retrospect the content which supports it is everywhere in the movie. Wherever Chiyoko goes, at whatever age she's at, the story finds some excuse to have her running. In one scene it may be pursuing after a departing train, in others it may be on horseback through hordes of enemies or down a city street or even across a lunar landscape. In some of the movie's headiest scenes she's even running through montages of classical Japanese paintings or her own life story. Running is the physical manifestation of her pursuit, and the key from the painter is the symbol of her goal. It is this pursuit which drives her through every aspect of her life prior to retirement, and the times she loses that goal are when her biggest later regrets happen.
Other interesting themes are the roles that the old woman with the spinning wheel and earthquakes play in the story. The former is a character from one of Chiyoko's movies, but she seems haunted by the crone throughout big chunks of the movie. The woman's claims that she hates Chiyoko more than anyone and yet also loves her more than anyone are hard to decipher at first, but some late scenes suggest that the woman is Chiyoko's own inner voice and thus reflects her own inner struggles – and what more dramatic way for an actress to manifest that than in a ghostly form? The reason for Chiyoko's abrupt departure from action is connected to that and easily one of the movie's single saddest moments, though the strongest emotional appeal comes towards the end. The occurrence of the latter at key points suggest that Chiyoko's most critical life events are defined by earthquakes. Again, what would be more suiting for an actress?
Other interpretations of themes present in the movie are more subjective. I have seen propositions that Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress showcase different angles on the “male gaze” on actresses; while the former is leering, controlling, corrupting, and possessive, the latter is adoring and protective, allowing the actress to remain untainted. However, I'm not convinced that was deliberate. Nothing about the film feels like any attempt at social commentary was intended. The movie offering a critical analysis of certain periods in Japanese history is more supportable but more a side point than a main one. In fact, of Kon's five works this one seems the least interested in offering any kind of bigger points or messages than its base themes. It's much more about the concepts than the commentaries.
The production effort comes courtesy of studio Madhouse, with several key staff members being regular Kon collaborators. The all-2D isn't flawless, as occasional scenes look a bit rough, and the visual aesthetic does leans slightly older because of that. Still, the character designs and background art both hold up well and the animation effort shows plenty of loving care. The real visual star here is the dazzling way that Kon put it all together; watching how smoothly and creatively he blends elements and symbolism together, including the brilliantly-used rewind of Chiyoko's history as the title shows at the beginning, is a sad reminder of how great a talent the anime world lost when he died in 2010. Fortunately the remastering done shows the art beautifully well; this theatrical version is a major video upgrade from the original DVD releases.
Music for the movie was provided by Susumu Hirasawa, who would later go on to do the music for all the rest of Kon's projects (and has mostly just done musical contributions to the Berserk franchise beyond that). The musical score never overly impresses, and the mix of piano and synthesizer especially at the end is the most dated aspect of the film. However, the music nonetheless hits the sense of urgency driving key scenes and does contribute at least somewhat to the emotional appeal at the end.
The new English dub for the movie was produced by VSI Los Angeles, the same studio which did the redub for Netflix's stream of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Casting choices much less likely to be objectionable here, with three different voice actresses used to voice Chiyoko at different ages (as was done in Japanese); all fit the respective ages well. Christopher Swindle, who has limited anime credits beyond this, also gives a stand-out performance as Gen'ya. The English script is a seamless replacement for the original English subtitles, which always were a little clunky in places. It even fully retains the meaning and near-exact wording of the movie's famous final line of dialog.
In many respects Millennium Actress was a movie well ahead of its time, an idea supported in recent interviews with producers Maki and Maruyama, which were shown after the movie and hopefully will be on any future Blu-Ray release. (Comments by the latter in particular that Kon was so far ahead of everyone else that he feels like he's still chasing him even today, put a deeply ironic spin on the movie.) Update the music a bit and this is a movie which could probably be released for the first time today and still be successful. Though the emotional aspect does not hit until near the very end, it is a compelling and ultimately emotional viewing experience which should be equally accessible to both auteur aficionados and regular viewers alike, whether animation buffs or not.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Imaginative and compelling blend of biography and filmography, excellent visual restoration, strong English dub.
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