Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Film Review: Millenium Actress (2001)

Millennium Actress (2001) is a biographical anime film about the renowned Japanese actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara. When I heard about this film, I could not wait to rent the DVD and see why this movie by director, Satoshi Kon, was fantastic.

Fujiwara was a famous actress who starred in many Japanese films before her sudden departure and disappearance. What happened to her? Genya Tachibara, who sincerely idolizes Chiyoko as an actress and an individual, seeks to find her and create a documentary about her career. With his camera assistant, Kyoji Ida, they locate her and request that she narrate her autobiography for his upcoming film. At the age of 75, she agrees and presents Genya her with a gift—a key—that will unlock her past.

Her story begins when she is 16 in Imperial Tokyo. Born during the Great Earthquake of Tokyo in 1923, war is looming and national pride is widespread. As a young girl, Chiyoko is shy, innocent and unsure about her future. The thought of becoming an actress, especially to her mother, seems ludicrous because it goes against local customs and traditions of Japanese women. Walking home on a cold, winter night, a mysterious running away from the police bumps into her. She hides the man in her shed, and he gives her a key—a key that holds the most important thing she cherishes in life.

Before she can say goodbye, he runs off before the police can locate him. However, she misses the train before she can board. She promises herself that she will return the man his key. Throughout the movie, Chiyoko travels through space and time, pursuing roles of the heroine trying to find her lost love (i.e. the mysterious man). She acts different roles of women from feudal Japan, the shogunate periods, and modern Japan.

Occasionally, Genya will inexplicably help the actress by saving her as if he was part of the cast. As an avid fan, he watched her movies and learned the characters’ roles. She has two enemies—a rival Japanese actress, Eiko Shimao, and the imperial policeman—whose identities change according to the historical eras. Chiyoko truthfully believes that fate will bring her and the mysterious man together again. In addition, she wants to understand the true meaning of the key.

Not only was Chiyoko an icon of Japanese cinema, but she also portrayed Japanese heroines of Japanese history. Nonetheless, she still remembers the mysterious man—her first true love—whom she promises to find although she is becoming older in her roles. She continues to act through the centuries of Japanese history as if she has lived a thousand years. Where is he now? What happened to him? What will become of her life? These are the questions that she must discover, and Genya and Kyoji offer assistance on her quest.

I really enjoyed this movie because in some ways I could relate to her life. There was always something new, both emotionally and historically. As a novice of Japanese history, I had a glimpse of Japanese customs and traditions in just a matter of minutes! Romantic and tragic, this is a great movie to have in one’s collection with Metropolis, Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. However, what irked me the most about this film was the pacing. Since I am a novice of Japanese history, it took me a while to figure out what was happening. I knew these were roles she portrayed in her filmmaking career, but I did not comprehend their significance until later in the film, when they repeat the introduction of the movie. In addition to finding the mysterious man, other common themes in the film included space, time and reincarnation.

Nevertheless, Chiyoko was narrating the story through her own eyes with Genya and Kyoji following along through the stages of time in Japanese history. I noticed the lack of a father figure (in the movie, her father died in the Great Earthquake of Tokyo in 1923) and that this mysterious man could have been an ideal “father figure” to her. Her relationships with men of different personas are also very interesting. Since majority of the characters look indistinguishably from one another (they all resemble Japanese nationals), Satoshi Kon selected a mole for Chiyoko’s face so that the audience can recognize her.

Sometimes, I find it hard to believe this film was only 90 minutes because it definitely felt longer. This is a wonderful film that truly shows the depth and breadth of Japanese anime and storytelling. I highly recommend it.

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