Millennium Actress Staff Review



Flash Gordon (Anime Corner Staff Writer)


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  DVD BREAKDOWN  Other Works By Satoshi Kon





PAPRIKA [2006]

  REVIEW (Warning: Spoilers Ahead!)

“Warning! Warning! Danger Will Robinson!” Caution: you are about to enter the extraordinary world of Satoshi Kon. It is a world populated by people and the frailty of the human condition. No robots, No Gundams, No Evas, No Patrol Labors, No weaponry of any kind allowed beyond this point.

You have been put on notice...

Millennium Actress is a love story, but in the end, in the hands of Satoshi Kon, it’s so much more. Underneath the surface, behind the eyes, there’s always something going on, because Kon is very much a thinking person’s director. Falling somewhere between self-disciplined visionary auteur Makoto Shinkai and those that paved the way like Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii and Katsuhiro Otomo, an equally impressive director by the name of Satoshi Kon was born. Not surprisingly, his foundation is built upon experience acquired through working with many of the aforementioned greats. Those opportunites simply compounded with raw talent. His artistic journey began in the manga industry partnering with Otomo himself on World Apartment Horror [1991]. He made the leap to scene design work by working under the direction of Oshii on the anime feature Patlabor 2: The Movie [1992]. With his own understated eloquence in filmmaking, he has been building an impressive reputation to hold court with the elite anime masters. Without the least bit of fan service to be found, Kon quietly goes about the business of making films that just happen to be within the anime genre. The films are scripted with genuine, adult themes often found associated and developed within live action cinema. Making no apologies, Kon visualizes these rich dramas through anime. Kon is an articulate craftsman of storytelling who is more concerned with plots and character device than how to market the work outside the genre. Let’s be perfectly clear, that’s not to say the animation isn’t good, in fact it’s often breathtaking, a real feast for the eyes. His character development is so complex and the voice acting so critical in nailing the parts that his pictures easily resemble real, live-action motion pictures. It feels real thanks, in large part, to the caliber of the writing and the attention to character. His story rich material is layered with such keen detail on almost every level it’s easy to see why his work can compare in quality to the likes of Miyazaki. These pictures are in a class not often associated with the fan service-driven fluff that circulates the anime business. His work is held with such high esteem by filmmakers, there is often a push to see Kon make a transition away from anime. Newtype USA reported in 2003; “the themes and subject matter of Kon’s unique works are regarded by some as within the realm of live-action as opposed to animation.” Producer Hiromichi Masuda added, “It’s not that he’s choosing one medium over the other, it’s that the method of expression that he acquired is anime. So it really flusters him when he’s asked about working in live-action because his ideas, his concepts come to him inherently as animation. He is truly of the animation generation.” Indeed, animation comes to Kon naturally and his fluid expression in the genre is striking which is why people easily picture his work transcending animation. If you hear him speak his mind, Kon passionately touts his love for the world of animation. The director enjoys flying under the radar, quietly establishing his name with each film by allowing his first-rate anime to speak for him. His lovingly created projects offer an alternative diametrically opposed to the plethora of series dripping with fan fluff or robot-piloted action. Kon gets inside the head. He prefers to tell a story of human frailty, personal weakness or strength within the framework of a character’s mind. The protagonist is subjected to external pressures coupled with internal anguish or desperation making for a delicious recipe of conflict and drama. The Kon doctrine is not flashy, but his style is instinctively cinematic and beautifully radiant with raw emotional power. In other words, Kon is that rare breed of visionary filmmaker in anime.

Before the haunting, impassioned Millennium Actress, there was the critically acclaimed Perfect Blue [1997] and with its disturbingly dark story of fan adulation, supported by a complex lead character, Kon’s reputation was sealed. Following these two pictures, which put Kon on the map, the much-praised Tokyo Godfathers [2003] took a lighter turn though its leads were homeless. Kon traveled further into the heart of darkness with the menacing series Paranoia Agent [2004]. Certainly, while more accessible, Millennium Actress is a superior anime film among quality films. It was showered with a number of awards and critical-lauded upon its release. It was the grand-prize winner for animation at the 2001 Japan Agency of Cultural Affairs Media Arts Festival. Gaining respect within the film industry is no small feat, but to do it as an anime director is an even bigger achievement. The quality of his work was enough to garner the recognition of Dreamworks who picked the film up for US distribution. For Dreamworks to license distribution stateside Kon was indeed making waves across the Atlantic. 

Millennium Actress is a moving experience, moving and transporting the audience, as movies should. What Kon accomplishes, he does in making a film that endures as a movie outside of the anime genre. In the way Grave Of The Fireflies or Princess Mononoke broke boundaries striking a cord outside of anime fandom, Millennium Actress does the same. It is an animated picture to treasure. Even with its distinctly Japanese flavor, the film catapults into the global mainstream by eloquently capturing the universal theme of love.

This is the story of Fujiwara Chiyoko. This is her life. Chiyoko is an elegant, precious woman. She is also beautiful [a kind of animated Juliette Binoche a la Damage]. When we meet her she is frail, reclusive and her hair is grey. She’s been around. As a young woman she became a stunning actress in the vein of Katherine Hepburn. She is approached for an interview by Studio Lotus spearheaded by Mr. Tachibana Genya and
his wisecracking understudy to film a retrospective on her glamorous career. He has adored her and her work from afar for decades and still has a geeky, enamored attraction for her [a slightly unhealthy crush, but a much better option to the obsessions witnessed in Perfect Blue]. He tells Chiyoko he is honored to meet her, knows of her love for the Lotus flowers, which is why he has named his studio in her honor. Assisted by his comedic documentarian, Kyoji Ida [imparting a touch of humor or insight at just the right moments- “I feel like a stalker”], Tachibana and his sidekick bring her a key recovered over 30 years ago from the studio she was once employed which is now being torn down. They are granted entry into this woman’s world through a rare interview. She never imagined she would see that key again. Immediately, the key, the McGuffin of the film, acts as the symbol to unlocking her heart. The key is a window that represents the many stories to be unearthed from Chiyoko’s past. Chiyoko herself knows it to be “the most important thing there is,” for as we find out it is the key to her dreams, her hope, her love. It also taps our own hopes, dreams, loves in the process, which is why Kon is a genius. It is here Kon takes us on a fantastical journey, a mixture of past and present, reality and fantasy, a developing, trademark, uniquely Kon style. Chiyoko’s life is literally unlocked and unveiled before us through the giddy eyes of Genya. The lines between fiction and fact become blurred using Kon’s special narrative approach. His storytelling device is a refreshingly original and delicately involving style of filmmaking that is all too uncommon today. It is a difficult line to walk and pull off successfully and Kon has fast become a proven master. Kon shed some light on his filmmaking style in Newtype USA by describing it as a blend of “reality and dreams,” which explains his gift for animating visual poetry not only feeding the eyes, but the mind as well. 

Chiyoko’s story unfolds with her early childhood. Ida, speaking for the audience, gently reminds us; “even old people were young once.” Flashbacks reveal how she found the key by chance, like Genya, on a wintry day. Chiyoko encounters a young man, an artist and anti-government rebel, dripping in blood, on the run and fleeing from agents of the state through snow. Ida proclaims it best, yet again, acting as our eyes and ears, “now that’s drama!” Indeed. Kon is a master of affecting human drama by delivering deep, believable characters the likes of Chiyoko and painting a vivid,
intimate story. Kon weaves his love story like a tapestry. One of the great ironies in Kon’s story is Chiyoko’s success as an actress versus her lack of desire to be one. Rather, her true passion was love and her yearning lay in finding this young stranger. To tell his tale, one of Kon’s vehicles is the use of an animated cinematic homage to Japan’s history through a variety of eras to convey Chiyoko’s growth as an actress. Periods are portrayed through scenes from the Tokugawa era to World War II to vintage Godzilla-era movies. One portrayal is Chiyoko’s visit to the Northeast region of Manchuria lying somewhere between Russia and China. It would be here, a climate of rebellion and freedom bubbling under the military stranglehold that Chiyoko would search for this man she has loved unconditionally in her heart for so long. It is a metaphor for her heart’s defiance to rebel against all reason. Her passion, her love has driven her career as actress told pictorially across a millennium in historical perspective and costume design. She would become legend, despite herself. Adored by the masses, Chiyoko would act the part to continue her search to find her one true hunger, to ultimately find the one whom ignited her passions. She would trade it all to find the one with whom she shared a single touch. Though, she knew not his name, she shared an intimate, inexplicable bond the moment they met that changed her life forever. It is a story as timeless as the winds in its portrayal of the power of love. It is love that dooms her betraying heart. It is an inexplicable, touching story because it so eloquently amplifies the many mysteries of the heart.

Kon’s alluring, hypnotic writing is bolstered by animation studio Madhouse, with Kon’s direction. The animation team provides a gorgeous color palette for the cell-heavy 2D animation. The fluid movements are striking in their detail set against absorbing backgrounds. The color, shading and use of light holds up to the best Director of Photography work in live cinema that’s out there. It’s a big tribute to Cinematographer Hisao Shirai. Some sequences are imbued with bright coloration while others are juxtaposed with muted, softer colors. The deep tones in character designs or scenic backdrops visually evoke a separation in time conjuring a nostalgic reaction within our own lives while we are drawn into Chiyoko’s own past memories. Millennium Actress is teeming with cityscapes sprinkled with detail, cherry-blossomed countryside and snowy vistas all beautifully sweeping in scope. Millennium Actress is yet another example of his craft and his desire to animate a living canvas. One of his very characters in the film describes accurately; “a film director is a lot like a painter- a painter puts colors he likes on a canvas.” 

One of the most mesmerizing animated pieces to illustrate this kind of detail is Chiyoko’s teary, desperate search culminating at the train station in the heart of winter. It is one of the most heartfelt, stirring
sequences in animation. The epic scene, layered in gentle, white snow, is symbolic of Chiyoko’s purity of heart. The panoramic chapter is pure cinematic brilliance with the snow falling, the wind howling, Chiyoko runs the length of the train platform in an attempt to hold on to her mysterious would-be lover, “Wait!” Wait!.” The animation is flowing and the writing is heart wrenching complementing Chiyoko’s emotional state as her heart stirs. Kon effectively channels the desperation to the audience. When she falls to the snow, we feel her heartbreak, her longing and she proclaims, “I’ll come!” She repeats as the train’s whistle fades into the winter-filled distance, “I’ll come to you!.” Chiyoko pulls the heartstrings parallelling some of the most profound moments from some of the best-loved stories in cinematic history, like Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s A Wonderful Life. All of the winter imagery, the train, Chikoyo’s pain; tap an emotional cord with the viewer that takes us back to a simpler time and place when loved ruled our own world. One can imagine Kon had the visual cues in mind as part of his master plan. More recently, Snow Falling On Cedars [directed by Scott Hicks] with its snowy settings, Japanese lead and central story of love comes closest in striking that delicate balance that Kon so deftly captures in Millennium Actress. His striking, assured hand complete with cinematic aspirations gives Millennium Actress a broad appeal.

The soundtrack by Susumu Hirasawa is equally delightful, especially in its ability to enhance the picturesque film’s emotional resonance with complementary melodies. The opening theme music ‘Lotus Gate [Landscape-1]’ is particularly entrancing in the form of a wispy synthesized Japanese New Age Pop that captures the essence of the film magnificently. There is a modern flair mixed with some often captivating instrumentals by this twenty-year veteran in the music industry. The closing music is rousing and pop-oriented complete with vocal. The soundtrack receives high marks on its own. The picture itself has a distinctly foreign film style thanks to the sound and the subtitles. Yes! You’ll need to read too. There’s no English dubbing here. You’ll also enjoy the aural experience through a Japanese 5.1 Surround Sound track.

Kon’s sophomore effort challenges the heart and mind through a moving thing of beauty cementing his future as one of anime’s premiere directors. Millennium Actress is vivid, powerful filmmaking in its own right despite being classified as anime. It is a vital reminder that anime continues to be a thriving genre in film gaining respect and recognition with each passing year. This is a complex, textured drama complete with
warm, wonderful characters that deserves to be seen. It is a love story with themes of longing, heartache, destiny and fate that transcends time directed with Kon’s refreshing eye. Chiyoko’s undying passion never crosses into dangerous obsession, but there is something ultimately tragic going on inside her head that breaks our hearts, because reason never takes over. A ghostly apparition of an old woman haunts her and tortures her mind, “you poor fool- you will burn forever in the flames of eternal love.” Genya says Chiyoko “was chasing a shadow,” while ironically he too was chasing that same shadow in his enduring fan-obsessive love for Chiyoko from afar holding the same key for 30 years, the key she held safe for so long. The key is a symbol for both Genya and Chiyoko’s unfulfilled dreams; of their desire for the unattainable. The heart is not rational and rule by it alone without the balance of reason is a very volatile proposition. It’s a fatal flaw of the human condition to be overruled by the heart. To allow heart’s desire to dream and hope against all odds for something beyond our reach, something of perfection to go unchecked by reason is risky in the least. Some might call this beautiful notion hope or love, others a curse. In the end, Chiyoko would not allow the ghosts to take her as she embraced her fate. For Chiyoko her singular focus was the inescapable hold of her craving. Relief and peace come for Chiyoko as she passes to the next life and she thanks Genya for the key that “opened the door to the memories of him.” The key has unlocked her love, her memories of the man she loved and the girl she once was. Chiyoko herself says it best, “After all, it’s the chasing after him I love.” It is precisely Chiyoko’s haunted, romantic ideal that motivates her. So, is this universal truth a gift or a curse? For the romantic heart destined for heartache it may be the latter, but given the alternatives most would take their chance on love as Kon’s Chiyoko does in the poignant Millennium Actress. The old adage, ‘better to have loved, than to have never loved at all,’ comes to mind and Satoshi Kon revitalizes that belief with new perspective. Kon awakens this old actress not only to apply rouge, but a complete psychological makeover as well.

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