Millennium Actress [FB]
December 6th, 2010 by Dan

millennium 8

A cross section of Chiyoko's roles in her career

It’s weird to get back into the mental state that we were all in back in 2001. The Y2K buzz was forgotten and embarrassing, most of the retrospective documentaries had passed, and the nostalgia craze was nearing its end. It seems fitting to have a movie like Millennium Actress pop out in July of 2001. Long enough after that it doesn’t feel pandering, but also at the perfect time to look back at the prior 70 years of Japanese cinema.

The title of the movie is meant to evoke several meanings. It came out, after all, at the end of the millennium, for one, but it goes just a touch deeper. The main character, Chiyoko Fujiwara, starts her movie career in the 30s, making movies for the war effort, but by the end of her career her films span a thousand years, from the Heian Period to the scenes in outer space that bookend the film. Our last millennium reference, that I can spot, is Chiyoko’s name. With some help from TV Tropes I learned that her name means “Child of a thousand generations” in Japanese.

Shocker, I know. A Satoshi Kon production with layered meanings and significances. I’m sure I’m so far from even approaching all of the things that are going on within this movie, but it’s an absolute pleasure to watch. As I said earlier, it’s an examination of the legacy of the Japanese film industry, but it’s told through the lens of Chiyoko’s career. The movie studio she worked for is being torn down, long after she became a hermit and left acting. Our other main characters for this movie are a documentarian and his cameraman who have hiked up to Chiyoko’s house to talk to her about her career.

The movie’s story is cleverly told through scenes of Chiyoko’s actual movies, whose subjects conveniently mirror her emotional state, as we learn why she began acting and eventually why she quit. Reality and the movie narrative meld together until what is actually happening and what is just plot becomes ambiguous at times, but not so much so that the movie is unwatchable.

Given what I’ve seen of Paranoia Agent, another work by Satoshi Kon examining pop culture, memes, the Japanese obsession with kawaisa (“cuteness”), and media, it’s clear that Kon believes his art is as linked with the culture of Japan as its own history. Chiyoko’s movies mirror the war in Manchuria and the gung-ho nationalism of Japan during the Pacific War (WWII) before delving into the relatively lighthearted light historical dramas that pepper Japanese media even today. Then things go bad for the Japanese and Chiyoko’s movies turn to the firebombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like Japan itself, eventually her movies and life begin to reflect her growing maturity and Japan’s growing prosperity post-war. It’s fascinating to me, I don’t know. I totally dug it.

There’s also a love story tied in with the whole plot. Chiyoko’s main motivation for acting is to attract the attention of a painter she met only twice in her life, but who she constantly pines for and chases. Her love for someone she barely knows is so pure and unattainable that it almost deserves to belong to the plot of one of her movies.

I’ve done an absolutely terrible job of summing this movie up, but I really liked it. Millennium Actress is many things: loving homage to Japanese cinema, an examination of how movies and culture mirror each other, a tender love story, and a look at growth, maturity, age, and the harshness of time for actresses, but most importantly it’s good. Go check it out.

One Response  
  • Eric Mesa writes:
    December 30th, 201011:01at

    Sounds pretty neat. I’ll have to check it out some day.

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