Satoshi Kon once described himself as, rather than an animator, a filmmaker who just happened to work in an animation, and if anything at all could be considered hard evidence towards this statement, it’s the director’s 2001 feature film, Millennium Actress. An ode to the history of cinema as much as it is to memory, it’s a finely and deeply crafted work, toying effortlessly with metafictional devices like the division between reality and fiction and the linear concept of time as deftly as any celluloid counterpart you could possibly name. For this reason alone, Kon has every right to call himself a filmmaker, and you’d think that would be enough, but Millennium Actress is also a wonderful example of Golden Era films, when drama involved the heart and nothing had to explode just to get your attention.
Taking its cue from the concept of ‘trompe l’oeil’, a French term meaning ‘to fool the eye’, the film’s odd blurring of the lines that normally allocate separate narratives a nice stable box to fit into (like the ‘flashback sequence’, where such points out of and back into the dominant narrative are usually quite apparent) makes it difficult to determine when what we are seeing is departing from what is actually happening. Reality bleeds into fiction and present bleeds into past, and vice versa. In a scene that sets this up as one of the main themes for the story, Genya Tachibana (Shozo Iizuka), documentary filmmaker and fan, is chronicling the life of popular Ginei Studio actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara. As he watches the end of one of her films, he is shocked to realise the space rocket in which she is about to take off on his television screen is actually shaking his apartment.
In fact, it’s only a slight earthquake, but the sudden ambiguity and subtle surrealism the timing of such an event causes becomes the first of many invisible transitions between screen, reality, memory and fantasy, as the aged actress recounts her life to the director through the major roles she has acted. Key moments in her personal life become moments in her films become key moments in her personal life, and the crossover points become less and less obvious as the story progresses until you’re left with only two possible answers – either Chiyoko, almost 80 now, is going senile and mistaking fiction for fact, or there is something you’re meant to understand not from what’s happening, but from the way it’s happening. Chiyoko’s searching, represented by a key she was given by someone she never knew, is symbolism that’s a little hard to ignore. The repetition of running scenes and her comment at the end of the film all point to the possibility that the mysterious Manchurian artist she meets as a girl is representative of something much more fundamental in her life, something worth running after.
There are layers here, folded in neat harmony and yet each with their own power and meaning. Chiyoko’s search is one, the manifest division between her youthful self and her aged self and what that means another. Tachibana’s involvement in her story, along with his cameraman Kyouji, as a passive bystander (in other words, the audience) is yet another layer still, because the two filmmakers can only maintain their distance so long, and the actress’ ability to involve them in her story eventually has them not only there with her, but participating, no longer passive. Which is exactly what any good story should do – make you feel and not just watch. Which is exactly what Millennium Actress does.
And so fantasy merges back into reality again, looping with such deliberate grace it’s a little hard to believe this isn’t exactly what Kon, his producer Taro Maki and co-writer Sadayuki Murai planned from the start, but if you watch the Making Of, it becomes happily apparent Millennium Actress didn’t finish exactly the way it started. That things could have turned out any other way is almost unthinkable, when the final product is such a masterpiece of subtlety and meaning, but perhaps that too is a quality of art reflecting life, or life reflecting art. Personally, I don’t wonder what Satoshi Kon would do if he was given the opportunity to make a film; he’s already doing it.