Master director Satoshi Kon made concerted efforts in his work to show how we’re all unreliable narrators because we view the world from our own positions within it. In Millennium Actress, Kon provides one of the best depictions of that ideal with the character Chiyoko Fujiwara, whose point of view has been warped through countless narratives and movie ventures where she’s inhabited the roles of others. It’s this aspect, along with countless others, which makes the storytelling beats all the more engaging as viewers are forced to sit alert and pay attention, resisting being easily distracted by the beautiful imagery whizzing by.
In Millennium Actress, a retired actress, Chiyoko, recounts her life to a documentarian and his cameraman. As the film blends reality with fiction, and the documentary duo are literally thrust into the many lives Chiyoko has played and lived in, Kon shows how one memory — in this case, a pocketed key and runaway protester — can spark incessant searches throughout life. On the surface, Chiyoko has received everything she could desire, but looks can be deceiving (a concept that Kon is known to explore in both the literal and figurative sense).
If Kon’s Perfect Blue exists in the mold of a nightmare fueled by Masahiro Ikumi’s intense score, then Millennium Actress settles itself within the shapeless form of a dream. Millennium Actress is one of the best depictions of memories in film because it’s less about what actually happens and more about the feeling. Scenery bleeds away, leaving minute and personal details in its wake. Lifetimes are spent chasing fragments of dreams and hints of once forgotten emotions to help spark a half-remembered thought or the outline of a face that once delivered on the promise of joy.
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Most of Kon’s work doesn’t so much seek to entertain but to thrill. Just like our worst nightmares, it’s impossible to shake off a film as viscerally hellish as Perfect Blue or to forget the disassembling dreamscape of Millennium Actress. Even Paprika, a film that errs closer to the side of playful, has imagery that burns itself into your retinas, procuring them up hours after the film ends with flashes of tilt-a-whirl hallways, women on the verge of a breakthrough and a never-ending parade that puts an imagined city on lockdown with arcade game toys rampaging in the streets.
The films are portals to Alice in Wonderland rabbit holes, hallucinogenic and blaring, as dizzying in the tumble down as they are addictive. What appears to be beautiful on the surface is swiftly transformed into the grotesque. The through line between Kon’s films, beyond the layered animation that provides ground level depth, is the legacy of Kon himself, who grew with his pictures by virtue of his characters. While plenty will crown Perfect Blue as his finest achievement — and there’s few who could argue against that on a narrative and artistic standpoint (including myself) — it’s films such as Paprika, Millennium Actress and even Tokyo Godfathers that demonstrate his growing capacity for empathy. Perfect Blue is a cool, analytical and sometimes cruel look at how fame can corrupt, how power imbalance will always rear its ugly head; how the dangers of putting idealized versions of ourselves — women in particular — can lead audiences to corrupt, commodify or claim images for themselves. What’s lacking, however, is any real warmth for its leading lady, a detail that might’ve made the horrific incidents more visceral, and would’ve led to a stronger character study without that clinical edge.
In Perfect Blue, nothing is what it appears to be, especially in Mima’s life via women who are revered or loathed based on preconceived perceptions of who they should be, not who they are. The fall from perfection is devastating when the rules are defined by others. In Millennium Actress, it’s the titular character who is given the greatest voice, and hers is one that builds the worlds and dreamscape imagery that the film exists in.
In Kon’s work, there are ties to the past and cinema’s future. Christopher Nolan’s Inception owes much visually to the mind-bending style of Paprika, while Darren Aronofsky has spoken of the influence Perfect Blue had on his doppelganger thriller Black Swan. In Perfect Blue, there’s an aesthetic similarity to another anime hit with Akira, as both embrace darkness and highlight co-dependent relationships; shadows pouring out of places where there should be none. The graininess to Kon’s work is at its most apparent in Perfect Blue, and by the time Millennium Actress rolls around a few years later, there’s a polish that’s begun to lightly coat the work. Kon’s color pops more, allowing Millennium Actress its romanticism as it grapples with themes of unreconciled love. It also gives the film a grandiose shading that goes well with the idea that a person’s history can be so richly textured, especially that of a woman in a public forum, and that it can still be stripped away when she’s deemed less than valuable.
Not one of Kon’s films is easily digestible, but Millennium Actress is his most palatable, in a sense. Yes, the storyline takes non-linear routes to its ultimate goal, but the packaging of the materials is clear whereas his other films are purposefully diluted and rough around the edges.
Millennium Actress may not be Kon’s best film. It’s not even my favorite of the lot (Paprika deserves your time and love). But Millennium Actress demonstrates Kon’s further developing skill of portraying characters with warmth and compassion, all the while dazzling the viewers with his strong sense of style, animation wizardry and narrative magnetism. No matter what one pulls from Kon’s work, there’s no denying his lasting impact and innate ability to immediately render a viewer speechless.
Allyson Johnson (@AllysonAJ) is the film editor at TheYoungFolks.com as well as a film critic for ThePlaylist.net and CambridgeDay.com. As a member of the Online Film Critic Society and Boston Online Film Critics Association, her writing can also be found at TheMarySue.com and Seacoast Online.