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Film: Millennium Actress (2001)

Directed by: Satoshi Kon

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The camera zooms towards a slowly-expanding earth from the view of the outer celestials; it glides closer and closer until the lens standstill on a face bidding goodbye to her present domain.

As liftoff begins, the heroine speaks her last line as the shot fades from the heart-clenching scene to a cluttered office, where one man watches the same shot on his little desk-television. Interrupted by the beckoning of his co-worker, he rewinds the tape and the one scene changes into a montage of the actress’s life in reverse.

These scenes and the actress in them, the man watching the actress, and the co-worker beckoning the man ultimately become the driving force of one of Satoshi Kon’s cinematic masterpieces titled Sennen Joyuu (or Millennium Actress).
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Casted for the lead star of this intricate narrative is Chiyoko Fujiwara: a fictional actress of the past whose name once rested on every citizen’s breath, but now has surrendered fame for a private and reclusive life.

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Yet, her isolation hasn’t left her forgotten as the film moves with the aforesaid ‘man’ who is a producer, Genya Tachibana, and his somewhat aloof camera-man, Ida Kyoji, who want to interview and document the now-aged Fujiwara. The film wastes no time in frivolity as the seekers find the sought and meekly, in their own star-struck daze, ask for a humble interview.

The demure, soft-spoken actress– eyes filled with nostalgic wonder–surprisingly accepts and begins to iterate her story. The scene fades from present-day home of Fujiwara where the three are sitting cozily, blanketed by the serenity of her presence, to a snowy day many decades in the past where both Genya and Kyoji physically walk through the memories of Fujiwara’s youth as she remembers…her past as a girl and as a woman as she walked the path to stardom.

As her memories solidify, Fujiwara begins to recount the personal events and historical recreations with supplementary but insightful commentary from her interviewers. This is all set on a grand stage by Kon who ingeniously parallels the reality of Fujiwara’s fading memories and the fantastical culmination of it all due to her pursuit of one man. Her chance encounter with a revolutionary and the love he transpires within her becomes the foundation of the film. It is a sublime, subtle achievement that actualizes the passion of one’s woman’s love, as she chases her beloved throughout time and place.

Unbounded by reality, her motives and actions may initially seem unfathomable and even, foolish, but that is the essence of love in all of its power to will absurdity. Still, many may find her character unappealing or even trope-y of the tragic romance queen or yet-another-empty-vessel-of-a-woman-only-to-exist-for-a-man. However, all qualms will be gracefully dispelled as the film cannot be solely undermined by gender complaints of a shallow characterization, because what the film aims to be, what Fujiwara ultimately becomes and shows us, is far grander than reducing the film to a superficial love story. Furthermore, Kon’s films are never about complex characterization, but using unremarkably simple characters to tell a grand story with deeply-rooted themes; a marriage of style and substance, where style irrefutably becomes substance.

Even then, there is a subtle familiarity to be found in her obscure romance which is illuminated by its ambiguity, beautified by its innocence, and engaging due to its complete grasp on the psyche of both Fujiwara and the events that follow: the events that define a millennium of history and the actress that defines a millennium.

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Fujiwara’s love is the driving point for her, but not the entire focus of the film as Kon paints pictures-a-many, and with each progressive frame, the romance falls back into the periphery and something more [un]real, more ubiquitous, more opaque takes the reigns. With the passage of time, Kon reveals to us the transitory nature of love, the dissipating and ever-changing landscape of society, the dichotomy of fantasy and reality, the evolution of cultural trends and cinematic progressivism, the sanctity of memories, and lastly, the history that brought it all together, during one place, spaced out in centuries through numerous films, with Fujiwara as our first-person guide.

Essentially, what Kon presents to us is an extremely imaginative work that can be viewed from multiple perspectives, but what it can be seen from one angle as is a tale of impassioned human will-lost in its own irrationality and driven by its incongruity—with no threshold or limitation, which provides to be the perfect base for a tale drenched in fantasy just as much as it is in reality.
As she tumbles through roles, she fuses her own desires to find her love, and her passion becomes engrained in every role that she plays.Yet the bewildering success she garners from this never satisfies her. The thrill ‘was’really in the chase, and though something unattainable was the product of that chase, it never stopped her, and that is the essence of Fujiwara’s story and the canvass on which Kon paints his masterpiece of epic proportions.

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One caveat of this film that has been argued is its homogenized appeal said to be geared only for the Japanese viewer. The reason being is because this film may feel uninviting and stifling at times, especially with the historical contextualization or the character dynamic between Tachibana and Fujiwara which is somewhat reminiscent of a romanticized otaku-idol dynamic, or even the overall sentiments and feel of the film which is very much rooted in Japanese culture and iconography.

However, as a non-Japanese viewer I can confidently assert that there is still much to be loved. From the extravagant homages to various directors, films, and icons to the sympathetic characters to the artistic-directorial skill; there is something extremely universal about this film that extends beyond the scope of any one nation and thus debilitates any claim of a homogeneous appeal. It’s a work with unfathomable scope and ambition that will resonate on multiple levels, whether it be absorbed as a film of impassioned love, or coming to terms with one’s ghosts from the past, or a technical production of the highest cinematic caliber, or just an entertaining mélange of myth and history told through reels. Regardless of how one approaches it, it is hard to deny the merit and absolute talent that constitutes this film, no matter where one hails from.
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The focus reverts back on the same initial frame, of Fujiwara staring into the camera, dressed in her astronaut gear.

The view pans out as her rocket blasts off as she takes her final odyssey into space.

The camera rescinds into the background, the lights at a stand-still, and the reel finally stops.

The cosmos are silent…

But the legacy of Chiyoko Fujiwara in Millennium Actress continues to shine not in just its world, but also ours.

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