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Anime Reviews: Millennium Actress
Standing tall as Satoshi Kon's magnum opus, Millennium Actress features great animation, three-dimensional characters, and a beautifully bittersweet story.
Title: Millennium Actress a.k.a. Sennen Joyuu
Production: Studio Madhouse
Film Length: 87 minutes
Air Dates: 1/23/2001
Age Rating: 7+ (dark or disturbing thematic elements)
Summary: Genya Tachibana, a 50-something documentary filmmaker and avid movie buff, sets out with his cameraman to get an exclusive interview--the first in decades--with legendary actress Chiyoko Fujiwara, who has lived a secluded life ever since leaving show business. Their conversation begins with small talk, but when Genya produces a long-lost key from Chiyoko's past, their discussion shifts to the events that drove Chiyoko to pursue the life of an actress in the first place. During her youth, Chiyoko encountered a wounded and handsome man in a cloak, carrying an unfinished painting under his arm. When she gives him shelter for the night, the painter says the key around his neck opens "the most important thing there is." The next day, before Chiyoko could solve his riddle, the painter flees the city, taking the train to Hokkaido and leaving both her and his key behind.
The Good: Damn near everything
The Bad: A few missteps in the soundtrack; not entirely straightforward
The Ugly: The lack of an English dub and, by definition, an audience
This movie is amazing. Review over. Go see it.
Final Sco--oh, alright, I'll be more specific. This is the second film directed by the now-legendary Satoshi Kon, and I would place it as the best thing he's ever made. There are just so many wonderful things about this film that I'm probably sounding really incoherent right now, but trust me on this. Let's not waste any more time and dive right in, shall we?
Starting off in my usual predictable fashion, the art and animation for this film are fantastic. Kon's character designs straddle this strange line between a typical anime style and a more realistic one, and that works beautifully in a film like this, where there is a blurring between fantasy and reality. The colors are often soft and muted (as part of the semi-realistic tone, no doubt), and the animation is wonderfully fluid all throughout. Really, there's not a single thing wrong with the visuals in this film, and so, let's move onto the film's audio.
And wouldn't you know it, here comes another paragraph of immense praise. As far as the soundtrack goes, for the most part, it's full of excellent tracks like "Actress in Time Layers," "Chiyoko's Theme," and "The Gate of Desire." Even though there are only 12 tracks on the official soundtrack, and 3 of those are variations on Chiyoko's theme, there is a surprising amount of variety present. On a similar note, the voice acting in this film is phenomenal stuff, ranging from comedic to heart-rending when the scene calls for it. Basically, the cast does a perfect bang-up job, but of particular note are the three women who play Chiyoko during the various stages of her life, as they all bring powerful performances while simultaneously blending into each other flawlessly; it really does sound like the same person, if that person had recorded each set of lines at the appropriate ages. In short, your ears will be pleased by what they hear. Too bad there's no English dub, though.
Now let's focus on the characters, as they're probably pretty important. Because the whole thing revolves around Chiyoko, it makes sense that she'd be the one to get the most exposure and development in the story. In every stage of her life, she is painted with uncanny attention to detail, making it difficult sometimes to believe that she's a fictional character and not an actual pop cultural figure. Her youth, her becoming an adult, her determination, her reclusive lifestyle in old age--every scene Chiyoko is in exudes masterful writing and realism. One scene in particular near the end, where she begins to realize how old she's become, is truly harrowing. Beautiful stuff. We also get a good amount of insight into Genya and his involvement in the story; he's not making this documentary because it's going to make him rich. Rather, he's making it because he's a die-hard fan of the legendary Chiyoko Fujiwara, and desperately wants to know the story of why she left the film industry behind.
Other major characters like the painter, the policeman, rival movie star Eiko, Chiyoko's prominent director, and the camera man also get plenty of time to shine, but if I were to go over each and every one of them, I'd be here all day. Let's just say the characters are all given plenty of dimensions and leave it at that.
The story itself is largely character-driven, so you can already guess at what I feel about that, but what makes it truly stand out is its execution. It's one thing to see the story unfold in the semi-realistic 1930s/1940s fashion, but because Chiyoko was a famous actress who played many major historical roles, each phase or event of her life is presented in the style of various historical periods of Japanese history. The fact that the story can do this without contradicting itself or creating any paradoxes within the story itself is a massive testament to Satoshi Kon's writing and directorial greatness. And it's not just Japanese history, either--major phases in film history are also included in the stylistic changes, even including a Godzilla mock-up segment at one point. This really allows the film's animation to flex its muscles to its fullest, and truly makes it a unique experience.
And now I get to mention the very minor flaws present in the film. Firstly, while the soundtrack is incredible in its entirety, there are a couple tracks ("Run," for example) that feel extremely out of place in the context of the story, and can be jarring for the viewer. They're not bad tunes in the least, but they just don't quite fit properly. That's really all I have to say about that.
Also, this isn't exactly the most linear and easy-to-follow movie ever made. With each stylistic shift comes new settings and oftentimes new rules to how that era works, so if you're not intimately familiar with Japanese history, many of the subtleties will be lost to you, as well as some critical story elements. So crack open them history books, I guess?
With that said, those minor flaws aren't even close to tarnishing Millennium Actress's good name. As I stated early on, this is Satoshi Kon's masterpiece, and it deserves its spot as my absolute favorite anime film. There are just so many things done perfectly here that I would honestly recommend it to just about anyone. Every time I watch it, it elicits a powerful emotional reaction from me, and I've done so nearly 20 times now. Now that's the power of a truly brilliant film.
Final Score: 10 out of 10. With its dynamic visuals, deep characters, and intelligent use of symbolism, Millennium Actress is simultaneously a bittersweet love story and a masterful love letter to the art of cinema.