A young woman straps herself into a launching rocket, set to take off far into space. Another astronaut waits in the wings, begging her not to leave. “You won’t be able to return,” he screams as the rocket prepares to take flight. It is dramatically rendered and quickly subdued as a small earthquake pauses the film and the audience realizes they are merely watching a film within a film.
This sequence is both the beginning—and finale—of Satoshi Kon’s 2001 animated masterpiece “Millennium Actress,” a film that charts the career and life of the fictional retired Japanese actress Chiyoko and seamlessly blends reality with fiction while providing an inspiring narrative on the power of redemption and the pursuit of passion.
Film, Memory, and Blending of Narratives
For many American filmgoers, neither the name Satoshi Kon nor the title “Millennium Actress” may sound familiar as full-length animated pictures in the U.S. market have been, until recently, dominated by Hollywood production studios.
Since the Internet boom, however, many Japanese anime titles have gained more prominence in the United States, particularly Studio Gibli’s classics such as “Spirited Away” (2001) and “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004). Most of these larger titles saw modest theater releases during a first run in New York and Los Angeles to mediocre box office returns.
Unfortunately, Kon’s “Millennium Actress” was one such title. It was distributed by DreamWorks to only a handful of theaters in 2003, and not widely available to Western audiences via home entertainment. This is unfortunate because many were deprived of a true cinematic masterpiece.
A Deceptively Simple Story
On the surface, the film’s synopsis is simple: A documentary is being made of a retired actress’s life as a pseudo-tribute to Japan’s film history, as well as early Japanese actresses Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine.
However, Kon’s method of telling the story creates an experience not found in most contemporary animated films. The story of Chiyoko’s life unfolds for the audience by jumping in and out of scenes of her film career that blend with biographical events. Her visually rendered memories blend subjective and objective reality in such a way that the audience simply gets lost in the dramatic, and often, traumatic struggles.
Its overarching narrative moves from pre-World War II to the post-war years as Chiyoko’s life is portrayed through her roles that span multiple periods in Japanese history and cinema. At its core, “Millennium Actress” is a heartfelt tribute to 20th century Japanese film as it references such classics as “Ran” (1985), “Godzilla” (1954), and “Tokyo Story” (1953).
Kon’s film also is an inspiring character study that features heroism and courage to pursue passion in the face of growing tyranny and societal oppression. We see this through Chiyoko’s struggles in 1930s Imperial Japanese society.
The driving force of Chiyoko’s professional career takes place after she saves and protects a revolutionary who is evading authorities. Once he is discovered and flees to Manchuria on a train, the metal key that hung around his neck is recovered by Chiyoko and becomes the symbol of her passion.
Through much of the film, she chases after the faceless man, throughout her life and career. At the same time, the two documentary filmmakers are watching the action from within the films. In most scenes, Chiyoko wears the key about her neck in hopes to finally reunite with her missing love.
The key is a symbol of her passion and drive that propels her career and success regardless of the struggles put before her. Often throughout the film she is seen running, stumbling, falling, but always finding the will within her to continue. It is the power of passion and hope that keeps her endlessly moving forward.
A Faded Actress and the Lesson of Aging
Aside from gorgeous cinematography, animation, and radical parallel editing, Kon’s ability to craft multilayered symbolic narratives that beg to be constantly reassessed is on full display in “Millennium Actress.” A reoccurring motif that plays throughout is the reality of moving forward, aging, and revival. Constantly, the theme of cultural and personal evolution is depicted through historical sequences as seen in her films.
The documentary team is made up of two characters; one being a middle-aged director, who had once worked at the bankrupt studio Chiyoko’s films sustained through the post-war years, and a young assistant. Often the director is fascinated by Chiyoko’s success and awed by her presence, while the young assistant constantly remarks on the director’s age and the aged status of the films they are documenting.
In an early scene in which Chiyoko attempts to climb onboard a departing train to be with the man she saved, she fails and begins to silently cry. As the director is visibly moved by the scene, the young assistant quips, “I guess even old people were young once,” which indicates his naïve perspective on aging and youthful passion.
Moving forward, aging, and rebirth also reflect Japan’s cultural evolution through the 20th century. The film is an examination of historical relationships between ancient traditions and the rise of a fascistic totalitarian state, which Chiyoko resists through helping the faceless revolutionary in the film.
In her films, we see clear historical parallels between ancient Japan and the events of World War II and, clear through, a thriving, modern nation full of rich history and culture. This notion is developed in the film’s opening credits montage in which images of modern Japan are parallel edited to specific scenes of films throughout Chiyoko’s career.
Her career in film also illustrates the atonement Kon attempts for Japan’s actions in the early to mid-20th century. Often Chiyoko is swept up in feudal Samurai battles while in real life the reality of war and totalitarianism affects her deeply; yet she always rises above. Symbolically, her struggles were Japan’s struggle to overcome a dark history and move into the modern age.
Although originally difficult to find in America, the film was fully restored in 2021 and can be found on certain streaming services as well as Blu-ray format. Anyone in search of an expertly crafted piece of thought-provoking, yet entertaining animated cinema will never forget “Millennium Actress.”
Written and Directed: Shatoshi Kon
Release Date: July 28, 2001
Run Time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
5 out of 5 stars