It's a love letter to film, a historical overview of early to mid-century Japan, and a biography of an actress told through scenes from her films. Millennium Actress is an incredibly ambitious, assured, and unconventional animated film, but it's unconventional in a different way than most out-there animated films. The animation isn't abstract or particularly mind-bending. There's no bizarre shock scenes or wild camera movements that would be impossible in the real world. Watching just individual scenes, one would think it could be made as a live action film without substantially changing a single shot. But Millennium Actress has such a wide-ranging cinematic vision within conventional parameters that actually pulling any of this off in live action would be too expensive, too unwieldy, and likely wouldn't hold together visually like this film.
On the surface, Millennium Actress, which premiered in 2001, is about a two-man documentary crew filming an interview with once-famous actress Chiyoko Fujiwara, who after an accident on set in the '60s went suddenly into retirement and seclusion. She's modeled (in small part) on Ozu actress Setsuko Hara, who was an iconic star who left at the height of her career, and had since refused any interviews or photographs. The documentarians include a laconic cameraman, Kyoji, and the interviewer, Genya Tachibana, an older guy who used to work for the studio where Chiyoko made all of her films, and who has some small connection to her past.
They meet Chiyoko at her house, where Genya gives her a gift - a small brass key, which was her good luck charm all throughout her career. She'd lost it the day she quit acting for good. Now, reunited and giving her first interview in 30 years, she decides to finally tell the story of how the key came into her possession, and what it means to her.
As she tells her story, the film begins to open up stylistically. First, we see old black and white photographs from Chiyoko's past, then the young Chiyoko is there, walking through the pictures and talking about what life was like - how she was born during the great Kanto earthquake which took her father's life, where she grew up, and how she was spotted by a talent scout. This transitions into a conventional scene - young Chiyoko sitting on a bench, her pinch-faced mother next to her, refusing the scout's offers. In the middle of the scene, young Chiyoko begins to talk to the documentarians, who are suddenly there as well, filming the event from Chiyoko's past as if they had suddenly transferred into her memory. Chiyoko exists both in the past, reliving the event, and in the present giving it her grown-up perspective.
Then, walking in the snow after the unsuccessful meeting with the scout, Chiyoko is knocked down by a young man in the street. He apologizes, then runs off. Three police, including one with an ugly scar on his face, come chasing after him, ask Chiyoko where he went, and she decides to cover for him. He's a political dissident and an artist, and the Japanese imperial government is ramping up its war in Manchuria and cracking down on dissent domestically. Chiyoko hides the artist at her house, where they talk, and really connect. He tells her about his home somewhere in the snow, and how he wants to meet her there some day.
Later, the police nearly catch him, and Chiyoko finds out (from her conspiring grandfather) that he's just made it to the train station. She runs after his train, but can't catch up, and falls down in the snow, watching the train leave. The documentary crew is filming all of this, and Genya has tears streaming down his face. "I cried at this scene 53 times!" The story of Chiyoko's life has transitioned into a scene from one of her films, and the rest of the film intertwines seamlessly from real-life to filmed scenes and back again.
It sounds like a confusing mess, but the magic of Millennium Actress is how it can pull off these transitions and odd juxtapositions without becoming jumbled or confusing. The story moves fluidly from scenes of films to behind the scenes production work to Chiyoko directly addressing the documentarians, and back to the present where she's just sitting in her living room, all while the story of her life unfolds. So does the connection between Genya and Chiyoko. He's as deeply in love with Chiyoko from afar as she was with her elusive artist, and as her stories go deeper into the films, he begins to place himself in the narratives - when she's in a scene from a Samurai epic clearly Throne of Blood, Genya rides in as a rescuing Samurai. The next scene she's a ninja girl from some chanbara story, and he's the mysterious swordsman who comes to rescue her when she's hopelessly outnumbered.
All of these transitions are brought together through a fluid editing strategy, where it is almost always Chiyoko's movements that take us from one scene, and one film, to another. She falls through a door and is on the ground in a different film, time and place. She opens a door from some prison movie and ends up in the rubble of Tokyo during the 1945 fire bombings, where film and real-life intertwine as she, on the verge of losing hope, finds a hidden gift from her long lost artist that helps keep her going on.
What the key means, what happened to the dissident artist, and how Genya ended up with the key are all revelations that come out in the storytelling. Chiyoko admits she primarily became an actress with the hope that the artist might see her face on the screen, and come find her. All of the scenes from the movies she's in are in some way about that pursuit, and her dwindling hopes that she might find what she's looking for, and whether the search was worth dedicating her life to.
Millennium Actress tells an emotionally touching story. It's also visually riveting, a meticulously designed tribute to Japanese cinema. Director Satoshi Kon also directed Perfect Blue, which was a much darker take on a Japanese female star, her industry and the fans who idolized her. That film was all about the horrors of fame and losing yourself in "art". Millennium Actress is about the glories of artistic passion, and the nobility of pursuing what one loves, even with little hope of achieving it. It's a mesmerizing animated achievement.
Millennium Actress has been released on Blu-ray and DVD by Shout! Factory. The Blu-ray transfer comes from a newly remastered 4k transfer. In includes both an English language audio track, and the original Japanese audio with English subtitles, both audio tracks in 5.1. Extras on this release include four video interviews: two with actors from the English dub, Abby Trott (8 mins) and Laura Post (20 mins), and two with members of the Japanese production team: Producers Masao Muruyama (33 mins) and Taro Maki (9 mins).