MILLENNIUM ACTRESS

 (Sennen joyu)

Directed by Satoshi Kon. Japan. 2001.


Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk
 
 


 
 

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In some films, the dividing line between subjective and objective reality is very tenuous. In Satoshi Kon's poetic Japanese animé film Millennium Actress, it is almost non-existent. When the Ginei studio is about to be razed, documentarian Genya Tachibana decides to make a documentary about the studio and its greatest star, legendary actress Fujiwara Chiyoko who disappeared from public life more than thirty years ago. After finding an old key that belonged to the aging actress, he travels to her secluded mountain retreat with his assistant Kyogi Ida to interview her for the documentary. When Genya gives her the key, it unlocks a stream of memories that transports us (along with the cameraman and interviewer) to a different reality that allows us to relive one thousand years of Japanese history using the medium of cinema. 

As she tells her story, Chiyoko recounts her birth at the time of the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and how she was discovered as a child actress despite her mother's objection that she is too timid. She reveals how a strange young painter, a political outcast whose name she never discovers, gives her a key and then disappears, telling her that the key is "the most important thing there is". Chiyoko's dream of reuniting with her lover keeps her alive and becomes what her life is about. Unfolding more as emotion and mood than narrative, Kon takes us on a surreal journey through a series of films within films in which Chiyoko attempts to find her lost love, playing a princess, a ninja, a geisha, and even an astronaut. In the process, we witness a seamless tableau of Japan's history: the medieval period in the 15th and 16th centuries, the era when the Shogunate was in power, the Meiji period when the Emperor was restored, the Showa period before World War II, and the post-war occupation and recovery. 

The line between events of Chiyoko's real life and scenes from her films is blurred and the film is difficult to follow on first viewing. To complicate matters even further, the interviewer, Genya, is cast in many roles in which he becomes almost a comic figure as Chiyoko's rescuer. Though the film is often puzzling, the search to recapture the defining moment in Chiyoko's life strikes a universal chord and we identify with her desperate quest. Though I found the ending somewhat unsatisfying, Millennium Actress is a complex and beautiful film and Susumu Hirasawa's hypnotic musical score adds to the blend of warmth, emotional power, and magical realism. Kon sees life as a big romantic movie full of melodrama, humor, and longing and seems to be saying that while there is often confusion between who we really are and the shifting roles we play in life, what remains constant is our longing for love.

Howard Schumann
 
 
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