Chiyoko Fujiwara was a famous actress that had been in many successful films for over twenty years. Currently in her 70s, an experienced director, and biggest fan, called Genya Tachibara wants to produce a documentary about her, but there is a problem, she hasn’t been living in the public eye for some time. Luckily, Genya and his cameraman are able to track her down, and she agrees to an interview of her documentary. She explains that during the 1930s she fell in love with an artist who was on the run from the Fascist Government, and after he left a key to a suitcase containing his art materials, she began an acting career in the hopes of going around the world so that she may one day see him again. As she explains her past, the environment changes as she and the crew appear to be inside her memories, from World War II, to Segoku Period Battles and even in Space, the crew witness the impressive life of this long living actress.
After working on Perfect Blue, Satoshi Kon planned to do the adaptation of Yasukata Tsustui’s Paprika as his next film, but these plans didn’t get far after Rex Entertainment went bankrupt. He decided that he would use the idea of blurring the lines between reality and imagination for Millennium Actress, using a story originally idealised by Sadayuki Murai, which both wrote the screenplay. Deciding to give the film a historical feel to it, Kon did a lot of studying of Japanese cinema and clothing, and stated that he learned interesting things while working on the film. There has also been the suggestion that Chiyoko is based on real life Japanese actress Setsuko Hara, who had a large acting career between 1936 and 1961, and as of writing, still lives a near private life since her last film. While Satoshi Kon has said in interviews that Chiyoko wasn’t meant to be based on any real life person, he does recognise the similarity as an influence. The film premiered at the Fantasia Festival on July 28th 2001, where it tied with Spirited Away for the Grand Prize Award, and later was entered for consideration at the 2003 Academy Awards, but wasn’t nominated.
The animation is really creative and very interesting to watch. Satoshi Kon was able to use several different art styles and techniques that are reminiscent to styles of Japanese cinema, other scenes do really well in its cinematography, like Kon’s other classic Perfect Blue, and it feels like a live action film. Some scenes are impressively animated, such as the opening sequence with the space station and slightly later with the video recording; it’s amazing that this was all done hand drawn.
The music is surprisingly varied, the main theme is beautifully melodic, and the compositions vary from eerie sci-fi, imperial, melodramatic romance and Chiptune, yes I’m not kidding there are a few scenes which use Chiptune music for its backing track and somehow it works, all because this is the same composer who used Vocaloid for Paprika. Most of the film doesn’t have music, which for this film is quite effective since it focuses on the characters, but when it does it really adds some excitement to the scenes. I think if there was any problem with the soundtrack, it may have been more effective if the music actually suited the scenes the flashbacks take place in more often.
The voice acting in the Japanese version is good to a high standard of Satoshi Kon’s other works. What’s interesting to note is that Chiyoko actually has three actresses; one for each stage in the character’s life, what’s impressive is that there is barely a difference between voices. Yes, they are different as they sound women at different ages, but they actually sound like they came from one person. Genya’s character has two actors, although the second and younger one doesn’t have many lines, although it’s interesting seeing how the older one is more serious while the younger acts more accident prone. Other actors do a good job, and I especially like Masayana Onosaka, portraying Genya’s cameraman as someone who’s entirely confused at the whole scenario. The English Dub on the other hand has some minor issues. While John Vernon adds a near similar performance for Genya that Shôzô Îzuka, most of them under perform when compared to the Japanese dub, though it is very watchable. The only real problem with the dub is the choice for Chiyoko, Regina Reagan. She’s definitely not a bad actress, but her voice only works for the older character, because of this her voice for the younger versions of Chiyoko sound more mature than normal, and it can be off putting.
This is probably one of the most interesting and creative romance stories, at least the best one I’ve seen in a film. This woman goes through so much to see this one man it is really touching, and the idea of her life and struggle being portrayed by films is really unique, especially for its time. The characters around her each have their own story that in a way effect Chiyoko, whether it was jealousy for being younger and doing things that are later regretted. While some characters act worse than others, for people in Japan and in the times that the film is set in, they would be normal, such as Chiyoko’s mother. The only real thing that bothered me in the film was that while three characters who were living the flashbacks reacted the way that I would expect them to react, with Chiyoko acting like she’s re-enacting her life, Genya being engaged and involving since he adores her so much, and the near oblivious cameraman being confused and freaked out, but eventually feeling more comfortable as he stays in the experience, no one seems to point out why these flashbacks are appearing and how they are there, they simply act like it’s a normal occurrence.
If you have an interest for romances, there is absolutely no reason why you should not check this film out. This is a really engaging story and another great film by a legendary animator that is definitely for the film goer and the anime lover.
Millennium Actress is available from Dreamworks and Manga Entertainment. There aren’t any adaptations as far as I know, but it’s created by Satoshi Kon who has done other interesting and creative anime films such as Perfect Blue and Paprika, and unfortunately passed away in August 2010 after finishing the writing and storyboards for his last film called The Dream Machine, which is currently still in production under the direction of Yoshimi Itazu and it expected for a 2011 release.