Written by Nguyen Manh Quoc Trung
“After all, it’s the chasing after him that I really love.”
Millennium Actress (2001) by Japanese director Satoshi Kon is a beautifully animated love story that spans across millennia, yet is also confined within the small screen that is cinema and serves to demonstrate the ultimate power of movies as a narrative device.
The anime film tells the story of two documentary filmmakers investigating the career of a retired veteran actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara, in which every piece of her life, who she is and how she came to be, is hidden in the various movies she has starred in in her prime. To track the important events in her life is also to see her movies, which unfold like a series of roleplays and reenactments that are both larger-than-life and down-to-earth at the same time.
Director Satoshi Kon’s actress/muse is also caught inside the thin border of reality and fiction this time, but unlike Perfect Blue (1997), another of his anime films that blurs the line between the two, the story we witness is told through her own words instead of possible hallucination, putting the actress in control, and emphasizing the audience’s role as, well, the audience, both literally and figuratively. The movies Chiyoko starred in is of various genres, none is quite the same, ranging from romance to jidaigeki war epic to period drama and finally big-budget science-fiction, but they all contain the layered themes of loyalty, of the struggle of youth, of the journey to find lost love, and of the hope of reunion that is as timeless as human emotions and affections can ever be.
Much of the main character’s life story has to be inferred by the audience, and they also have to distinguish which detail actually happened and which is just fiction, yet recurring characters and plot points make this process easier, and also create a veil of ambiguity that cover the big picture. Symbolisms are everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and the film can be as straight-forward as it gets or infinitely layered and complex, all depends on the audience’s interpretation of the unfolding events. The script, however, is air-tight to perfection, and of all its 87 minutes of runtime none is redundant nor excessive.
Already impressive plot-wise, Millennium Actress’s animation techniques are also a sight to behold. Its silk-smooth transitions from shots to shots, with rapid cuts and switches that interconnect two seemingly-unrelated scenes from past, present, and future into a seamless chain of events are strokes of genius, something I never thought to see in an anime film, but perhaps only the animated medium can achieve this feat. Chiyoko Fujiwara joined the likes of Atsuko Chiba of Paprika (2006) and Makoto Konno of Toki Wo Kakeru Shojo (2006) as a handful of female anime characters that really stunned me beauty-wise; her appearance is as gorgeous as the set pieces of the movies she were at the helm. The film’s use of colors is the most vibrant I’ve seen in anime, impressive for a film released in 2001, and effectively reflecting the time and space of the various movies the heroine found herself in, and among the anime I have seen, is perhaps matched only by The Tatami Galaxy or Paprika, the latter being a work of Kon himself 5 years later.
Fast-paced yet also emotionally-rich, Millennium Actress is one of those films you wish you have seen sooner in your short life on earth, and opposed to big-budget 3D-esque CGI anime features like Kimi no Nawa and Ghost In The Shell SAC_2045, where spectacle seem to eclipse story, proves that the storytelling possibility of traditional 2D animation has not even come close of being exhausted.
Photo courtesy: KlockWorx