AFED #36: Millenium Actress (Japan, 2001); Dir. Satoshi Kon

A few days ago I reviewed Ozu's Late Spring, starring the legendary actress Setsuko Hara. Widely regarded in Japan as one of, if not the finest talent of her generation Hara shocked the nation when she decided to retire from the profession in her mid-forties shortly after Ozu's death, bluntly stating that she had made enough money to support herself and simply didn't care to continue.

Since that time Hara has lived as a recluse and gradually a mystique has built up around her, perhaps due to the fact we romanticise the arts and can't fathom how anybody could regard acting as merely a job. But I was intrigued to discover that her life had served as partial inspiration for a feature length anime, Millenium Actress, and naturally had to seek it out.

Made by anime director and cartoonist Satoshi Kon, who died last year, it explores precisely that theme of how we project biographical legend upon an artist's body of work, blurring fantasy and reality.

Tachibana, a tv producer with a rather disturbing obsession with a retired famous actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara, manages to obtain an interview with his idol.Accompanied by his cameraman, a comedy deadbeat, the pair visit the venerable Chiyoko at her home. After Tachibana presents her with a mysterious key, Chiyoko begins recalling her career and the tv crew are magically thrown back in time with her, participating in the dramas of her films.

The key, it transpires, was presented to Chiyoko as a girl by a dissident young artist fleeing the fascists in the 1930's, and her desire to be reunited with her love became the driving force in Chiyoko's life. Across a series of vignettes depicting various historical periods and genres (such as the popular samurai epics with which Kurosawa achieved such success) Chiyoko continues her pursuit, running into various dangers along the way. Tachibana, taking on a variety of roles, saves her life on a number of occasions; something we eventually discover he'd done for real as a young runner on the set of her final movie.

Millenium Actress was favourably compared on its release to Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, both in its fantasy theme and quality of animation. While the latter is true - the different epochs being rendered with loving attention to detail - it struggles badly with a lack of narrative coherence. We're swept from one event to the next but it's difficult to follow what's supposed to be happening. The notion that an actor's life story can be told through their roles is certainly one worth exploring, but without a strong plot the result is confusion and the viewer's attention drifts.

It's a great pity that Kon didn't give more thought to the script instead of letting it play second fiddle to the spectacle. Ironic that the film's rather sweet message that - regardless of whether we achieve our goals - we need purpose to give our lives direction, wasn't applied literally.


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