Millennium Actress is a story filled to the brim with emotion and touched me very personally. It tells the life story of the woman Chiyoko. She’s old now, but throughout her life she has been a successful actress. We follow two journalists who meet Chiyoko in her old days, and while Chiyoko talks to them about her life, the two journalists find themselves trapped inside her memories and film her while she moves through life.
The film juggles a bit with time, memories and weird sense of displacement so that you don’t really know what is real and what isn’t. This is to be expected, because the director Satoshi Kon is well known for this. His more famous film Paprika (2006) is often referred to as the inspiration behind Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), and Millennium Actress has the same feeling as those other two films, albeit with a simpler but heartfelt story.
Satoshi Kon achieves this time and memory confusion effect by being a master storyteller with a great feeling for touching moments, but also through his superb editing skills. Scenes in his movies always transition in surprising ways. Sometimes the camera zooms out and we move from a movie scene to real life, or a sound makes the camera shift to the left, showing that some character from a distant memory made that sound and so we suddenly moved from real life to a memory.
There are three planes of existence in this movie: real life, life lived in past memories, and acted life as a movie actress. Sometimes, you don’t know in which plane you are. The memories and movie scenes start to overlap, or sometimes they are one and the same. Maybe… Chiyoko re-enacted her own life through her movie-making. While she thinks back to her childhood, we don’t see her actual memories, but the movie scenes that were based on them afterwards. The journalists who find themselves stuck inside her memories are also confused, and find themselves recognizing movies in her remembrances. Are her famous movies all based on her real life? It gets even more confusing when the journalists start acting out roles in the stories.
The really touching and brilliant thing is that the actress Chiyoko apparently made movies to deal with her real life experiences. We see the famous dramatic scenes pass by that she and journalists both know by heart, but now we understand that she is acting out a deeper pain from her real life. It gives this movie a deeper emotional heart.
It’s a really clever script. The movie tells like 6 stories at the same time: the personal life of Chiyoko, her career, the story of the movie studio, the life of Genya the journalist and the history of Japan. Halfway through the movie, it is like we are in a rhythm of jumping from one movie to another, but the same scenes, same themes and same characters return, dressed up in different clothing. It is an eternal story of Chiyoko running after an unattainable love in every film, and as we jump from one film to the next, we even move through Japan’s entire history from warring samurai, medieval Empire, Imperial Japan, war and modern times. It is a visually rich and complex.
It is also a movie about the power of movies. One way of interpreting the whole story is as if the younger journalist is so taken by the acting of the old Chiyoko, that he loses himself in daydreams and imagines the whole thing, while Chiyoko is simply telling her story. Or, it is a movie about moviemaking, and why actors and actresses are so good when they act from the heart. Lots of very personal stories and deeply impressive moments of acting are surely inspired by real experiences in the lives of the actors and actresses, and touching movies are surely influenced by the real lives of screenwriters and directors.
Conclusion: I’m comfortable calling this film a masterpiece. More touching and richer even than Paprika (2006). The animation may not look as detailed as in later films, but there are some montages that are incredibly impressive. The film has a strong forward momentum of storytelling that keeps on rushing forward like a train, and it gets more impressive as the story unfolds. Chiyoko runs forwards, through all the different scenes of the movies stitched together. All of Japan’s past flashes by in the background while Chiyoko runs, and her emotions transcend time and space.