It seems like only yesterday Author Susan Napier wrote great things about up and coming Director Satoshi Kon in her book Anime From Akira To Howl's Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation . Her book was first published in 2001, but her updated edition was issued in 2005. "Kon's films- are all so memorable (and each so different from the other) that critics have given him the backhanded compliment of asking why he does not do live action." I'm no exception in that thinking. Kon is so visual and his stories so filled with a warmth it seems human actors should inevitably assume these roles. The assumption is wrong of course and the medium of animation was always Kon's first, last and only love. The promise of his career and those words spoken by Napier seem all the more moving when considering just how fleeting our lives really are and made all the more sobering with Kon's passing in August 2010. The passing of time is indeed a theme within Kon's classic Millennium Actress . Millennium Actress is my favorite of his films and I present it to you as a tribute to the man's beautiful animation and to his passing in 2010.
The extraordinary creations of Satoshi Kon bring viewers into an anime world populated by people and the frailty of the human condition. There are no robots, no Gundams, no Evas, no Patrol Labors and no weaponry of any kind. Kon's is a world of flesh and blood.
Millennium Actress is a love story and in the hands of Satoshi Kon it’s so much more. There's a stream of consciousness and a story depicted visually through pictures, like a painting come to life. Falling somewhere between self-disciplined visionary auteur Makoto Shinkai and those that paved the way like Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii and Katsuhiro Otomo, the equally impressive director Satoshi Kon was born. Not surprisingly, his foundation is built upon experience acquired through working with many of the aforementioned men. Those opportunites fortified his raw talent. His artistic journey began in the manga industry partnering with Otomo himself on World Apartment Horror . He made the leap to scene design work by working under the direction of Oshii on the anime feature Patlabor 2: The Movie .
With his own understated eloquence in filmmaking, Kon had been building an impressive reputation to hold court with the anime elite. Without the least bit of fan service to be found, Kon quietly went about the business of making films that just happened to be within the anime genre. His films were scripted with adult themes often associated with live action cinema and less the mecha-driven works of anime. Making no apologies, Kon visualized these rich dramas through animation. He was an articulate craftsman of storytelling who was more concerned with plot and character device than how to market the work outside the genre. His animation is breathtaking too, a rich feast for the eyes. His character development so complex and the voice acting so critical in nailing the parts that his pictures easily resemble live pictures. His story rich material is layered with such keen detail on almost every level it’s easy to see why his work was often placed next to the likes of Miyazaki. His work is in a class above and beyond the fan-driven fluff heavy within the anime business.
Kon films were held in such high esteem by filmmakers, there was often a push to see Kon make a transition away from anime. Newtype USA reported in 2003 “the themes and subject matter of Kon’s unique works are regarded by some as within the realm of live-action as opposed to animation.” Producer Hiromichi Masuda added, “It’s not that he’s choosing one medium over the other, it’s that the method of expression that he acquired is anime. So it really flusters him when he’s asked about working in live-action because his ideas, his concepts come to him inherently as animation. He is truly of the animation generation.” Indeed, animation came to Kon naturally and his fluid expression in the genre was striking, which is why people easily pictured his work transcending animation. If you've ever heard him speak his mind, Kon passionately touted his love for the world of animation.
The director always seemed to fly under the radar, quietly establishing his name with each film by allowing his first-rate animation to speak for him. His lovingly created projects offered an alternative in anime like the works of Isao Takahata [Grave Of The Fireflies, Only Yesterday]. Kon gets inside the head. He told stories of human frailty, personal weakness or strength. The protagonist was subjected to external pressures coupled with internal anguish or desperation making for delicious drama. The Kon doctrine was not flashy, but his style was instinctively cinematic and beautifully radiant with raw emotional power and color. Kon was that rare breed of visionary filmmaker in anime.
Before the haunting, impassioned Millennium Actress, there was the critically acclaimed Perfect Blue with its disturbingly dark story of fan adulation. Kon’s reputation was sealed. Following these two pictures that put Kon on the map, the much-praised Tokyo Godfathers  with homeless leads followed. Kon traveled further into the heart of darkness with the menacing series Paranoia Agent . Gaining respect within the film industry is no small feat, but to do it as a director in animation is an even bigger achievement.
The quality of his work was enough to garner the recognition of Dreamworks who picked up Millennium Actress for US distribution. It is an animated picture to treasure. Even with its distinctly Japanese flavor the film catapults a story of love into the global mainstream by eloquently capturing these universal themes.
This is the story of Fujiwara Chiyoko. This is her life. Chiyoko is an elegant, precious woman. She is also beautiful [an animated Juliette Binoche a la Damage]. When we meet her she is frail, reclusive and her hair is grey. She’s been around. As a young woman she became a stunning actress in the vein of Katherine Hepburn.
She is approached for an interview by Studio Lotus spearheaded by Mr. Tachibana Genya and his wisecracking understudy to film a retrospective on her glamorous career. He has adored her and her work from afar for decades and still has a geeky, enamored attraction for her [a slightly unhealthy crush, but a much better option to the obsessions witnessed in Perfect Blue]. He tells Chiyoko he is honored to meet her, knows of her love for the Lotus flowers, which is why he has named his studio in her honor. Assisted by his comedic documentarian, Kyoji Ida [imparting a touch of humor or insight at just the right moments- “I feel like a stalker”], Tachibana and his sidekick bring her a key recovered over 30 years ago from the studio she was once employed, which is now being torn down. They are granted entry into this woman’s world through a rare interview.
She never imagined she would see that key again. Immediately, the key, the McGuffin of the film, acts as the symbol to unlocking her heart. The key is a window that represents the many stories to be unearthed from Chiyoko’s past. Chiyoko herself knows it to be “the most important thing there is,” as we find out it is the key to her dreams, her hope, her love. It is here Kon takes us on a fantastical journey, a mixture of past and present, reality and fantasy, a developing, trademark, uniquely Kon in style. Chiyoko’s life is literally unlocked and unveiled before us through the giddy eyes of Genya. The lines between fiction and fact become blurred using Kon’s narrative approach. His storytelling device is a refreshingly original and delicately involving style of filmmaking that is all too uncommon today. It is a difficult line to walk and pull off, but Kon creates a kind of stream of consciousness to present Chiyoko. Kon shed some light on his filmmaking style in Newtype USA by describing Millennium Actress as a blend of “reality and dreams.” It's visual poetry for the mind.
Chiyoko’s story unfolds with her early childhood. “Even old people were young once.” Flashbacks reveal how she found the key by chance on a wintry day. Chiyoko encounters a young man, an artist and anti-government rebel, dripping in blood, on the run and fleeing from agents of the state through snow. Ida proclaims it best, yet again, acting as our eyes and ears, “now that’s drama!” Kon weaves his love story and characters like a tapestry. One of the great ironies in Kon’s story is Chiyoko’s success as an actress versus her lack of desire to be one. Rather, her true passion was love and her yearning desire to find love.
To tell his tale, one of Kon’s vehicles is the use of an animated cinematic homage to Japan’s history through a variety of eras to convey Chiyoko’s aging process as an actress. Periods are portrayed through scenes from the Tokugawa era to World War II to vintage Godzilla-era movies. One portrayal is Chiyoko’s visit to the Northeast region of Manchuria lying somewhere between Russia and China. It would be here, a climate of rebellion and freedom bubbling under a military stranglehold, that Chiyoko would search for this man she has loved unconditionally in her heart for so long. It is a metaphor for her heart’s defiance to rebel against all reason. Her passion, her love has driven her career as an actress depicted pictorially across a millennium of historical costume design. She would become legend, despite herself. Adored by the masses Chiyoko would move role to role inspired by the one whom ignited her passions. She would trade it all to find the one with whom she shared a single touch. The inexplicable bond of a singular moment changed her life forever. It is a story as timeless as the winds in its portrayal of the power of love and the mysteries of the heart.
Kon’s beautiful animation is through his loyal association with Studio Madhouse. The animation team provides a gorgeous color palette. The fluid movements are striking in their detail set against absorbing backgrounds. But, Kon shot live footage of actors to capture the real motions for his female protagonist. Some sequences are imbued with bright coloration while others are juxtaposed with muted, softer colors compliments of Cinematographer Hisao Shirai. These tones conjure a nostalgic reaction. Millennium Actress is teeming with cityscapes sprinkled with detail, cherry-blossomed countryside and snowy vistas all beautifully sweeping in scope. It's a portrait come to life. One of his very characters in the film describes accurately, “a film director is a lot like a painter- a painter puts colors he likes on a canvas.” One of the most mesmerizing animated sequences assembled to illustrate this kind of detail is Chiyoko’s teary, desperate search culminating on her knees at the train station in the heart of winter. It is one of the most heartfelt, stirring sequences in animation. The epic scene, layered in gentle, white snow, is symbolic of Chiyoko’s purity of heart. Here is that breathtaking, panoramic moment one of the best in animation.
The heart stirs. Kon effectively channels her desperation to the audience. When she falls to the snow, we feel her heart race, her longing and she proclaims, “I’ll come!” She repeats as the train’s whistle fades into the winter-filled distance, “I’ll come to you!.” Chiyoko pulls the heartstrings parallelling some of the most profound moments from some of the best-loved stories in cinematic history, like Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s A Wonderful Life for example. All of the winter imagery, the train, Chikoyo’s pain taps an emotional cord within the viewer. It evokes a simpler time and place. One can imagine Kon had the visual cues in mind as part of his master plan. The Making Of Millennium Actress makes it clear a lot of thought went into the film.
Scott Hicks' Snow Falling On Cedars , with its snowy settings, Japanese lead and central story of love, is a great example of striking that delicate balance that Kon so deftly captured in Millennium Actress.
The soundtrack by Susumu Hirasawa enhances the picturesque film’s emotional resonance with complementary melodies. The opening theme music, in particular, Lotus Gate [Landscape-1] is particularly entrancing in the form of a wispy synthesized Japanese New Age Pop that is simply hypnotic. Working with Hirasawa was a "life-long dream" for Kon. The CD is fairly elusive today.
Millennium Actress, like its actress, is a thing of beauty. It is a vital reminder that anime continues to thrive as a genre. This is a complex, textured drama complete with warm, wonderful characters that deserves to be seen further lending credibility to anime. Themes of longing, heartache, destiny and fate are always universally appealing. Chiyoko’s passion never crosses into dangerous obsession, but there is something ultimately tragic going on here as reason never takes hold. A ghostly apparition of an old woman haunts her and tortures her mind, “you poor fool- you will burn forever in the flames of eternal love.” Genya says Chiyoko “was chasing a shadow,” while ironically he too was chasing that same shadow in his enduring fan-obsessive love for Chiyoko. The key is a symbol for both Genya and Chiyoko’s unfulfilled dreams; of their desire for the unattainable. The heart is not rational and rule by it alone without the balance of reason is a very volatile proposition. It’s a fatal flaw of the human condition to be overruled by the heart silencing all reason. To allow heart’s desire to dream and hope against all odds for something beyond our reach, something of perfection to go unchecked by reason is inherently risky. Some might call this beautiful notion hope or love; others a curse. In the end, Chiyoko would not allow the ghosts to take her as she embraced her fate. Relief and peace come for Chiyoko as she passes to the next life and she thanks Genya for the key that “opened the door to the memories of him.” The key has unlocked her love, her memories of the man she loved and the girl she once was. Chiyoko herself says it best, “After all, it’s the chasing after him I love.” It is precisely Chiyoko’s haunted, romantic ideal that motivates her. It was part of her. So, is this a gift or a curse? The old adage, ‘better to have loved, than to have never loved at all,’ comes to mind and Kon revitalizes that belief with new perspective.
The film really has its own unique flow like no other film I've seen. Author Brian Camp said it best in his review of the film in the fantastic Anime Classics Zettai!. "Millennium is not restricted to one time period, but moves through many eras in an almost stream-of-consciousness way, occasionally getting back on historical track but then veering off again without warning. As a result, the film develops a unique rhythm and style of its own, quite unlike anything previously attempted in anime." I do believe some of the best anime productions work marvelously in flashback and flashforward [Neon Genesis Evangelion] and many were doing it long before the TV series Lost, but Millennium Actress takes it to a whole other level. As strong as the images are in the film Millennium Actress is not for everyone.
There is much ambiguity to Millennium Actress. The experience is genuinely left wide open to interpretation, once again, as some of the best anime productions sometimes do. Camp offers some fine closing remarks. "Kon has intentionally not made it easy.... But films like this are designed for viewers who can enjoy the ride, who look out the windows at the wondrous sights passing by and hear the beautiful sounds." A love for anime or at least an appreciation opens the experience. The film is "for viewers who can appreciate the journey without constantly worrying about the destination." What is often perceived as a problem with some anime, a narrative structure without a sound conclusion, is actually one of the film's greatest strengths. For wide-eyed romantics and open minds Millennium Actress is a beauty and this tender actress, sure to take your breath away, is lovely.
Millennium Actress: A
Director: Satoshi Kon
Writer: Sadayuki Murai & Satoshi Kon
The late Satoshi Kon had said Millennium Actress was the result of influences by the likes of Akira Kurosawa's Throne Of Blood . With no original interest in Japanese history Kon prepared and did much research before making the film, including an understanding of the Japanese kimono. Kevin M. Williams of the Chicago Tribune called the film, "A piece of cinematic art. It's modern day Japanese animation at its best... It's animated, but it's human and will touch the soul of anyone who has loved deeply."
Outside of North America it was nominated for several awards and received some. To give some perspective, Millennium Actress received the 2001 Grand Prize at the Japan Agency of Cultural Arts Festival. It tied with the esteemed animation master Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. That speaks volumes. For more on Kon, check out Andrew Osmond's The Illusionist.
In a DVD featurette, The Making Of Millennium Actress, Kon indicates the artists spent a great deal of time showcasing "growth rings" to symbolize the growth of Chiyoko's life. The symbols are woven throughout the film in wooden tables, walls and beams. Here's a snippet of the late director in his own words.