Sennen Joyu (Millennium Actress) (2001)
genre: Historical, Drama, slight fantasy
Director: Satoshi Kon
running time: 87 minutes
Rating: PG (for moderate violence, language, and thematic elements)
Thirty years after disappearing from the public eye, legendary actress Chiyoko Fujiwara grants documentary film maker Genya Tachibana and his skeptical cameraman Kyoji Ida a rare interview. When they meet, Genya gives her an ancient-looking key, asking what it is the key to. Chiyoko explains it is the key to the most important thing in the world, and on this mysterious note, takes the two men on a journey through her memories. Her memories, nee her stories, are also all the roles she acted that made her famous, and the unrequited girlhood love that began it all, kept her going through it all, and ultimately ends it. Her recollections are so brilliant that Genya and Kyoji are literally absorbed into the memories/films, all which revolve around a female protagonist attempting to return an object to a man she met long ago. It is in this manner that they time travel with Chiyoko through her thoughts, as well as various periods in Japanese history, and to uncover just what is the most important thing in the world.
I was extremely skeptical when I first saw this movie lying on my mum’s table. I’d never heard of it and the DVD cover’s proclaimation of “from the director of Perfect Blue” made me go for a loop. The image on the back of a woman about to stab herself through the throat didn’t help, and the description wasn’t telling me whether or not this was going to be another schizophrenic bloodbath like Perfect Blue was. I should probably explain at this point that my mother’s not the first person you’d ever think of to be watching anime, much less a bloody one. I’m not the biggest fan of overly creepy movies or animes myself. It wasn’t until I noticed the PG rating that I realised I would not have to worry about bloodiness. Yet, I was not prepared for how artfully Kon brings this heartbreaking tribute to the golden age of Japanese film to life.
There’s a lot going on in this film to absorb and at first, it’s hard to grasp the unique storytelling fashion of blending reality and fantasy which Kon has set out for his viewers. This is not a film for the unimaginative. But when the rhythm of switching between memories finally sets in, which may take time, I warn you, it’s one smooth and beautiful ride. The animation is gorgeous and the music is striking in both the appealing and strange aspects, lush one moment and cacophonous the next. Viewers may find themselves in disbelief at the main character, Chiyoko. Her insistence on doing the nearly impossible of finding this near-ghost of a man can deem her either shallow, perhaps silly, or determined, faithful, and believing. One view leads to annoyance at her character, and the other brings connection.
There is light comedy mostly accentuated by Kyoji’s disbelief of his situation, stuck inside Chiyoko’s memories, whereas Genya accepts a constant role of playing Chiyoko’s rescuer without hesitation or complaint. It is in these character traits that Kon also pokes some fun at generational differences, a theme that Hayao Miyazaki also addressed in the documentary of his celebrated Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Sen and Chihiro’s Spiriting Away/ Spirited Away). Throughout the movie, there’s also commentary on jealousy, determination, loss, and of course, love. Culture and history are cast in as colourful bonuses for the lucky viewers, but sadly, the music has proved to be unmemorable. That’s not to say that it did not intensify the atmospheres of every scene in the movie. There are subtleties upon subtleties embedded in the film, and they’re not always easy to detect, especially when it’s hard to tell if the scenario, once it begins, is from one of Chiyoko’s films or not.To piece together all the small thoughts, morals, and themes that Kon places in this movie is to find the true beauty of this film.
FINAL VERDICT: A (highly recommended)