I’m actually worried to note that Satoshi Kon passed away in August 2010; I clearly remember being saddened and shocked by the news (he was only 46)- but it just really, really doesn’t seem that long ago. Time and memory plays tricks on us, certainly I can vouch for it becoming increasingly obvious as I get older that the years are falling by faster and faster. But how is it that Kon passed in 2010? How can it be more than a decade, now, already?
One of the reasons I remember it so clearly was how sudden it was, announced from out of nowhere and accompanied by a message from him, written shortly before his death and posted onto his blog. In May he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and had chosen to spend his last months at home. From the perspective of 2021 I am thinking of two things: how Kon’s final message being posted on his blog feels so very of our age, and how it foreshadowed how I felt when Prince died (and indeed David Bowie just a few months before Prince). I’m not comparing Kon to Prince or Bowie at all, its just how shocking someone’s passing can be when you fool yourself into thinking they will be around forever. But then again, we always seem to do that. We always think we have years, decades. I suppose the last several months we have all shared should have us thinking differently. We should be thinking that we can count on nothing, and should take nothing for granted.
So Millennium Actress, Kon’s love-letter to Japanese Cinema (and by extension, all Cinema), to lost loves and unrequited passions, arrived in the post from All the Anime last weekend. I hadn’t seen it in far too many years, so I watched it late on that Saturday night. I’m glad to report it remains as beautiful and poignant a film as I remembered and still as emotionally draining. Anybody who loves cinema, and haunted by the impermanence of memory, surely cannot fail to be captivated by this film.
Revealing too much about the film would be very wrong of me, so I’ll keep a summary of the general plot quite brief: a film studio, Ginei Studios has become bankrupt, and its backlot and film stages are being demolished. A reporter, Genya Tachibana and his cameraman Kyoji Ida are visiting the home of the studio’s most famous and popular star, Chiyoko Fujiwara, an actress who retired from both acting and the public eye some thirty years ago. While his cameraman has no knowledge of Chiyoko or her ‘old’ films, an increasingly nervous Tachinana is full of awe at finally meeting his favourite star. When the actress greets them, Tachinana gifts her a present; Chiyoko opens the package to reveal a key that she lost many, many years ago. The key seems deeply important to her, and they start the interview, Chiyoko reminiscing about her life and her career and what the key means to her.
What follows is what makes the film so special and why it seems to have such a life of its own, and is also perfectly suited as an animated film- as Chiyoko tells her story, the film becomes a story within a story, the events of Chiyoko’s life interwoven with scenes and images from her films, and Tachinana and Ida caught up within them, inside the films and her memories. The film becomes almost surreal and Lynchian, as we are never sure what is ‘real’ and what is part of one of her films: instead, it all seems to be inexplicably, intricately linked, scenes not just being those that Tachinana remembers from watching his favourite films but also doubling for her own memories, the characters she is playing also being her, somehow. Even when we are watching what is clearly a scene from a film, it seems loaded with subtext for her own ‘real’ life. As if all the films she ever made represent her whole life, a kind of meta-reality frozen on celluloid.
The heart of the story is Chiyoko’s teenage encounter, before she ever became an actress, with a stranger being pursued by the authorities. She shelters him and she learns he is a painter and political activist- soon after the man disappears, leaving her a key as a token. This key symbolises her instant love for this man and her fervent hope that somehow, someday she will meet him again. Part of her drive to become an actress is to be famous enough that perhaps one of her films will reach this stranger so that he might return to her or contact her.
Kon made just four films, Millennium Actress was the second and seems to be rather in the shadow of his greatest popular success, the Hitchcockian thriller Perfect Blue, but I much prefer Millennium Actress. There’s a peculiar magic in it, and I am sure a part of it is just its love of movies, and of how magical and important films can be, how they can have a life all their own. Its also a love story, and like the best love stories, a rather sad one. Its true that the film derives its life-affirming message out of that sadness, which only makes it all the more special. Like all Kon’s films, Millennium Actress suggests that animated films can be as deeply rewarding as any live-action film and that there is much more to animation as an art form than popular Disney fairy-tales or Pixar adventures. There’s nothing wrong with Disney/Pixar films, but very often examples come along in anime that suggest animation can be greater; ‘Great’ even. Such is Millennium Actress.
Regards the All the Anime 4K disc, I cannot really vouch for it to being anything astonishing but it is perfect, all the same. The film does not have any HDR applied which may seem odd but I can’t really say I noticed the lack- the film was never originally made with HDR in mind so it seems perfectly justifiable, to me, to not have it. I can understand why neon-drenched anime spectaculars like Akira possibly benefit from utilising HDR (funnily enough, fans obviously complained about that films HDR-less 4K release over here last year resulting in a recall/replacement) but something as intimate as Millennium Actress really doesn’t need it. The last time I watched the film was on DVD so I was impressed by the uptick in quality, but how much the 4K disc distinguishes itself from the standard Blu-ray that accompanies it I cannot say, as I have not seen any of that disc, and besides, my player/tv upscaling it to 4K rather the point or any chance I’d have anything worthwhile to note. One thing I will mention is the soundtrack; the audio on the 4K disc seemed particularly fine and the sublime music score by Susumo Hirasawa sounds wonderful. That score is fantastic and a huge part of the films success, and is its beating heart as surely as the music of Vangelis is that of Blade Runner. I imported the Millennium Actress soundtrack on CD from Japan back in the day back when that kind of thing was difficult. A fine music score is a big part of a films success, and a films audio-visual experience a huge part of a films attraction to me. If I make a list of my favourite films, its a good bet they all have deeply involving and effective scores.
I watched the film in its original Japanese audio with English subs but there is an English dub if one prefers that. There’s a few nice extras; interviews with two of the Western dub cast and some of the Japanese film-makers who recall working with Kon. A commentary track would have been lovely but anime films aren’t renowned for being loaded with extras: the rights holders like to keep Western releases expensive and curtailed extras-wise in order to not encourage Japanese fans importing them.