I finally got to see the much critically acclaimed Millennium Actress, but–I must be honest–it didn’t do anything for me.
At its core, Millennium Actress is a story of a woman searching for her lost love through multiple decades. Satoshi Kon’s films are never quite so simple, however, as they liberally ebb in and out of fantasy and reality, often jumping backwards and forwards repeatedly through time. As a result, the narrative structure of Millennium Actress isn’t what you might expect. The movie nevertheless had a difficult time keeping my attention despite being only a mere 87 minutes in length.
As always, Kon’s movies are beautiful. Chiyoko’s character design typifies Japanese feminine beauty: elegant and understated. I can find little faults with Millennium Actress’ technical side, but the movie simply felt hollow by the time it ended. I’m not sure I can adequately explain why I felt that way, but I’ll mention three unorganized thoughts that might shed some light on my reasoning.
Millennium Actress’ “play within a play” is definitely something you don’t see in anime everyday. It enables a simple story like Chiyoko’s to seem interesting, but by the end of the movie, I was left wondering “So what?” Did the mise en abyme, as the French would call it, add anything profound to the movie, or was it simply used to conceal a rather mundane and overused plot? I honestly think (this is purely a guess) Satoshi Kon started out with a challenge: to turn a timeless but cliché story into something fresh and exciting through the clever narrative structure. Unfortunately, I don’t think it lended anything to the overall meaning of the film. It made certain scenes ambiguous, naturally–we’re not quite sure which are based off of Chiyoko’s desperate search and which are simply fantasies concocted for her many films.
The “play within a play” concept has been used elsewhere to much greater effect, particularly M. Butterfly (the play and not the dreadful movie) to name one example. In that story, the realization that Gallimard was merely acting out a play to us in his prison cell, puts his mental well-being and his recollections of events much into question. I didn’t get the sense in Millennium Actress, however, that the unorthodox storytelling was more than simply being clever.
The movie also felt so morally unambiguous. Chiyoko’s eternal devotion and loyalty to the freedom-fighting painter is certainly admirable, but I have a difficult time understanding why she would search so far and wide for him, a journey that would span several decades for a man she briefly met in her childhood. She almost never wavered in her odyssey either, marrying only when she temporarily lost the painter’s key.
The film reminded me of enka, Japanese traditional pop music. In enka, the woman almost always sings of lost love, the eternal devotion to a man either away or dead due to war. I started to wonder then, especially with Chiyoko’s traditional Japanese beauty, if Millennium Actress wasn’t just an enka song put to film with clever storytelling? Basically, I felt there was little depth to our heroine that even her angst near the end of the movie seemed so innocent.
Enka constructs a world of longing and suffering on a personal level that extends to the cultural and national levels. The two main arenas of suffering, romance and furusato (hometown), are defined along gender lines: broken-hearted romance for women (onna-gokoro/a woman’s heart) and pining for furusato for men (part of otoko-michi/the path of a man). …there is considerable overlap between the gendering of the song and its focus, [however]. What ties the spheres of (woman’s) romance and (men’s) furusato together is a sense of longing. — “Enka as Engendered Longing” by Christine R. Yano
In light of this, Genya’s love for Chiyoko also resembles her enka song, only slightly modified to fit a man. Like Chiyoko, he also suffered from a painful longing (to be loved by her) through several decades, but it is told through self-sacrifice, risking his own life many times through both fantasy and reality for Chiyoko. Like her, however, Genya’s love also seemed so shallow and simplistic. I had a difficult time understanding his motivations, his tireless admiration from afar with nary a second thought. Both characters seemed so clean and wholehearted that I just could not relate to them; their love was almost inhuman. Chiyoko’s co-star, Eiko Shimao, and her director, Junichi Otaki, both appeared more rounded in personality, but they are secondary characters viewed through the lens of Chiyoko’s memories so their characterizations are unreliable at best.
Throughout the movie, I was reminded several times by The Fountain, a Hollywood movie directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Hugh Jackman. It isn’t hard to draw comparisons; Millennium Actress ends with her flying off into space and a similar scene exists in The Fountain’s ending. Both films make liberal use of time shifts, jumping from one timeline to another. Both stories feature a struggle across different times and eras: Chiyoko’s search for her lover and Tom’s tragic love for Izzi. I don’t want to imply that they copied each other (if anything, Millennium Actress came out years before The Fountain); it was simply remarkable how similar the two movies were to each other. The Fountain is finite, however, with a definite resolution at the end, while one gets the feeling that Chiyoko’s devotion is as timeless as falling in love. Being a big-budgeted movie, The Fountain was also certainly more complex in its themes and characters, but funnily enough, both movies struggled to keep my attention albeit for different reasons.
I’m sure Millennium Actress is enjoyable to most people. Its story, though hackneyed in its themes and ideas, is probably something that most people can relate to. After all, it has an astounding 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I prefer Metacritic, but an overall score of 70 there isn’t too shabby either, especially considering that the reviews are from Western critics, a group that does not always understand anime. I’m not trying to say it was a bad movie; there’s certainly a lot worse out there. For me, however, Millennium Actress just fell flat.