We live in an age where we have instant access to any form of media at the drop of a hat. If you want to watch a new movie, all you need to do is to go to a movie theater and watch it. Or if you don’t want to leave the comfort of your own home, you can go onto Netflix, buy a DVD or Blu Ray of a movie, or just find it on TV. It has never been easier to find or watch whenever you want on basically any device. So why is it that Millennium Actress, an anime feature film from 2001, was lost to time?
The film was originally released in 2003 thanks to Dreamworks distributing the movie in the States through its Go Fish Pictures production company. Sadly, the company was closed in 2007 due to a lack of profits. Because of that, Millennium Actress was lost in licensing limbo, only receiving a very limited print run and never once releasing online. For all intents and purposes, if you wanted to watch the movie, you had only one of two ways to go. You could either track down an ultra-rare physical version of the film (usually selling for over $100), or you could find an illegal upload of it, albeit with terrible quality.
Thankfully, the folks at Eleven Arts were able to save the movie and have not only done a complete restoration of the film but have also produced a completely new dub for the re-release, a practice that almost never happens for re-releases. Was Millenium Actress worth all of that effort?
Director: Satoshi Kon
Release Date: August 13 (Sub), August 19 (Dub)
In order to understand exactly what Millennium Actress is, you first need to understand who its director, Satoshi Kon, is. Kon, as a director, is fascinated with using animation to create stories that exist outside the realm of reality. His most well-known movie, Paprika, revolves around a woman who is able to enter and interact with the dreams of people, with that hallmark being shown in nearly all of his work. In the case of Millennium Actress, Kon uses the idea of blending fiction and reality to tell the story of a famed actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara.
Chiyoko used to be a celebrity in Japan, creating several classic movies over the course of her career, though has become reclusive in her old age. A pair of documentary filmmakers come to her house and ask to interview her in order to learn more about her life and why she left the film industry. Her recollection is part factual recounting of her life, part recreation of her famous roles, and part Kon relishing in being able to express his love for the industry.
In truth, Millennium Actress is a movie about love, though that theme extends beyond just Chiyoko’s character. The plot of Millennium Actress is actually the weakest part of the film, focusing on Chiyoko meeting a man when she was a child, falling in love with him, and spending the rest of her life trying to finding him again. The plot never advances or moves forward, but always coasts along. It does so in order to connect the films Chiyoko stars in as an actress to her struggles as a person, with multiple sequences getting the same point across again and again. It hammers home the theme, but there’s only so many times we can watch Chiyoko pine for a man that she’s kept arm’s length away from.
On the other hand, the sequences that are depicted are all stellar to watch. The remaster from Eleven Arts is top-notch, giving the visuals and animation the update that they sorely deserved. Kon’s character designs are always compelling to watch due to their more proportioned natures, but the new coat of paint really does a lot at showing how each of them stands out from one another and from most other characters in the genre. For the record, I watched the new dub of the movie to see how the new performances stacked up, with all of the actors doing a fairly good job. None of the performances were truly memorable, but they got the job done, with special praise to Christian Swindler as one of the documentarians, Genya Tachibana.
But the sequences that are put to film show that while the plot may be driven by Chiyoko’s love for a man she can’t see, the movie itself is driven by Kon’s love for the medium. Chiyoko’s filmography mirrors the popular rise of genres in Japanese film, starting off with propaganda pieces in the ’40s, to Kurosawa inspired films in the ’50s, and eventually concluding with sci-fi features by the end of Chiyoko’s career. If you’re familiar with Kon’s work and his love for Kurosawa, it won’t be a surprise at all to know that a major sequence in the film (as well as a running motif of Chiyoko’s inner turmoil) is heavily inspired by Throne of Blood, sometimes almost shot-for-shot.
But Kon’s love for the medium expands beyond just simple references. His tactic at creating a blended reality serves to break down the separation between Chiyoko’s state of mind as well as immerse the audience into her mindset. The jarring disconnect that Kon makes whenever he cuts from one fictional movie to another only serves to force the audience to connect the dots. Things aren’t spelled out in Millennium Actress but are instead meant to be interpreted by the films that Kon uses. When Chiyoko goes from a prison yard searching for her love to a post-atomic bomb wasteland, there may not be a single line of dialogue uttered, but the message is clear.
By the end, you may be left with wondering if there was more to this film. Out of all of Kon’s movies, Millennium Actress may be the simplest to follow, though I’m not too sure if that’s for the best. There are several wonderful animated sequences sprinkled throughout, though those sequences take the forefront to the plot and characters. This may be a movie about Chiyoko where we learn about the who and the what, but not really the why. Kon has no interest in the why here, focusing on making the who and what the star of the show, unfortunately for the weaker.
Millennium Actress is a tough egg to crack because I wanted it to be about more. It has the rich depth and style that Kon is known for, but with none of the substance. However, the movie does function at letting Kon get his creativity out and pay homage to the people that made him the director he was. There’s clear passion in Millennium Actress with an ending that will make you feel more than think. I don’t know if I would call this Kon’s weakest film, but make no mistake that I don’t mean that as a mark against the movie. This is still a must-see anime feature that deserves a second re-evaluation now that it’s received a second lease of life. Then again, like the movie itself, the final product isn’t about the destination, but the journey.