Millennium Actress was the second feature film in Satoshi Kon‘s (1963 – 2010) brief but successful career as an anime director. The film has recently been remastered with a 4K presentation screening at Glasgow Film Festival 2020. Satoshi Kon had a reputation for bringing bizarre, beautiful and vibrant images to the screen, so a high-resolution remaster of one of his classic films is very much welcome.
Retired actress Chiyoko Fujiwara is pursued by TV interviewer Genya Tachibana (voiced by Shôzô Îzuka) after her former movie studio is being torn down. He wishes to discuss the actress’s illustrious and varied career and also deliver a personal and cherished key to the person he has idolised for many years. The key has great significance. It was given to Fujiwara when she was a young woman by an artist and revolutionary. He was on the run from the police and Fujiwara helped him escape. We discover that Fujiwara undertook acting in order to reconnect with the artist and during Millennium Actress, we are taken through memories and scenes from old movies that put together the pieces of Chiyoko Fujiwara’s life and work.
What makes Millennium Actress so exciting is that the film plays with time, memory and reality. Memory and cinema combine and the audience has to keep up with narrative in order to distinguish if we are watching a scene from the mind of the protagonist, a scene from one of her films, or even both at the same time. Chiyoko Fujiwara is voiced by three separate actors during the movie to help convey the time periods of her life. Miyoko Shôji, Mami Koyama and Fumiko Orikasa all convey the emotion and depth of the character through their brilliant voice acting and each stage in Fujiwara’s life is given time and attention.
Love is the focus of Millennium Actress. Chiyoko Fujiwara bases her career on the pursuit of the revolutionary and the symbol of the key is used to convey her desire and pursuit. She has the key, but cannot find the lock. This could seem like an obvious and manufactured metaphor, but at no point in the movie do you feel that you are watching a helpless romantic going after an idealised version of love. The protagonist always feels like she has agency. She is a talented actress that is in control of her career and life. The strong narrative arc and the distinctive use of memory and reminiscence makes this love story feel enduring, intimate and without cliché.
Millennium Actress is without doubt an anime classic and one that deserves to be seen on a big screen. The 4K restoration highlights the vivid colours and imagery and this in turn emphasises the bold themes of love, courage and memory. It truly is a stunning film to watch and behold.