A Timely Blogathon: Millennium Actress (2001)

This next review for A Timely Blogathon comes from John Michael of The Sixth Station; which is one of my most favourite film blogs due to John Michael’s continuously thoughtful analyses of films, which I absolutely love to read. Here’s John Michael’s take on Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress.

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“What does the key open?”

“The most important thing there is.”

Memories are all we have, really. The present is fleeting. The future hasn’t happened. Everything else is memory. Memories define how we see ourselves, and how others see us. Love of all forms is built upon and sustained by memories. There are two love stories at the center of Millennium Actress. One is based almost entirely on one memory; the other is built on the accumulation of decades of memories.

Milliennium Actress jumps right into its story. Genya, a documentary director, drags his cameraman, Kyoji, to the home of the long-retired, long reclusive film star, Chiyoko Fujiwara. Genya is making a documentary about her. Upon meeting her, he gives her a present: a key. The key is a memento of hers long lost. What it opens materially is irrelevant. When he gives her the key, her memories begin to flow.

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Millennium Actress was the second film by the brilliant animator Satoshi Kon. From 1997 through 2006, Kon had an astonishing run of quality, directing four films (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika) and the 13-episode series Paranoia Agent. He passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2010 while working on a fifth film (the still unfinished Dreaming Machine). Most of his films- Tokyo Godfathers excepted- dance in and out of reality, deliberately challenging the viewer to a point where we have to abandon our usual expectations of narrative flow.

Millennium Actress might be Kon’s most ambitious work in this regard. It plunges into and out of Chiyoko’s memories, those memories blending with scenes from her movies. Genya seems in on the game, popping up regularly in memories and scenes he has no business being in. Kyoji is the audience conduit, offering bewildered meta-commentary on the constant scene-changes.

If it sounds like Millennium Actress is hard to follow, it’s not. This is an enchanting film. Kon knows well how memories are as much about feelings and sensations as the actual events. It makes sense at a level beyond linear narrative. It bursts with energy and heart. Kon’s animation was never lovelier than it is here. His signature lush foregrounds and simple, static backgrounds give it a dreamlike quality.

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If I haven’t begun to describe the plot of Millennium Actress, that’s because the plot is fairly spare. We discover early on that the primary catalyst in Chiyoko’s journey is her search for a political prisoner she helped escape from the police. The man was an artist. We see their one conversation, gazing up at the moon that night. He leaves in the morning. That’s as much as I will reveal. The plot is minimal, which makes room for what Millennium Actress is really about. It’s about how a moment so innocent and innocuous can take on a cosmic significance. How a moment of kindness, a conversation under the stars, or a gift that unlocks long-lost memories, can become impassable mountains in the path of the narrative of one’s life. My favorite scene in the film involves Chiyoko discovering a memento left behind for her years before. In a typical film, with a linear narrative, it would be a sweet, sentimental moment. In this film, it’s a moment of equally towering joy and sadness.

With remarkable empathy, Millennium Actress explores how deeply we really are tied to our memories. Memories shape us. We can spend lifetimes dissect a moment from our pasts from every angle, trying to explore it from every emotional angle. It’s a frenetic tale, yes, but then so is life. Millennium Actress is attuned to life in its full spectrum.

5 comments

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Here’s the next review for A Timely Blogathon. This time John at The Sixth Station reviewed Millennium Actress (2001). Tnx John!

  2. Nice write up. I’m sure the calm and reflective manner of this film came as a bit of a shock after the visceral mind bending onslaught of “Perfect Blue”, but it shows that Kon wasn’t a one trick pony, whilst being able to adopt a similar theme throughout his works (sans “Tokyo Godfathers” as you noted).

  3. Outstanding review! Most people talk about Paprika as Kon’s masterpiece, but I’d say it’s Millennium Actress. Parts certainly get odd with the reality warping, but it’s a highly unique way to build up emotion. That final scene especially touched me.

  4. Thanks for this blogathon,Anna and Rob! I always enjoy writing about Millennium Actress. It holds particular importance to me. I saw it when I was 16 and beginning to dip my toes into writing about movies (mainly in marathon back and forth conversations on my favorite film message board). It overwhelmed me and left me feeling drained but joyful. But writing about it was difficult. I think it was the first movie that made me realize how much I wanted to be able be able to articulate everything I love about movies, to better share the happiness it gave to me with the world. I hope I was able to get that across here.

  5. […] John Michael of The Sixth Station reviewed Millennium Actress (2001) […]

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