Two Cents Time Trips with MILLENNIUM ACTRESS

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick

Following the completion of his debut film Perfect Blue, acclaimed anime director Satoshi Kon knew exactly what he wanted to do next: An adaptation of the novel Paprika, a sci-fi/fantasy story about a new form of therapy that allows therapists to enter their clients’ dreams. The hallucinogenic subject matter aligned perfectly with Kon’s own interests and style, and he saw within the material the opportunity for a masterpiece.

Only then the studio went bankrupt and he had to come up with something that cost way, way, way less than Paprika surely would.

So it goes.

The movie Kon came up with is Millennium Actress and, as is the way these things tend to go, the consolation prize ended up drawing even more acclaim than the original dream movie (Paprika was completed in 2006 to reviews both rapturous and dumbfounded. It would prove to be Kon’s final film, as he passed away in 2010 at the tragically young age of only 46).

The Millennium Actress of the title is Chiyoko, (voiced at different points in her life by Miyoko Shōji, Mami Koyama, Fumiko Orikasa) once considered the greatest and most popular movie star in all of Japan. Chiyoko long ago retired from acting and all public life, only permitting a single on-camera appearance for an interview to commemorate the closing of her old studio. When the eager interviewer Genya (Shōzō Iizuka) sits down for their talk, he presents Chiyoko with a small key that she lost decades ago.

The key awakens something in the old woman, and soon she, Genya, and Genya’s cameraman, Kyōji, (Masaya Onosaka) tripping through time, moments of Chiyoko’s past and career weaving together. Soon, Genya and Kyōji go from passive observers to participants in the movies and stories. Slowly, they learn that Chiyoko’s life and career has revolved around the search for the man she believes is her one true love, a hunt in which the key serves a…well…key purpose.

Heartbreaking and life-affirming in equal measure, Millennium Actress skips nimbly from past to present to future, from life to dream and back again. But let’s see if the Two Cents team can sort through what’s real and what’s remembered and find something true.

Next Week’s Pick:

Well folks, the air is getting cooler and the days are getting shorter. And right on cue, a new Stephen King adaptation is here to signal the shift to full-time fall-time. The eagerly-anticipated It: Chapter 2 comes out on Friday to bring the battle between Pennywise the dancing clown and the Losers Club to a final, blockbuster finish.

But before we all enjoy that, let’s take a stroll into King’s back-catalog, to a movie he himself wrote the screenplay for.

Silver Bullet, available to stream on Amazon Prime, was not a major success when it was first released, but it has gone on to be cultishly adored among fans of King, werewolves, and ’80s creature features.

So pack your silver and your fireworks, because we’re going hunting!

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at)cinapse.coanytime before midnight on Thursday!

Our Guests

Jaime Burchardt:

I miss Satoshi Kon. A chunk of me feels weird saying that because up until the other night, I’d only seen two of his movies (Perfect Blue and Paprika) and that’s literally half of his filmography…but good god what a filmography. Watching Millennium Actress was like getting a gentle hug from the figure that was a huge part of my introduction into anime. The film’s story, basically straightforward. The execution, anything but. Kon doesn’t just infuse all the characters in Fujiwara’s reminiscent state as she things back to her performances & the past that brought her there, he joyfully weaves them into the imagery. Seriously, just making the documentary crew be in the all of her movies maybe would’ve been enough. There’s a heart to Millennium Actress and can grab interest with ease, and I cursed by the time it was over. Speaking of which, that ending. Come on, her final words? That was clearly Kon tugging us along for 88 of those 89 minutes, and at the end reveal Fujiwara’s true purpose, in her own eyes. That’s Kon tugging along, being unpredictable, and being absolutely human. I really need to watch Tokyo Godfathers now. (@jaimeburchardt)

Brendan Agnew (The Norman Nerd):

Everyone who’s ever felt love knows what it is to chase a shadow. Any artist who’s struggled to create is familiar with the pang of any labor — even one of love — being in service to a “truer” calling or project or pursuit. We are none of us the same person we were when we first stumbled upon a missing piece of our heart, so trying to recapture the precise moment we fell in love with whoever or whatever it may be is impossible, even if it’s never truly slipped through our fingers. And if it has, we can never stop chasing it.

Satoshi Kon understood this down to his bones, and Millennium Actress is a film born from and grappling with this this melancholy, yet even as he co-wrote and directed a film that only existed because he couldn’t get the ball rolling on his passion project (what would become his final feature, Paprika), this never-ending chase is re-framed as triumph nestled within tragedy. The story of Chiyoko Fujiwara, a girl who captured Japanese film audiences during the tumultuous pre-war, war-time, and post-war era of the country, draws documentary filmmaker Genya Tachibana to seek a final interview with the reclusive actress. His questions and a long-lost key bring her memories of youth washing through the screen to roll over the viewer, weaving between her experiences as a girl and young woman chasing a mysterious stranger with the films for which this love-struck pursuit is revealed to be the constant inspiration. Kon’s direction creates a mesmerizing combination of history, fiction, and dream-like fantasy that pays homage the legends of his country’s film industry (with some nods so obvious that they may as well be labeled “this is the Yojimbo riff”), casts a withering gaze upon the atrocities committed by his countrymen, and yet retains empathy for the civilians caught up in its imperialist wake.

Among the film’s many revelations is that Genya pursued a career in film because of his own crush on Chiyoko, mirroring how Kon found the voice for perhaps his most defining work as a result of his own heart’s desire being out of reach. The film reckons peacefully with what we love evading us, because even if she spent years chasing a shadow, Chiyoko still captured the imagination of a generation and pulled others to follow in her footsteps. The simple act of chasing what you love through the tempest will light the way for the dreamers of the future, even if they never know why they follow in your jet stream. (@BLCAgnew)

The Team

Brendan Foley:

I truly had no idea what to expect when I sat down for this one. I remain criminally unschooled with anime films not directed by Hayao Miyzaki and knew Satoshi Kon almost exclusively on his reputation for trippiness earned largely on the back of Paprika. But Agnew always talked Millennium Actress up as being something special and he’s rarely led me wrong before, so it was with a great deal of excitement and curiosity that I finally sat down for this one.

Even expecting it to be good-to-great could not have prepared me for just how fantastic the film is. I especially did not expect it to be as tender as it is, but the film is possessed of the gentlest possible soul. Kon’s script has empathy for every single person it depicts, embracing one and all as deeply flawed seekers, some of whom have gotten more lost than others. If it doesn’t quite forgive all trespasses, Millennium Actress still finds moments of grace and humanity for all.

I was shocked to learn that Kon died so young, and that, by association, Millennium Actress was a young man’s movie. Like Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, Millennium Actress displays both a profound mastery of the cinematic form, and a sense of awe-inspiring spiritual peace that would suggest someone much older. Millennium Actress accepts that death and failure are part of life, but rather than make life pointless, these things define it, give it shape, and make the whole so much more glorious than the maddening parts.

I am making Kon’s catalog an immediate priority. This is a master, no question. (@theTrueBrendanF)

Austin Vashaw:

I’m not sure what I can add to the great insights provided by my colleagues so I’ll keep this short. Clearly, we are all in unanimous agreement as Millennium Actress is indeed masterfully told.

The most unique aspect of the film is the stream-of-conscious narrative method in which Chiyoko’s interviewers — Genya and camera operator Kyōji — are depicted as being dropped into the tale as she shares it; a sprawling recounting that weaves her own life story with parallel scenes from her films. Is this how the filmmaker is “relaying” to us, or how Genya (a fan of her films) is envisioning her tales, or is her telling simply jumbled in the way that some elderly narrators meander?

Wonderment increases as the Genya and Kyōji shift from observers to participants, most inexplicably sublime when Kyōji discovers by direct observation that his boss Genya has an untold role in this history. It’s a strange way to relate the tale that doesn’t necessarily make literal sense, but this unique angle elicits a more thoughtful analysis than a straightforward telling. (@VforVashaw)

Next week’s pick:

Silver Bullet —

Previous post QUATERMASS II and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT — Scream Factory Blu-rays Reviewed
Next post Be Sure to Remain for AFTER THE WEDDING