Millennium Actress is something of an overlooked gem. The movie won all sorts of awards in Japan and was widely praised by critics, but its American release sank without a ripple. This supports the general rule that an animated film that doesn’t even pretend to be for kids has no chance in America. For anime fans it is worth a second look.
The movie is reminiscent of Citizen Kane, though it is less political and more romantic. The basic structure is the same: an investigator explores the life story of a public figure, seeking some key insight that will explain the life and give it meaning.
Original TitleSennen Joyuu
LanguagesJapanese with subtitles
Original StorySatoshi Kon
ProducerKou Matsuo, Tarou Maki
Character DesignSatoshi Kon, Takeshi Honda
Art DirectorNobutaka Ike
Animation DirectorHideki Hamasu, Takeshi Honda
Animation SupervisorShougo Furuya
Region 1 PublisherDreamworks
There’s not much to object to here, just the sort of not-too-explicit violence and smoking that you might see in any old movie from the days of the Hays Office. However this is not intended as a children’s movie and may not have much appeal to them.
Premise and Characters
In an event that symbolizes the end of the twentieth century, the production facilities and back lot of Ginei Studios are being demolished. For decades this was the source of some of Japan’s greatest movies.
Genya Tachibana, a respected documentary filmmaker, wants to commemorate the event by making a documentary about Chiyoko Fujiwara, the studio’s most famous actress.
His cameraman, Kyouji Ida, has only a vague notion who Chiyoko Fujiwara was, but he gamely goes along with the project.
Though Chiyoko has lived as a recluse for the last 30 years, Genya has managed to obtain her consent to an interview. He and Kyouji make their way up the long mountain path to her secluded house.
Chiyoko greets them courteously but she is astonished when Genya offers her a gift, a lost item of hers that he found at the studio.
It is an old-fashioned key which she describes as being “to the most important thing there is.”
Inspired by the sight of the key she begins to talk about her past life.
Here the director resorts to a cinematic gimmick: not only do we see the past events in flashbacks, but Genya and his cameraman appear in them, as if they are filming her life as it happens.
As a shy middle-school girl in the 1930s, Chiyoko catches the eye of a movie producer who offers her the chance to act in a propaganda film that he is planning to shoot in Manchuria.
Her mother indignantly forbids it, saying that Chiyoko is not interested in acting, and in any case that is not a suitable activity for a young lady.
The disappointed Chiyoko encounters a mysterious man, a fugitive artist who is injured and trying to hide from the political police.
She hides him in the storeroom of her family’s shop, tends to his wound and brings him food.
She is fascinated by a key that he carries. He says that it is the key to “the most important thing in the world,” and promises to explain what that means later.
Before he has a chance to explain, he is discovered and forced to flee. Chiyoko finds the key where he dropped it in the snow.
She runs to the train station, hoping to meet him there, but but she arrives just as the train pulls out of the station.
He has told her that he plans to go to Manchuria. Hoping to find him there she defies her mother and agrees to act in the propaganda film. With the rest of the cast and crew she boards an ocean liner bound for Manchuria.
Eiko Shimao, the star of the movie, greets her disdainfully. Perhaps she sees the innocent young girl as a potential future rival.
She also meets Junichi Ootaki, a promising young director with an eye for the young ladies. He is to have a strong influence on her future career.
Her first attempts at acting are clumsy, but she finds that she can achieve a good effect by drawing on her feelings for the mysterious artist.
Though she is in Manchuria, she has no idea how to find him. A fortune-teller says that he can be found to the north.
She boards a train heading north, but it is stopped by a bandit attack.
At this point there is a stylistic shift as the conversation turns to her most famous movies. Instead of showing us the black-and-white movies, the flashbacks take place inside the world of each movie, with Genya and his cameraman present in every scene to film the events.
Though the movies are fiction, every scene seems to reflect things that are going on in Chiyoko’s life, especially her search for the mysterious artist.
Perhaps this is because she expresses her personal feelings in her work,
…or perhaps it is because Junichi incorporates incidents from her life into the films that he is making.
Some scenes suggest that she is cursed to search for the artist forever, always loving him with a young girl’s passion, but never able to find him.
Genya eagerly assumes the role of any character who acts as Chiyoko’s protector.
It becomes increasingly obvious that he is totally obsessed with Chiyoko, much to his cameraman’s bemusement.
Sometimes it is hard to be sure whether we are seeing actual events in her life, or scenes from a movie.
One scene seems definitely real: at the end of the war, exploring the bombed-out ruins of her family’s shop, she finds a painting of her younger self left by the artist on the storeroom wall.
After the war she marries Junichi and takes on more mature roles, resulting in some of her most famous movies.
Genya gets his start as a young gofer at Genei Studio in the 1950s, though Chiyoko doesn’t remember him.
She meets a remorseful former secret police officer who admits to having interrogated the artist. He gives her a letter the artist wrote that implies that he intended to return to his childhood home in Hokkaido.
She rushes north to Hokkaido but finds no sign of him.
In the end it is up to Genya to decide what the true meaning of her life is.
ANN encyclopedia entry.