Millennium Actress / Sennen joyû (2001) Dir. Satoshi Kon
A beautiful, sad story about love — love that pushes us forward, keeps us going.
Satoshi Kon surely knows in which direction to push his story to make the most of it. In this case, we meet Chiyoko, an old, retired actress, who invites us and two documentary filmmakers into her home and her life. Millennium Actress uses a frame structure. We watch the shooting of a documentary about Chiyoko, during which the story of her life is expressed through the scenes from her movies: a movie within a movie within a movie.
It begins when Chiyoko accidentally bumps into a young painter, a fugitive, who gives her a small key, a key to the most important thing. She falls in love with the painter, and promises to give him back the key one day. Unfortunately, they lose touch with each other. Chiyoko spends the rest of her days looking for the painter and treasuring the key. We witness how a search for a loved one can be a driving force and the sole meaning of life.
The movie is rich with emotions. Love, melancholia, sadness, longing, jealousy. Gradually, the movie is being filled with all these emotions, projecting onto us, making us root for Chiyoko. Chiyoko’s life story is absorbing. We want to know what happens next as if it was a movie.
And Chiyoko’s movies. They add another level to the story. Since she was a little girl, she has played in a great number of productions from period dramas to sci-fi flicks. Thanks to that, the passing time is presented. It’s like a time capsule. The historical accuracy and the attention to detail in costumes, hairstyles, designs is stunning, whether it’s a samurai period (remember Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood? No. Rush to watch it! Quick!), the WWII, the 50s, or the present. Both Chiyoko and the world around her change inevitably; however, her strong feeling for the painter stays the same.
After strikingly disturbing Perfect Blue, I find comfort in this movie. The story is organized and well-thought through. The same elements (the key, the scarred man, the mysterious witch) recur. Chiyoko’s confidence in love and clinging to it is inspiring. Besides, the world is not so scary, anymore (compared to Perfect Blue, for instance). Its ugliness and nastiness is gone. It’s replaced with pure, young girl’s emotions. Undoubtedly, there story is more complex than that. We observe the movie industry backstage, the jealousy between actresses, the social pressure put on young women to get married, the movie industry’s answer to the difficult times of the war. Plus, there’s one comic relief: the cameraman. He seems to be the voice of the viewer, or of reason. His down-to-earth, yet a bit ridiculed, attitude nicely contrasts with the director’s overly emotional, worshipful approach to Chiyoko. A great way to add humor and keep the movie away from becoming a kitschy melodrama.
Believe it or not, a tear welled up in my eyes. Just one. Chiyoko’s house, where the documentary was shot, quiet and peaceful, with a little pond and lotus flowers was soothing, her story enthralling, and emotions genuine. She is another Kon’s female character hard to forget. And why would we want to forget such an enchanting tale of love, life, and cinema?
Long days, pleasant nights,