This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.
Satoshi Kon died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 46. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer but chose not to make it public. He left behind a relatively small filmography as a result, with only four true features to his name. I opened this series with Paprika, a visual explosion that either “is similar to” or “inspired” Inception, depending on your opinion. Perfect Blue is probably his best known work, which also “is similar to” or “inspired” Black Swan, which also depends on how generous you’re willing to be with your opinion. His other two major works, Tokyo Godfathers and Millennium Actress, always felt a little more slight to me.
I recently had a chance to revisit Millennium Actress as part of an outdoor film series our local arthouse movie theater hosts. I went in with an open mind. I love Kon’s work and liked Millennium Actress fine, but the gap between the two I love and the two I like was always fairly large. I was, happily, very wrong. I probably owe Tokyo Godfathers another shot, too.
Millennium Actress is the story of Chiyoko Fujiwara, a long-retired and reclusive film actress who agrees to be interviewed by a two-man crew. Genya Tachibana is obviously a huge fan and old enough to have seen her work firsthand. He’s overly formal and places heavy significance on this moment. Kyoji Ida, his young, slacker cameraman, asks why this could be so significant and does not seem interested at all. It’s all part of a series on the demolition of Ginei Studios, where Chiyoko worked for decades.
This is fairly familiar ground. It’s a movie about movies and the heroes are the people who want to preserve the past at minimum and live within it at maximum. The opportunity for romanticism is already high, but when Chiyoko starts recounting her early performances it really goes into overdrive. The world bends to her story, inserting the crew in the drama of the film’s reality. These start simple enough, but become an overarching story that includes a curse, the search for love, and a rivalry between a former famous star and the new emerging starlet.
There are so many pieces of film history happening in Millennium Actress. There is some heavy All About Eve reference to the conflict between the two actresses, but the film rarely centers on this. There is a marriage of convenience and a war and there are several literal earthquakes, but even these huge events don’t really get a lot of time. The thing that matters here is a search for lost love that is triggered by a chance encounter. Chiyoko meets a man when she is young and gets into film to search the world for him. Everyone asks her along the way why she would care and why this is worth all the trouble, but this all seems to miss the point. How can you explain something like that to someone else? Why even try?
Millennium Actress tries, sorta, but mostly it wants you to live in the moment. Rather than explain the decision, just accept that it was made and see where that leads you. As the crew advances through her life and her performances, they learn not so much an answer to the “why” of the moment, but they do see the results. That may frustrate you, if you’re someone who needs to know why people behave like they do, but if you can embrace the journey, you’re really in for something special.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I think I like it more than Bande à part, though it does prompt me to think about what each movie is trying to do. Both movies are better if you don’t ask the question of why the woman at the center of the story does what she does. Both movies are journeys, though this one is decidedly deeper, but again, that’s not really a criticism.
Is it the best movie of all time? No, I don’t even think it’s the best movie Satoshi Kon made, even after really enjoying this experience so much. Paprika has flaws, but it’s something I’ll come back to more often, and Perfect Blue really is a masterpiece. They’re all very different films. I’m more willing than the average person to judge an anime alongside a regular film, but even in that headspace, can’t argue that any of them are better than Persona.
You can watch Millennium Actress for free on YouTube. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.