Satoshi Kon

Is Millennium Actress the Best Movie of All Time?

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 @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Paprika the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Where do you start on search for the greatest movie of all time? The temptation to start with Citizen Kane or something similar is strong, but I am going to start with an anime. Wait, c’mon, stick around. I promise, this is all about something you’ve seen. No, really! Just read to the end.

I’m more comfortable talking about things I don’t like than things I do like. I spent a year watching every single movie that ever won Best Picture at the Oscars just to dunk on Crash, which I still think is the worst movie to ever win the Academy’s most prestigious award. Crash opens with a discussion of coffee and spaghetti. I really can’t get into it here, you can read my 90+ part series if you want to know more.

Crash is not the worst movie I’ve ever seen. I grant that title to mother!, which makes me mad to even stylize that way, but director Darren Aronofsky insists that it is lowercase and ends in an exclamation because that symbolizes the climax. I am not going to spend much time on it, but the audience in the theater when I saw it literally laughed and booed at mother! and they were right to do so. It’s a disaster and a divisive allegory that may not be the worst movie ever made, but it’s certainly the experience I enjoyed the least. Aronofsky says it’s about environmentalism, but that seems like an impossible reading of a movie about the power of creative people and how they misuse it. I could spend forever on this, but I’ll just leave my cards on the table and say that’s the bottom of the barrel for me.

I mention it because I think Darren Aronofsky is a great director. Pi is haunting, even all these years later. Requiem for a Dream is a masterpiece. But I want to talk about Black Swan.

Black Swan is a movie about ambition. You’ve probably seen it, but even if you haven’t we aren’t going to spend much time on it. It’s about a ballerina trying to reach professional heights and the fears and challenges that come along with that journey. It deserves a lot more space, but this is all an introduction to another movie. It’s not even an Aronofsky movie! What are we doing?

Black Swan is not a shot-for-shot remake, but it borrows really, really heavily from the anime Perfect Blue. You can watch YouTube essays if you want to know more, but it’s enough to say that Perfect Blue is a horror movie about a star reaching for more and finding the journey more complex than anticipated. It’s definitely not a “rip off” or anything, but it’s clear that Aronofsky saw Perfect Blue and made his own version. He says that’s not what happened, but you can watch for yourself. Black Swan is an excellent movie and I don’t personally think it matters that he got some inspiration from an anime, but he seems to be pretty touchy about it.

This is how we get to Paprika. Satoshi Kon directed both Perfect Blue and Paprika, among other movies and series, and he was asked about the similarities in major Hollywood fare and his movies somewhat often. You can look up his reactions, but it seems to me like he always acknowledged the similarities but didn’t seem to care. Quentin Tarantino has made an entire career out of “homage” which can border on “theft” and directors seem to do the same thing to Kon.

Inception steals some images directly from Paprika. Several content creators have done a better job than I could do proving it, but the most striking is a scene where Elliot Page approaches a mirror and ruins the illusion of the dream in Inception. This is directly, exactly, lifted from Paprika, where it happens for the same reason. Does that matter? It’s weird, to be sure, especially if you’ve seen Paprika first.

I hated Inception when I saw it new. It felt impossible to follow and it felt deliberately messy. I rewatched it this year and liked it a great deal more, but it still feels like it forces you to look really closely at the magic eye drawing it presents and it doesn’t necessarily reward you for “getting it” so much as it does string you along. I am finding myself less and less interested in what Christopher Nolan has to say as a filmmaker, but even with that caveat I think Inception is better as an action movie than it is as a puzzle.

Paprika, then. It’s an anime from 2006, from Satoshi Kon, who also made Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers, and Millennium Actress. Paprika is about a technology that allows people to go inside dreams. Inception is deeply concerned with the “how” and spends a tremendous amount of time making sure you follow how it’s all possible. Paprika doesn’t give a damn. Put this headset on, it’s time for a parade.

I think that’s why Paprika works. It’s enough that we buy that this is possible because some handwaving, technical explanations from science-types tells us it’s possible. That’s how it would actually work, anyway. We wouldn’t need someone to take us in a dream and tell us a long story about the physics of dreams, we’d just see it on Twitter and accept it. Paprika spends more time on the experience and ends up being a more enjoyable film as a result.

Christopher Nolan clearly saw Paprika. Both movies are about going in dreams and solving a problem. Both movies are about getting lost in an experience. Both movies are about the hero being the one person who can navigate this impossible, mysterious space. But it all kinda ends there.

Inception is dark and horrible. Everything is black and gray. Everyone has an assault riffle and everyone works for a shady military organization. Everyone has a tie. Everything is Extremely Serious All The Time. That’s Christopher Nolan’s whole aesthetic and it seems to be working for him, Tenet excluded.

The character Paprika in Paprika is the dream avatar of our main heroine and it works exactly like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Inception. The difference is that she seems to be still having fun with it, transforming into multiple forms and dancing around in a red shirt and constantly smirking through the dreams she invades. The tone isn’t all that different in the two movies, but the presentation couldn’t be more different. The nightmare in Paprika isn’t a train crashing through a city block, it’s a parade of frogs and statues that sings a happy nonsense tune. It’s dire, obviously, but what fun!

If Inception has a message, it seems to be that dreams are sacred. Our characters muck around in someone else’s experience and are forever changed. Paprika also wonders if this is something we all should be doing, but finds a slightly different answer. Satoshi Kon isn’t Christopher Nolan, but you probably got that from the box art. I recommend you watch both. It’s a better transformation than Aronofsky was able to make, at least.

Paprika is all about the visuals. It’s an explosion, from start to finish, and the logic behind it never really matters all that much. We learn about the bad guy late in the narrative and his motives never go beyond surface level. It’s all about what you see and how they render it. Anime can tell a story, obviously, but it is best when it does so in a way that live action cannot. The medium matters here and I think it’s a great first watch even if you’re not the kind of person that would normally watch something like this. Christopher Nolan certainly did.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It is the first one. In future entries, we’ll answer this question, starting with Paprika.

Is it the best movie of all time? It is the first one we’ve looked at, so yes, for now, Paprika is the best movie of all time.

You can watch Paprika on Amazon for $2.99, at the time of this writing. You can also watch Inception for free on Amazon (if you have Prime). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.