Friday, October 01, 2010

Millennium Actress

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: anime / In category: 8 of 10 / Overall: 86 of 100

When I heard the sad news of Satoshi Kon’s death in August, I must admit that I knew of him more by reputation than any familiarity with his work. At the earliest available opportunity (ie. soon after payday), I bought the DVD of ‘Millennium Actress’.

Watching it this evening, a world of wonders opened to me. And I want to weep in frustration that the man who gifted them was taken at the age of 46, having had the chance to make only half a dozen features.

‘Millennium Actress’ begins with independent filmmaker Genya Tachibana and his much put-upon cameraman Kyouji tracking down reclusive septuagenarian film star Chiyoko Fujiwara. It has been thirty years since she last appeared on screen, controversially disappearing from the set of her last movie (a sci-fi production) after an earthquake hits the studio and she almost dies.

Now, as Tachibana puts it in the portentous voiceover to his documentary, “the bulldozers have succeeded where years of earthquakes failed” and the studio is being levelled. It’s a very different Japan and it soon becomes obvious that the still elegant Chiyoko, surprisingly agreeing to be interviewed by Tachibana, has been more at home with her memories than the march of time.

So powerful are her memories that Tachibana and Kyouji are literally drawn into them. Thus ‘Millennium Actress’, taking a huge metaphysical leap less than quarter of an hour into its slender 83-minute running time, becomes an animated film about the making of a documentary about an actress whose recollections of three decades of Japanese cinema overwhelms the contemporary filmmakers to the point where the find themselves documenting not just a woman sharing her recollections but the actual recollections themselves, Tachibana and Kyouji – the latter dutifully lugging his camera through every gallery of Chiyoko’s memory – integrating into her past life and interacting with the people who shaped that life, the people she loved and the people who failed her.

Is your head buzzing yet? By rights, ‘Millennium Actress’ ought to provoke chronic confusion. It’s not just metaphysical, it’s meta-textual. Ton plays around with concepts of memory, fantasy, reality and fiction to a startling degree. Chiyoro’s real life, particularly her ceaseless quest to find a man she helped evade capture by the authorities (an artist and a political dissenter), is mirrored by the travails of her characters in a series of different films. Scenes from her life, particularly her troubled relationship with arrogant director Otaki, suddenly halt mid-scene and Kon’s camera pulls back to reveal she’s on a film set. Minor incidents and images recur both onstage and off. Ton orchestrates the ambiguities with such ease and confidence that the sheer complexity of the film – potentially its Achilles heel – actually becomes its strongest element.

In other words: if Alain Resnais had directed an anime, this would be it.

A little over an hour into the film, Ton takes his narrative and visual conjuration to a whole new level, unleashing a sequence so dazzlingly conceived and flawlessly executed, a wild juxtaposition of images filling the screen with eye-popping beauty, that ‘Millennium Actress’ achieves a kind of transcendence. It communicates a breathless and almost impossibly poignant commentary on the strength and fragility of love and hope. It is a glimpse into the imagination of a unique artist. The medium is poorer for his loss.

(i.m. Satoshi Kon, 12 October 1963 - 24 August 2010)


Bryce Wilson said...

As this week has shown, it's always sad when a great filmmaker is lost.

But Kon's death felt like a fucking robbery.

Neil Fulwood said...

If his other works are as inspired and iconoclastic as 'Millennium Actress' - and everything I've read about him suggests they are - I still my immediate emotional reaction will be absolute despair at how little time it will take to watch his lifetime's work.