As part of a special project sponsored by Reverse Thieves, Wendeego reviewed Millennium Actress for the blogosphere’s Secret Santa 2012. Here’s what he thinks!
It’s difficult to sum up Millennium Actress in a few words. I’ve seen people label it as a tribute to film and genre, but as much as the film deals heavily with film tropes, history and archetypes, I think it’s a lot more complicated than that. It’s also a lesson in Japanese history, spanning the distance between World War II and the modern day. But none of this takes into account that the film itself is highly subjective, told squarely through the lens of a former actress who is for all intents and purposes an unreliable narrator. For all the film’s pretensions towards epic narrative, covering the growth, death and rebirth of a country, it is also intensely personal, dealing solely with the state of the world within the perspective and context of its protagonist. So while it’s tempting to take the film as a pure genre experiment, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality for the purpose of fun and games, I think that leaving out the interior for the exterior risks missing the purpose of the whole film.
So here’s my take: Millennium Actress is a film about memories. It is a film about achieving your dreams when your body dies just a little bit every day. It’s about death, and rebirth. It is also littered with countless visual hints and clues that you might not even catch until your second viewing. The cut over the documentarian’s eye is covered with an eyepatch, until it eventually heals. Godzilla is a science fiction film, except that it’s also about the atom bomb. TV interviewer Genya Tachibana’s associated company is called LOTUS. The spaceship launch pad at the film’s beginning and end is also shaped like a lotus. And so on. If Kon’s later Paranoia Agent was a baggy, if fascinating, jumble of ideas and concepts, Millennium Actress is like a welded bell, where absolutely every little element fits together so well that it’s frankly staggering.
This would put Millennium Actress in the same category of so-called “mindfuck” films like Fight Club and Memento, except while those films often have a “gotcha” moment that throws the whole story into perspective, Millennium Actress doesn’t really have one of those. The closest it does have is a scene where, while running after the love of her life, countless scenes from the heroine’s life all come together to form an extraordinary tense chase scene, and the structure of the film becomes clear. Millennium Actress isn’t so much a film that its heroine is telling to us as it is one that she is telling to herself–it’s thanks to Genya’s probing that she’s able to remember anything at all, and while the story itself is linear these memories all come to occupy the same space. It’s a portrait of life in seemingly infinite microcosm, dozens of images and threads and events repeating themselves over and over again over the course of seventy-odd years.
The film ends in rebirth, the title character ascending in death to the next stage of her journey to find the elusive owner of the key that hangs around her neck. It’s an unfulfilling ending in some ways–the heroine dies without achieving her goal, the purpose of the key remains a mystery to the end. But that presumes that the end of the journey was all that important to begin with, or that it mattered what was inside of the box. Millennium Actress is a puzzle box where the answers are not so much the destination as they are fragments of the journey itself: a life told through individual experiences, filtered through layers of reality, perception and personal bias. If it’s not as immediately affecting as a movie like Spirited Away, it’s a film that improves and takes on extra dimensions every time I think about it, looming greater and greater in the memory. Satoshi Kon’s death was a great tragedy, but watching Millennium Actress reveals a lotus blossom that will likely always be in bloom, opening further and further to reveal seemingly infinite depths.