The one full-length book we have on Satoshi Kon's career is titled The Illusionist, and that might well be a subtitle for Millennium Actress. Chiyoko Fujiwara, the actress of the title, has spent her whole life being people she's not, with the largest performance and deepest illusion of all being who and what she is when the cameras are off. Citizen Kane was about learning why Charles Foster Kane uttered "Rosebud", of all words, before dying. Millennium Actress is about a similar mystery — why did a successful and beloved actress drop out of the public eye at the height of her career? — and it's presented to us with the uninhibited visual invention Kon just gave off the way trees drop fruit. It manages to be a lot of things at once: a psychological mystery; a stylized tour of 20th-century Japanese history; a love letter to filmmaking generally and Japanese filmmaking in particular. It doesn't keep all those plates spinning, but it never drops any of them.
The history of her story
Actress opens the action with a hoary show-biz story cliché: an interview with a famous person, now either no longer famous or too famous for their own good, recounting the peaks and valleys of their life in flashback for a curious third party. In this case it's Chiyoko, whose career began in the 1930s when she was still a girl, persisted across three of Japan's most turbulent decades, and then ended without warning. What happened?
One day two men show up at her doorstep to find answers. They are TV documentary maker Genya Tachibana (big-voiced, hearty, a longtime fan of Chiyoko's) and his long-suffering cameraman Kyoji Ida (skinny, skeptical, not much of a movie-magic guy). Genya has something he hopes will get Chiyoko talking: a key, one that for most of her life was her dearest possession and went missing some years ago. It turned up again in the rubble left behind by the demolition of the now-bankrupt studio she worked at for decades, Ginei. So, again: what happened?
The answer comes through Chiyoko recounting the whole of her life for Genya and Kyoji. As a girl, she never really wanted to be in films; she was scouted by a producer who tried to hype her mother on the idea of Chiyoko being a figure of inspiration for the country (as the war in Manchuria was raging at the time). Then she had a chance encounter with a painter and political dissident fleeing the secret police, and he entrusted her with a key he describes as being for "the most important thing in the world". Then he vanished, but she never forgot the encounter, and held out hope that one day the two of them would be reunited. It was for his sake, more than anything else, that she began acting, the better to broadcast her message to him from as many screens as she possibly could.
Chiyoko appeared in a little of everything. A waif in a wartime spy drama (her first role, apparently); a princess in a samurai epic reminiscent of both Akira Kurosawa's Ran and Throne Of Blood; a ninja action-adventure; a Taisho-era riches-to-rags melodrama; a Godzilla-flavored monster mash; a 2001-esque space opera. In many of them she plays a pure and upright role, the better to serve as a foil for the cynical and high-handed roles given to her haughty long-standing female cohort. But every time we see her, we know the real reason she's there — to speak to the man she only knew for a moment through her role.
The big time is only big on the outside
This being Satoshi Kon, the story alone isn't what's extraordinary, although more on that later. It's how Kon uses creative visuals — in this case, a clever metaphor — to draw us into the action, and then to suggest qualities about it that we might not even suspect at first. As Chiyoko recounts each of her flashbacks, Genya and Kyoji find themselves showing up inside them, in something of the manner of an episode of You Are There. At first their participation is limited to just chasing after Chiyoko with camera in hand, but over time Genya takes on a more active role: when Chiyoko's flashback becomes a reworking of a samurai-era tale about a fugitive princess, he takes on the role of the brave footman who takes a rifle shot for her as she flees the castle on horseback. For the ninja tale, he's the Sonny Chiba type who strides in to save her when things get too thick. And so on.
Then we find this is not really a gimmick: Genya has been with Chiyoko the whole time, in real life. He was a low-level production assistant during Chiyoko's time at Ginei, and he always admired her from afar. He resented the way the director who first took a shine to her eventually married her — the better to turn her attention away from her impossible dream of meeting that fugitive painter — and he was instrumental in finding her key when it got lost under inexplicable circumstances. For Genya, this isn't just about interviewing a piece of Japanese film history, but providing both of them with closure that has been too long in coming.
And that closure, when it does come, is as heartbreaking for both of them as it is satisfying. Chiyoko, now far closer to the end of her life than the beginning of it, finally has the time and wherewithal to confront the most difficult truth of her life: that she spent most of it in pursuit of something that might never have existed, that fame and artistic achievement weren't enough in themselves and didn't bring her any closer to what she was looking for.. What seemed like such a great life on the outside is, once Genya gets close, a life that has been lived huddled around a perpetually broken heart.
Gimmick vs. technique
Kon's work is often pitched by his fans to other as a filmmaker's director — someone meant to be in the same breath as Welles, Hitchcock, Lynch, Fellini. But Kon was never satisfied with just being flashy. The narrative sleight-of-hand is there to complement what's already a strong story, not substitute for it. I'm not against the idea that a movie can be all style and little substance and still work wonders (REDLINE), but I am that much more for a strong story as a base for all manner of great things.
Some of what Kon does here is familiar. One trick ought to be familiar from his earlier film Perfect Blue: at the start of a scene it's often left open-ended if we're seeing Chiyoko acting in a scene, or Chiyoko dealing with a portion of her real life, or the latter transmuted allegorically through the former. The scene we see is perhaps not verbatim from the film it was derived from, but becomes raw material to comment on her life. In time it stops becoming jarring, because we realize every scene she's in, whatever the context, is aimed both at her unknown love, and at Genya, and at us in the audience, all at the same time.
One line of criticism directed at the movie is that it makes no particular hay out of the political significance of Chiyoko's career, of her complicity with the country's pop-culture propaganda efforts. In theory this is important given how the man she's fallen for is a political dissident (and doubly so given what we learn about him in the last third of the movie). I don't disagree with the politics of this reasoning — if anything, I agree with it a little too readily for my own good — but material about the political dimensions of Chiyoko's career would have defocused the movie, or at least given rise to a substantially different one. I disliked the way The Wind Rises backed off from allowing its character to say or do anything substantive about his complicity with Japan's war efforts, and I disliked it twice as much because it happened in a movie that was so strangely aimless overall.
Millennium Actress shares another quality with Perfect Blue: concision. Both movies are only ninety minutes, but they accomplish more in ninety minutes than many movies do in 120 (or 140). Not an ounce of fat anywhere. Sometimes this means the transitions between a scene or two feels hurried, but the movie as a whole doesn't feel like a crowbar job. I imagine at least some of this was a product of resource limitations — quality costs money — but I have to imagine it was also because Kon knew more isn't necessarily better — that in the words of Milton Glaser, just enough is more.
Kon's body of work was small, cut short by his untimely death, and even what little he gave us has been out of print in the United States for years. That is, until Eleven Arts and Shout! Factory teamed up to begin reissuing much of it, starting with Perfect Blue last year. Millennium Actress received distribution Stateside by Go Fish, a Dreamworks sublabel, but the version they put out had clumsy English credits slapped onto it and generally poor picture quality. The new Blu-ray Disc, sourced from a 4K remaster, undoes all that damage and then some. There aren't that many pieces needed to complete Kon's puzzle, but any one of them is worth a dozen from other folks.