The Infinite Journey of Chiyoko Fujiwara
by Jansen Musico
Millennium Actress (2001)
D: Satoshi Kon
S: Miyoko Shoji, Mami Koyama, Fumiko Orikasa, Shozo Iizuka
It starts with a video clip of a space shuttle launching into the great unknown. Small-time producer, Genya Tachibana, watches closely from the screen as its boosters blast off smoke and flames. Suddenly it begins to roar, and everything around it starts shaking violently, the shuttle, the launch pad, and even the cramped viewing room where Genya is in. He gets up from his chair as rows of old VHS tapes start falling off the shelves. All this happens in the first two minutes of the film, a simple taste to whet our senses for the next eighty-five minutes of Satoshi Kon’s genius.
Millennium Actress follows Genya and his trusty cameraman Kyōji, as they seek to make a documentary of the life of retired actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara—a character inspired by a true icon of Japanese cinema, Setsuko Hara, who served as a muse to several film directors including Yasujirō Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. Chiyoko accommodates them in her quaint abode in the middle of the woods and starts recounting her acting career beginning from the very day she was born. From here on out, we are absorbed in an evolving loop with constantly shifting times, places, and realities. This is a fluid imagineering made possible by Satoshi Kon’s mastery of animation.
Unlike most 2D cartoon flicks and everyday Japanese animé, Millennium Actress feels more like a moving mixed media piece utilizing elements derived from traditional Japanese art, stills and cut-outs, different drawing techniques, and several color palettes that give the animation much texture yet preserves its natural feel. There’s a striking realness to this movie that can easily be observed in each sequence, may it be the shifting shadows on the space station, the natural behavior of smoke, or the foreground and background of a harrowing blizzard. It just goes to show how much thought and work went into telling this story. And what a wonderful one it is.
Chiyoko’s tale is complex, built on memories inseparable from the characters she played. We get to witness her life story unfold as we slip in and out of a visually fluid reel composed of various scenes from her past films. One in particular is a chilling ode to Kurosawa’s 1957 film, Throne of Blood, where a specter of a lady with a spinning wheel foretells a curse that befalls on our lead. The curse, which I would rather not discuss, provides such a vital element which ties the film together as a whole, making the jumps cohesive and the drama consistent.
What I find brilliant is the way Satoshi Kon made use of the two supporting characters in this elaborate play. Genya, as Chiyoko’s avid admirer, becomes a constant participant in all of the actress’ reveries. Not only does he trespass in the movie scene flashbacks, but he also always finds a way to play an important role in them. This not only provides much needed comic relief but also provides one of the major denouements. Kyōji, on the other hand, is more of a spectator. Neither a fan nor an enthusiast, he just goes where he is dragged, and keeps reminding Genya to “Keep out of it.” He therefore becomes the audience’s cinematic compass telling us whether we’re in the movie’s reality or just another scene in Chiyoko’s retelling.
As Millennium Actress nears it final minutes, the tremors re-emerge, somewhat signalling the end of Chiyoko’s traversing of the mind. But like most things touched by Satoshi Kon, the movie is very much open ended, proving the finale may only be just the start of our heroine’s infinite journey.