I'm not entirely sure where to start with the latest film that played as part of the Film Society programme, Satoshi Kon's Millennium Actress. It has been sometime since I was as enamoured of anime as I once was. In my pubescent days once when I first discovered true, Japanese anime I was into things like Fist of the North Star, Ninja Scroll and Wicked City. Mainly, it must be said, due to the kinetic hyper-violence and nudity. I was a teenage boy and these films were like nothing I’d ever seen before. Millennium Actress is not anime, at least not in the sense that I am used to thinking of it. This is a heady concoction of a film; like a strong, perfectly blended cocktail that goes straight to your head and sends your mind into a spin. This is a dramatic film that just happens to be animated, as that is the medium Satoshi Kon seems to be happiest working in.
The whole film is layer upon layer, level upon level; if you thought Inception was too simple minded, this could be the trip for you. And like Nolan's blockbusting opus, Millennium Actress is a love letter to film and film history. Two men come to interview faded, reclusive actress Chiyoko Fujiwara. The interviewer, Genya Tachibana, delivers an old key to her; the key "to the most important thing of all". A key given to a young Chiyoko by a young man on the run from the authorities. He was a revolutionary artist that she saved and subsequently fell for. He moved on in the morning, never to be seen by Chiyoko again though she searched for him. As she tells the story of how she was knocked down by, and saved the life of this young man, the two man film crew find themselves pulled into the story. Not figuratively, but literally; they are there, interacting with the people and scenery. The story kaleidoscopes through Chiyoko's life and film roles as she continues to search for her love and takes on roles that move through 1,000 years of Japanese history, forever in search of their loves.
The film is mirrors upon mirrors: are Chiyoko's roles reflecting her life or is Chiyoko in fact the woman doomed to search for her lover for 1,000 years, and the actress she is now is just one of those stages? The film offers no easy answers and continually works to keep you off balance. The audience literally stumble along with Genya Tachibana and his cameraman as they attempt to keep up with Chiyoko's story; moving seamlessly from an attack by bandits on a train (in Chiyoko's life?) to a medieval Japanese castle under siege (one of her roles? Or the beginning of her curse?). It's possible the film is also part meta-commentary on the history of Japanese film; I am unfortunately not knowledgeable enough in this area to comment. But when you see some of Chiyoko's roles recalling the more "traditional", adolescent view of anime or martial arts flicks and even a giant monster movie, you cannot help but wonder.
I was no fan of Paprika and I haven't yet seen Perfect Blue or Tokyo Godfather's, Kon's other well known films, but I was wrapped up in Millennium Actress. It was a cerebral experience, with a real sadness to it and I was constantly engaged, continually trying to keep up. On the strength of this film alone I am keen to track down Perfect Blue and Tokyo Godfather's to see them for myself. Perhaps I'll explore some more anime out there while I'm at it.