Late to the Party: Millennium Actress (2001)

So if you don’t know, this is Late to the Party, a Hound-pitched idea where every week someone posts about an older piece of media they just watched for the first time. And I guess now I’m like the kid who’s first up to to present their project to the class. You can assume there’s spoilers for the movie here. 

I signed up for the first of these “Late to the Party” entries because I have too much time on my hands these days,  and might as well participate now before I return to college in a couple weeks. But why Millennium Actress? Good question, because I’m not sure it was a great idea to do this one for LTTP.

I had already been introduced to director Satoshi Kon through his films Perfect Blue and Tokyo Godfathers – both films I thought were fantastic, so Millennium Actress (along with Paprika, which I have not yet seen) had been placed highly on my informal list of stuff to get to. That meant even thought it’s not the epitome of a “I can’t believe you haven’t see that movie,” it felt as good as anything else to do a write-up.

But the problem I’m encountering in writing about this movie is, I now have to give an immediate impression right after watching it. (I’m really cutting it close on this deadline, I will probably finish writing this right when the schedule says it should go up). But my immediate impression is… this isn’t a movie suited to immediate impressions? It’s a movie I’d really liked to be able to sit with and ponder (which I could have guessed is what it be like, given Kon’s other work).  I’m sure there’s really compelling reviews/video essays out on the internet exploring in depth the meaning and themes of this film. I looked forward to hitting those up after I’ve finished writing this. But I definitely feel unprepared to give my own off the cuff compelling take. All I can say is dumb stuff like “Hey, I just realized she’s a movie star, and the movie ends with her flying out into the stars. Ohhhhh.” But writing about this movie is what I signed up to do, so I have to keep writing about it now.

So, not unexpectedly, it’s one of those movies about movies. A favorite subgenre of people who make movies. The life of a former actress, through the eyes of dudes who track her down for an interview. The DNA is familiar. It’s a lot like Kon’s Perfect Blue in being a reality distorting tale about an entertainer (not surprising to now read that they were meant as companion pieces of a sort) but also like Tokyo Godfathers in being about characters on obsessive pursuit of a mysterious person. That said, I can’t state that it lived up to those other films for me. It’s more beautiful animation, but lacking the same emotional impact. Perfect Blue is instantly memorable for being one unsettling trip.  Tokyo Godfathers is… just a really fun adventure to go on above anything else, but with a story that turns genuinely heartwarming (Which is why I now love declaring it my favorite Christmas movie. It’s a left field pick for that honor, but still feels true what a great “Christmas movie” should be). I was hoping his could follow those footsteps – and maybe sweep me away to another level (I’ve heard people declare it Kon’s best film). But now I have to investigate why it didn’t.

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The movie gets into a rhythm pretty quickly, jumping between reality and films and ambiguous middle ground in between. At which point, I was on board with wherever this wild ride was going to take me. I was concerned with framing device of the interview, and if that was just going to be an annoying intrusion into the actual story. But really, the filmmakers pursuit of her pursuit is the whole core of the piece. And the duo – Genya and his cameraman – grew on me as a comedic pair.

But while the ride that proceeded was one vivid journey rich in the filmrealms it captures, I think what kept me a little cold was the characters. Genya’s persistent muscling into Chiyoko’s films is amusing, but I don’t really know him much beyond his obsession with Chiyoko… and I can’t say I know Chiyoko either. I know she starts as a young girl who falls in love with a man she briefly encounters (of course, she’s actually in love with the man’s mystery), and proceeds to live her life purely for the sake of reuniting with him. That said, I never got the feeling I was really discovering Chiyoko’s inner life through all this. I was discovering the symbol she became in her movies, a symbol Genya is obsessed with.  But I don’t really know what it says about Genya that he’s obsessed with her, since I don’t anything about Genya’s inner life besides that fact he’s obsessed with her, just like I don’t really know anything about Chiyoko besides that she’s obsessed with a man who himself remains an enigma by the end of the movie.

Which is – to be clear – a whole interesting thematic puzzle to unpack, and you could go on a meta spiel about how it all comes back to being a movie about experiencing movies. And I’m not completely cold to characters. Chiyoko does have a journey, from portraying characters her identity was blended in with, to becoming an old woman who loses the ability to identify with those characters and therefore her past self. But I don’t feel I was made fully invested in that journey because of the perspective it was told from, as much as there is so much surrealistic and beautiful about this movie in how it weaves films and memories and time and places and people. 

Genya in this movie experiences movies the way you want to experience movies, where that great magic happens and it’s somehow as if you’re not an observer to the film. Somehow, you’re in there. You’ve become part of the film and its characters. It’s a great feeling. But I didn’t feel like Genya. I felt like the Cameraman. Who’s there too, and observing with interest – but never becoming part of the tapestry.

That just turned into a weird rushed rambled at the end, but I think I’ve succeeded in writing down my initial feelings about this film. Hopefully others who’ve seen this film have thoughts too unrelated to my fresh weird thoughts. I do think this is a film worth seeing as a beautiful piece of animation, even if I’m not full on enthusiastic about it. I’m aware this recently had some theatrical screenings as a fathom event, but I caught this on Amazon Prime, if that’s a convenient way for you to watch it.