Hidden Gems: Millennium Actress

*****

Ever since her swift rise to fame in the twilight years of World War Two, actress Chiyoko Fujiwara was the brightest star of the Japanese film industry, inspiring dedicated fans across the country. She was the ‘it girl’, the heroine, the princess. And then she was gone. Years after her sudden and unexplained disappearance from public life, lifelong fan and documentary filmmaker Genya Tachibana sets out to discover the story of her life and return to her an item she long thought lost…

From there, what could have been a worthy drama about one young woman’s experience of war and its aftermath becomes so much more, as Genya and his camera operator Kjoji are pulled into the world of Chiyoko’s memories, into which seep moments from the films in which she starred. From Chiyoko’s memories of wartime Japan to movies set in the feudal era or a space-travelling future, the historical and the cinematic flawlessly intertwine to create a surreal portrait of a woman’s life, a country’s history, and a chase that lasts a lifetime.

The premature death of writer/director Satoshi Kon in 2010, at the age of 46, is a tragedy that still leaves fans pondering the potential masterpieces that died with him, and the consistent inventiveness and vigour of Millennium Actress makes clear why. From the early sequence that transforms a mundane trip across Japan into a sprawling journey through national and cinematic history, to a horseback ride through a colourful landscape pulled from traditional Japanese art, the film showcases both Kon’s originality as a storyteller and his exceptional technical skill as a filmmaker. The eccentricities of his style are served well by an equally unconventional score by virtuoso electronic musician Susumu Hirasawa, who later worked on Kon’s film Paprika as well as Paranoia Agent, the director’s only foray into television.

A multi-layered tale full of metaphor and double meaning, Millennium Actress is nonetheless a simple story at heart, as the complexity of the narrative at all times works to underline, not obscure, the tale’s emotional core of love, loss, and longing. Never do the technical or stylistic subtleties of the script or direction take away from the warmth and humour of Kon’s characters, or bring unnecessary attention to the many intricacies of the story’s unique structure.

In an industry swamped in mediocrity, a well-made movie is undoubtedly a treat, but a cinematic gem the likes of Millennium Actress is a much rarer find; a film that encapsulates all that is beloved about the medium. From the stunning visuals to the artful manipulation of time and space, Kon’s poetic ode to life, love and cinema is a surreal fairytale that will mesmerise cinema lovers across the globe for decades to come.

Millennium Actress is available now on DVD.