Impressive piece of reality blurring or gimmicky insert fanfiction? That image is a personality test if I ever saw one.
As I hinted in my 5/cm review, I’m not really a fan of Millennium Actress. I don’t dislike it, but in the four years since I first watched, I find that I just can’t summon much enthusiasm for it. Even though it’s lauded by many critics as one of the finest pieces of animation to come from Japan, and many anime elitists consider it to be perfect in about every way, it never occupies my mind for long and all I can do whilst watching it is go “whatever”. It didn’t do a thing for me when I first saw it, and even when I rewatched it after reading other reviews that highlighted how great it was, I had as much of a reaction to it as I do whenever I watch a ninja movie. Or Election 2016 candidate speeches.
But I guess before I can really delve into this movie, I should say what it’s about. Well, Millennium Actress is “about” how much you can stretch an incredibly shallow premise with all sorts of technicals without changing the core of the story is what it is. The film focuses on an old retired actress named Chiyoko, who is visited by a group of TV interviewers to discuss why she has chosen to live in seclusion at the peak of her career, causing her to reminisce about the past. Throughout the past, we learn that the reason she chose to become an actress in the first place was to pursue a young revolutionary she helped escape from the police, who left with a key with her because…um…love at first sight? It was the old days, so I’ll swallow it. Anyways, the film is basically about her life throughout the different time periods interspersed with the camera crew occasionally being a part of said flashbacks because what would a Satoshi Kon film be without a little reality-bending? Although unlike his other stuff, I don’t have a clue why the reality-bending is in this movie in the first place.
Is it supposed to be clever? Is it supposed to add to the narrative in a meaningful way? Is it supposed to be funny? There was one cut when the camera showed what the characters were really acting like during a war scene, but that only got a smirk out of me because that joke has never been all that strong to begin with. Was there any reason you couldn’t just tell the story straight-forward like in Tokyo Godfathers? Did you have to be the anime version of The Fountain except not as good?
Actually, comparing Millennium Actress to The Fountain isn’t all that fair because the latter came out five years after the former. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that the two are very similar in regards to how they tell their story from the time-jumping to the historical aesthetics to the fact that they’re both movies about love told throughout a long span of time. The difference is that The Fountain has a definitive message with a definitive ending regarding the cycles of death and how ultimately it’s something we can’t fight and live in constant fear of. And another difference is that ironically, many people hate the movie, including the critics. Millennium Actress, on the other hand, is about…um…the endless pursuit of love? Yeah, because that’s a story that deserves a “what is real and what isn’t” treatment, isn’t it? But that’s not really the big issue here. The big issue is this: why am I watching a movie with low ambitions like pursuing a man you barely know even when you get old to the point that the guy couldn’t possibly be alive?
There’s some other issues I have with the movie, but for the most part, it’s all going to come down to that one giant niggle: it’s an unambiguously simplistic story that just happens to be told really well. And sure, I watch anime just as much for the aesthetics and the “how” as I do the “what”. But I favor the last one a fair bit more than I favor the first two, because if I didn’t, I’d be a fan of those Mass Effect/Dragon Age games, and that’s about as far from my preference in storytelling as you can possibly get when I’m not laughing at how bad the facial work is in them. The fact of the matter is that there’s nothing all that definitive in Millennium Actress, and just to twist its well-constructed components further, the buildup isn’t very interesting either. None of the characters aside from Chiyoko have much to them aside from supporting her in any way they can, making them a little boring in the process, and the story is conveyed by going through different movie set pieces the same way Ryan Murphy goes through different media projects. Yes, they’re nice to look at and I appreciate all the detail gone into portraying them accurately and how they represent time passing in Chiyoko’s life, but the film doesn’t exactly say anything definitive about movies in general other than “this is how it was back then”. Interesting trivia, but nothing that affects the core too much.
So I never really buy into the importance of what’s going on. Sure there’s the fact that Chiyoko was doomed to never be able to reunite with the guy, but that’s inherently tragic by nature in regards to these types of stories and using that for your conflict is like utilizing the actual death of a cancer victim in your hospital drama. There’s a point in the film when Chiyoko moves on and marries another man, but once she finds out that man manipulated her, she pretty much tosses him aside and goes back on the chase with a happy face. Even the ending of the film just reaffirms her views as positive and there’s just nothing all that meaty I can sink my teeth into regarding Millennium Actress’s story other than it’s told really well in terms of pacing and historical accuracy and all those other technicals. That makes it a good movie on an objective level sure, but if you’re hoping for objectivity on the Internet, you’re more forgiving than Jesus after he conformed to Mormonism.
I liked 5/cm because it portrayed the main character’s chase for romance throughout the years as detrimental to his health and life, and Millennium Actress just won’t stop the fantastical tone even when reality ultimately overcame fantasy. And even when it did, said overcoming never really deterred Chiyoko to the point that she kinda came off as a creepy stalker in the end. I know she comes from a different culture and generation than me, but if I was the revolutionary she was chasing, I’d hope that they have restraining orders in heaven. Probably don’t though, because as has been proven multiple times throughout my life, God is a lazy douchebag.
Ultimately, I feel that Millennium Actress is best enjoyed by those who either don’t think too hard about what’s actually being told, hopeless romantics who haven’t quite been able to draw the fine line between touching and mental, or hardcore movie buffs who think Hugo is one of the best films in years. Give it a watch, but regardless of your opinion on it, know that you get no sympathies from me.