Satoshi Kon may be the first of the major anime cinema legends whose filmography I’ve seen in its entirety, despite my being an eternal n00b in the genre. This is more of a deeply sad circumstance than a personal accomplishment, as the innovative director died young of pancreatic cancer in his mid-40s, just four feature films into his career (not counting his unfinished project, Dreaming Machine). Watching Millennium Actress on the big screen (via Fathom Events, in anticipation of its new digital restoration for Blu-ray) was the perfect way to wrap up this bittersweet relationship with an artist who’d left us before I fully became aware of his legacy. Although the film arrived midway through his career, it almost feels like an old, retiring auteur looking back on their own work (and the art of cinema at large) with a retrospective eye. I wouldn’t say it’s my personal favorite film of his, nor the objective pinnacle of his artistry, but Millennium Actress does feel like an amalgamation of everything Satoshi Kon accomplished in his other three features – combining the fluid cinematic dream logic of Perfect Blue & Paprika with the tender warmth of Tokyo Godfathers in one succinct, convenient package. It was wonderful to experience that full Satoshi Kon spectrum for the first time in a proper theatrical environment, watching with the same perplexed amusement I found when Paprika premiered on American big screens back in 2007 and I had no idea what I was getting into.
A linear plot synopsis of this surreally animated mind trip would almost seem disrespectful, as the film generally uses its narrative conceit only as a means of exploring a poetic crossroads between memory, fantasy, and cinema. It begins simply enough, with a movie studio executive and a young documentarian interviewing an elderly, retired actress about her life and career. As she recounts her story of growing up onscreen, however, the boundaries between memory & fiction erode beyond recognition, making the distinction pointless. The interviewer & cameraman follow the actress through the physical & temporal locations of her memory, filming the events of her past in a way that is only possible through the fluid, unrestrained logic of movie magic. All the movies the actress has starred in over her long career (whether they be samurai epics, wartime romances, kaiju action spectacles, or sci-fi space operas) blend into a single continuity as she and her two modern-day admirers run through a blur of fantasies & timelines in pursuit of an all-powerful MacGuffin: a literal key to “the most important thing in life.” Whether the most important thing in life is Memory, Passion, Art, or Love remains open for subjective interpretation. Mostly, Millennium Actress is a beautifully surreal melting pot of details from every movie genre through out the history of the artform – swordfights, monsters, ghosts, war, romance spaceships, betrayals – all propulsively animated to an early 00s techno beat.
I don’t think this film requires a familiarity with Satoshi Kon’s general filmography to be appreciated. If anything, expectations for the cruelty & despair of Paprika & Perfect Blue might be prohibitive to meeting this work on its own quietly sweet, melancholy terms. Millennium Actress should be enjoyable to anyone with an active interest in its artform – both as an exquisitely crafted anime from the dying days of hand-drawn animation and as a guided tour throughout the history of Japanese film genres. We’re treated to the full spectrum of what Movies can accomplish as we travel time throughout the most distinct eras of the artform in a lyrical, transportive version of movie-magic dream logic that’s impossible to pull off in any other medium. Similar to other movies-about-movies masterworks like Singin’ in the Rain, Cinema Paradiso, and Hail, Caesar!, Millennium Actress is readily accessible to anyone who can gush emphatically about the history & artistry of cinema as an artform. Still, it does hold a special reverence for Satoshi Kon fans in that it feels like a Greatest Hits collection of his best big-screen accomplishments. It’s absolutely tragic that we couldn’t experience even more grand visions from this late animation wizard, but this film alone is an excellent encapsulation of what made the work he was able to leave behind in his short life so special. I couldn’t imagine a better way to wrap up my precious little time with the enigmatic auteur, even if this film’s sentimentality wasn’t as geared specifically to my interests as harder-edged works like Perfect Blue