Millennium Actress (2001)

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

-Brandon Ledet

Perfect Blue (1997)

The debut feature of tragically-deceased Japanese animator Satohi Kon (Paprika, Tokyo Godfathers) is taking a 20th anniversary victory lap in digital restoration, so I had the unexpected opportunity to see it for the first time in a theatrical setting. What a fucked-up delight! Because Paprika is one of the few anime films I’ve watched repeatedly over years of admiration & study, I was somewhat prepared for the sugary pop psychedelia & loopy nightmare logic Satoshi Kon established in this predecessor. What I did not expect going in blind was that the film would fit so comfortably within my beloved Evil Internet horror genre, given that it arrived so early in the development of online culture. The internet is fertile thematic territory for the horrors of the Unknown because its mechanics & functions have continued to feel like a novel, depthless mystery to the average user. I can only imagine that effect was even greater in 1997, when a global network of intercomputer communication felt like a man-made miracle. Perfect Blue not only exploits the eeriness of that brand-new unknown by reflecting it in the similar subliminal space of a bad dream & an unraveling mind, but it’s also prescient of the Internet’s worst functions as a future real-world evil – both as a tool for misogynist bullying & as a corrupter of personal identity. Unlike other early Evil Internet thrillers like The Net or FearDotCom, it’s remained effectively creepy instead of devolving into a quaint joke precisely because it got the internet exactly right. It perfectly captures our ongoing, collective online nightmare, despite arriving in a time when the internet was mostly a tangle of blogs & message boards.

A female pop singer is pressured by her managers to leave her music career behind to pursue acting. This professional shift is coded as her public image growing up, leaving behind the girlish innocence of her pop idol persona to pursue a more adult, sexualized career. She lands a small role on a racy “Japanese psycho thriller” TV series (the kind of sensationalist drama that plays for high ratings on HBO in the 2010s), requiring her to perform increasingly sexualized acts for the camera, including participation a brutal rape scene. Pretending she’s okay with this career shift so she appears agreeable to her talent agency causes a rift inside herself, where her still-innocent inner voice (visualized as her former pop idol persona) screams out in dissent. Meanwhile, an online stalker blogs in first-person as her former self, reinforcing the bifurcation between her two personae. The pressures of her job & the online harassment amount to a fever pitch as she starts losing time and waking to find that the entertainment industry goons who pressured her into sexually compromising positions are being found systematically murdered. Her pop idol self, her TV show character, her dreams, and her false online persona all collectively unravel her sense of identity to the point where she can’t say for sure whether she is the mysterious murderer or even if the murders are actually happening. She can’t even answer basic questions like “Am I dreaming?” or “Am I alive?” with any confidence or certainty. Pressures from her pop music fans to remain an innocent child clash with the television industry’s pressures for her to expose her body & pretend to be a rape victim for commercial entertainment – two opposing, impossible standards only she suffers the consequences of as their target du jour. It’s no surprise that the internet is the primary tool of this misogynist cycle, as it’s only served that function more intensely in real life in the decades since.

Early on in Perfect Blue the protagonist receives a threatening fax from her stalker and the machine’s mechanical scrapes & hums mutate into an industrial pop score that overwhelms the soundtrack, heightening the eerie threat technology poses in her insular world. That’s when I knew I would be all-in for the movie’s technophobic feminist nightmare, which only became more rewarding the further it broke apart from reality to sink into the (literal & figurative) machines of misogyny. Like most well-regarded anime, Perfect Blue is technically impressive as a feat in traditional animation, fully utilizing its medium to achieve logic & imagery unattainable in live action cinema. The particulars of how it uses that medium to reflect the eeriness & artifice of the internet, nightmares, and the entertainment industry are a more rarified wonder, especially since it’s an effect that actually has something substantial to say about the exploitation & commodification of women in the public sphere. Perfect Blue can occasionally be super uncomfortable in its depictions of sexual assault, but at least in a way that’s relevant to those themes. Overall, it’s a strikingly beautiful, effectively creepy work of animated psych-horror, one that approximates the full danger & eeriness of the internet in a way that’s only since been matched by the likes of Suicide Club, Unfriended, Nerve, and #horror. I mean that as the highest of praise, as this is a genre I find consistently fascinating, but rarely this effectively scary. It’s worth noting too that the 20th anniversary digital transfer of the film has not seemed to sharpen, flatten, or distort its original appearance the way some digital “restorations” of animated classics have. Perfect Blue looked to me of the exact grainy, matte quality you’d expect an animated 90s movie to appear like on the big screen. Our relationship with the internet may have intensified drastically in the last 20 years, but Perfect Blue appears to remain untouched as a pristine, enduringly terrifying object – a beautiful technophobic nightmare worthy of continued discussion & preservation.

-Brandon Ledet