It’s hard to understand why I didn’t come across the 2001 film ‘Millenium Actress’ before. Directed by Satoshi Kon and produced by some guys called ‘Madhouse’, this 19 year old film is a gem that’s not meant for everybody.
The story is about a documentary filmmakers interviewing a legendary veteran actress who abruptly retired while she was still at the peak of her career. Chiyoki Fujiwara, is our main protagonist, an elegant old lady, who was once a ‘Madonna’ on the big screen, beautiful and enchanting.
The central theme of the movie is Fujiwara’s obsessive, almost unrequited love for a much older stranger, an anti-govt rebel she had given shelter when she was merely a school girl during an ongoing war. The mysterious rebel is a painter and immediately becomes an object of affection for the little girl. But they are parted in less than 24 hours. All he leaves behind is a key, a souvenir Chiyoki keeps close to her heart, almost all her life.
She becomes an actress in the hope that it will help her track down the man she had fallen in love with. We see her life in flashbacks, the lines blurring between her films and reality as she constantly chases a man while climbing the ladder of success. She seamlessly shifts roles between a princes, a warrior, a geisha, a nurse an astronaut. And even as her onscreen persona keeps shape-shifting, her love for a man she barely knew remains, keeping her on his tracks.
The makers of Millenium Actress combine the magic of Studio Ghibli with the nostalgia of Japanese talkies, to give us a moving, iconic tale of a film star. It makes several references to actual Japanese films, like the Godzilla (the only one I could identify honestly).
Some viewers may find the pace slow, but for me, it was just perfect and the documentary filmmaker in the story symbolizes all movie fanatics who place stars on a pedestal. He is a big fan of Chiyoki and has no shame in admitting he has seen her films 50 times over and cried 50 times over too.
Millenium Actress is like a slice of cinema history, shown through the eyes of an innocent fictional heroine, who you cannot but help fall in love with. Some googling reveals that it’s also one of the last major animation films that was made using hand-inked celluloid and it shows. Most of the scenes are like paintings, there were so many moments where I just wanted to pause and sketch. Almost each little moment seems to have been made with a lot of affection and that makes this movie even more special.
Also I did end up making a fan sketch from a scene. Will colour it later.