Millennium Actress (千年女優 Sennen Joyū) is a 2001 Japanese animated drama film co-written and directed by Satoshi Kon and produced by Madhouse. Loosely based on the lives of actresses Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine, it tells the story of two documentary filmmakers investigating the life of a retired acting legend. As she tells them the story of her life, the difference between reality and cinema becomes blurred.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Satoshi Kon|
|Produced by||Taro Maki|
|Story by||Satoshi Kon|
|Music by||Susumu Hirasawa|
|Edited by||Satoshi Terauchi|
|Box office||$37,641 (US)|
The film opens with a woman leaving to embark on a spaceship from the moon to Earth. An earthquake occurs and it is revealed that this is simply a scene from a movie being played out on a television. Genya Tachibana, a TV interviewer, and his cameraman Kyoji Ida head off to a new job: Ginei Studios, a prestigious but bankrupt movie studio being torn down, and its best known star Chiyoko Fujiwara has agreed to do a rare career retrospective interview. When they meet, Genya gives her a key he believes she lost at the studio, which causes Chiyoko to reflect on her career. As she's telling her life story, Genya and Kyoji are drawn in, literally, to Chiyoko's past, as they are blended into various scenes that concurrently reflect Chiyoko's filmography and life story at once.
Chiyoko, as a girl in 1930s Japan, is approached to become an actress by a famous director. While walking on the street, Chiyoko encounters a man running away from a certain scarred military policeman, and she manages to hide him away in a storage barn. It turns out he is a revolutionary against the war in China, as well as a painter; he escapes, but leaves a key behind. After his departure, she decides to become a film actress in hopes that he will see one of her movies, and heads to Manchukuo with the film crew for her first movie to try and give the key back to him. She meets Ginei Studios' lead actress, who treats her with contempt, as well as the director's young son, also planning to be a director. On a train however, local bandits attack. At this point, scenes are played from different movies from Chiyoko's career, ranging from samurai to kaiju, all with the theme of Chiyoko chasing down the mysterious painter. Various characters are seen again and again, such as the military policeman, and even Genya and Kyoji, who continually save Chiyoko and allow her to continue on her quest.
Through this narrative, it is seen that a younger Genya became an assistant at Ginei Studios. Chiyoko loses the key during filming one day, and resigns herself to marrying the director's son, who has become the lead director. Eventually, after the war, Chiyoko finds the key hidden away in one of the sets, and confronts her husband about it; the other lead actress reveals that she stole it for the director out of jealousy for her youth. Right after, the military policeman, now a crippled veteran, comes to the studio to apologize for his war crimes, and gives Chiyoko a letter from the painter. After Chiyoko leaves to resume her desperate search north, Genya hears from the scarred policeman that the painter was tortured and killed after his arrest.
As Ginei Studios begins filming the last scene of a movie, an earthquake shakes the studio and causes the roof to collapse on to the set, the spaceship from the first scene. Genya jumps in and saves Chiyoko by shielding her from debris with his body, but after the earthquake, she runs away inexplicably, leaving behind the key for Genya to pick up. Finally back in the present, Genya asks why Chiyoko abandoned her search, and she replies that she was no longer the girl of her youth; the painter would no longer recognize her now.
During the interview, another earthquake strikes as Chiyoko has a heart attack, and Genya once again shields her from debris as she collapses. He and the cameraman drive her desperately to the hospital, but despite their efforts are told that she won't make it. On her hospital deathbed, Chiyoko surprises them by saying that it doesn't matter if she finds the man or not. As the film returns to its opening scene, she explains that despite never seeing the man again, she realized that it wasn't the man she loved, but the chase for him – before blasting off in the spaceship to continue her search.
|Chiyoko Fujiwara||Miyoko Shōji (70s)
Mami Koyama (20s-40s)
Fumiko Orikasa (10s-20s)
|Genya Tachibana||Shōzō Iizuka
Masamichi Satō (Young)
|Kyōji Ida||Masaya Onosaka||Stuart Milligan|
|Eiko Shimao||Shōko Tsuda||Jo Lee|
|Junichi Otaki||Hirotaka Suzuoki||Stephen Bent|
|Mino||Tomie Kataoka||Samantha Shaw|
|Chief Clerk||Takkō Ishimori||Unknown|
|Ginei Managing Director||Kan Tokumaru||John Vernon|
|Chiyoko's Mother||Hisako Kyōda||Felicity Duncan|
|Man with Key||Kōichi Yamadera||David Kitchen|
|Man with Scar||Masane Tsukayama||Matt Devereaux|
Following the release of Satoshi Kon's previous film Perfect Blue, Kon considered adapting the Yasutaka Tsutsui novel Paprika (1993) into his next film. However, these plans were stalled when the distribution company for Perfect Blue, Rex Entertainment, went bankrupt. Millennium Actress had an estimated budget of $1.2 million. The screenplay was written by Sadayuki Murai, who used a seamless connection between illusion and reality to create a "Trompe-l'œil kind of film". Millennium Actress is the first Satoshi Kon film to feature Susumu Hirasawa, whom Kon was a long-time fan of, as composer.
When producing Millennium Actress, Kon created a unique combination of both his memories and his imagination, striving to make Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue two different interpretations of the same concept; a story told from two different perspectives. His intention was to have the two films as sister films. Some have speculated that both films engage with the feminist concept of the male gaze. In Perfect Blue, the gaze is depicted as a negative, patriarchal one, but in Millennium Actress is projected in a more positive light, allowing Chiyoko to retain her identity untainted. The film also presents various references to Japanese history, including the Edo period and Manchukuo, and gives it a nostalgic aesthetic. It is seen not as a sequence of events unfolding in real time, but rather in a retrospective, lighthearted point of view.
Noted animation film distribution company GKIDS acquired the North American rights. GKIDS plans an autumn 2019 theatrical re-release in its original Japanese and a dubbed English-language version.
Commercially, the film performed modestly on its US release earning $18,732 on its opening weekend and $37,285 during its full three-week release. The film was shown almost exclusively in New York and Los Angeles and received a minimal advertising campaign from Go Fish Pictures.
Millennium Actress was favorably received by critics, gaining a 92% "fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan said of the film "as a rumination on the place movies have in our personal and collective subconscious, Millennium Actress fascinatingly goes where films have not often gone before". Kevin M. Williams of the Chicago Tribune gave the movie 4 stars and put his feelings for the film this way: "A piece of cinematic art. It’s modern day Japanese animation at its best […] It's animated, but it's human and will touch the soul of anyone who has loved deeply". In February 2004, Cinefantastique listed the anime as one of the "10 Essential Animations", stating that the it "represents a new maturity for anime, one where the technical achievements of 40 years are finally put at the full service of an emotionally rich story."
Millennium Actress received the Grand Prize in the Japan Agency of Cultural Affairs Media Arts Festival, tying with Spirited Away. Additionally, it won the awards of Best Animation Film and Fantasia Ground-Breaker at the 2001 Fantasia Film Festival. It was awarded the Feature Film Award at the 8th Animation Kobe. The movie took home the prestigious Ofuji Noburo Award at the 2002 Mainichi Film Awards, and was honored with the Orient Express Award at the 2001 Festival de Cine de Sitges in Spain. The film was nominated for four Annie Awards in 2004, including Outstanding Direction and Writing. It was also promoted by its studio as a contender for the 2003 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, but it was not nominated.
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