Millennium Actress (2001)

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At some point, I sort of stopped watching most movie trailers. I didn’t do this intentionally. It developed out of habit: I’m always running like 15 minutes late, even when going to see a movie in theaters, so I miss previews almost entirely, and I don’t spend much time looking for new trailers online. And as a personal preference, I don’t read much about a film before I see it. Afterward, I’ll try to read as many different perspectives as I can find, but before going into a movie, I’m usually aware of its title, maybe some cast and crew, and a few headlines’ worth of story and general critical reception. Blockbuster releases are the exceptions to this practice, as I like to read everything I can find about them in advance so that I might complain better later.

Sometimes I wonder if this is actually a worthwhile habit, though, because even the absence of knowledge can lead to some unhelpful preconceptions when going into a movie. I’m perpetually surprised by the kinds of movies that win Oscars after I watch them, for example, and it’s totally my own fault. I’m always expecting some sort of formal experimentation or weirdness – I don’t really know why – and when I see rave reviews and nominations roll in, I think, wow, here we go! This is the one! It usually isn’t. As a result, I’m viewing these movies in a more ungenerous light than I might have otherwise if I’d just read a review before watching the thing.

But every once in a while I will watch something, oblivious as usual, and be surprised in such a genuine way that it seems to make all of those other, more deflating experiences worth it. This was the case with the late Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress, which I had honestly never heard of until last week, when Paramount posted it to one of their official YouTube channels. This news was shared by enough people that it eventually crossed one of my feeds, so I decided to click play despite not having done any research into what I was signing up for.

The benefit here was that I had no idea I was about to watch something that is legitimately rare in its level of technical and narrative achievement. It experiments with traditional cinematic conceits in order to tell a story that would have a fundamentally different effect in any other medium. I watched this for free on YouTube.

Millennium Actress follows a filmmaking duo who are creating a documentary about the life of a famous actress, now retired, who began her career in the early 20th century. Her career includes both contemporary works and period dramas from throughout Japanese history. As she tells her story, distinctions between past/present and film/reality dissipate, and Kon takes tremendous advantage of the medium of animation to argue for the porousness of those borders.

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And so, through its consistent and audacious visual choices, Millennium Actress becomes a film about memory and history as narrative, and the emotional effect is probably irreplicable through text. Kon develops characters in specific contexts only to shift them later into other time periods and situations without any gesture toward exposition, constructing an idiosyncratic visual language that resonates emotionally before any analysis begins. The film overflows with images that make almost no logistical sense but abound with sentiment. Its representation of memory is as honest as it is unique. There is a bit of an adjustment period while watching, and what it’s attempting to do might not be immediately apparent. After that adjustment, though, the emotional character of memory that it pursues is remarkably recognizable; it is felt vividly even if it cannot be explained.

Kon recognizes the gravitational pull of our most sacred memories – of ambition, of love, of relationships lost and found – and how so much of our recollection tends to revolve in their orbit. Certainties of who and when and where can, eventually, lose their relevance, and the stories we tell of ourselves, our lives, and our countries, for better or worse, are as much about feeling as they are about fact. It’s almost as effective as Savage Garden’s “I Knew I Loved You.”

Much like that tune, Millennium Actress is a gorgeous and distinctive work, bold in its ambitions and formal considerations.

If you’ve read this but haven’t seen the film, then I’ve already compromised your ability to watch it without preconception. I’m sorry. You should watch it anyway. Millennium Actress is available, for free, totally legally, here.

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