Monday, November 22, 2010

Millennium Actress

Dense yet graceful, Satoshi Kon’s 2001 anime masterpiece Millennium Actress bursts with sublime possibility. It is both a meditation on aging in film and the timelessness of the medium. It contemplates the power of fantasy to overwrite life even as it suggests all our stories are but our own lives in disguise. The richness of this film comes from its imaginative juxtapositions, which take us from a snowy field to the surface of the moon in a single step (that’s one small step, indeed). With a single tumble, we can fall from a samurai fight into a prison in Kyoto.

Kon blends together reality and fantasy in the story of Chiyoko, a beloved actress-turned-recluse recounting her life to Genya, a documentary interviewer and doting fan. As a young girl in the years leading up to the Second World War, she encounters an artist running from the police. The man gives her a key to hold for him, promising to meet her again the next day. But the promise goes unfulfilled, and she spends the rest of her life clutching that key and searching for the man across a millennia’s worth of film fantasies stretching from medieval Japan to the depths of space.

Yet the core of these stories remains Chiyoko’s search for that one man, uniting the disparate places and times into a single thread. This is a purely cinematic fable, one that makes full use of film’s ability to collapse thousands of miles and years into the blink of a single cut. The boundaries between reality and imagination are buried beneath the layers of stories upon stories. Kon’s game involves making Chiyoko’s memories and films interchangeable. When she pleads, “I’m sure he’s around here,” you don’t quite know if she’s speaking as a character or herself.

Kon exalts film’s capacity for truthful illusion. You can’t tell Chiyoko’s real life from her films because the distinction is irrelevant. True, she spends her life chasing a phantom, but who’s to say this robs her life of meaning? If anything, this is precisely her life’s meaning. Are we any different, those of us who have invested so much of our hearts in following the lives of these ghostly lights upon the screen?

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