HCF may be one of the newest voices on the web for all things Horror and Cult, and while our aim is to bring you our best opinion of all the new and strange that hits the market, we still can not forget about our old loves, the films that made us want to create the website to spread the word. So, now and again our official critics at the HCF headquarters have an urge to throw aside their new required copies of the week and dust down their old collection and bring them to the fore….our aim, to make sure that you may have not missed the films that should be stood proud in your collection. This week, Dr Lenera presents, as a double bill, two particularly crazy examples of Japanese animation!
HCF REWIND NO.25. MILLENNIUM ACTRESS AKA SENNON JOYU 
AVAILABLE ON DVD and Blu Ray
DIRECTED BY:Satoshi Kon
WRITTEN BY:Satoshi Kon, Sadoyuki Murai
VOICES:Miyoko Shoji, Manni Koyame, Fumiko Orikasa, Shozo Izuka
RUNNING TIME:86 mins
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Genya Tachibana is a director working on a documentary about a famous actress called Chiyoko Fujiwara, who is now seventy years old and has withdrawn from public life. Accompanied by Kjoji Ida his cameraman, he travels to her house where, after some coaxing, she begins to tell her life story, into which Genya and Kjoji are propelled, so they both film and experience Chiyoko’s life. She is born into a poor family and as a teenager helps a dissident artist escape from the military. She falls in love with him and finds that he has left behind a key to his suitcase. She is cursed by an old woman who says she is doomed to unsuccessfully love someone for a thousand years, and Chiyoko begins a never ending journey through various lands and times, in pursuit of her beloved…………..
While Origin is many ways an anime along fairly conventional lines, Millennium Actress is something very different and quite extraordinary indeed. It’s stunningly imaginative and extremely daring in its story telling, while never losing sight of its heart. It continually blurs fantasy and reality in a way not enough films in my opinion do, but be warned. This is the kind of film where you hardly ever know what is real, the kind of film where a character can travel from one location or time period to another location or time period in a few minutes or even sometimes in a few seconds. If you expect things to make sense, then Millennium Actress isn’t for you, but if you fancy something really strange and unusual, then check it out. Perhaps one of the main reasons it isn’t as well as I believe it ought to be, is that it came out the same year as Hayo Miyazaki’s wondrous Spirited Away, which seemed to overshadow it considerably, though I think both movies are equally striking and superb examples of what the animated film can do. Millennium Actress was directed by Satoshi Kon, who had just had success with Perfect Blue, and was loosely based on the actress Setsuko Hara, who was a big star for decades then became a recluse and people wondered why. The film was released in Japan theatrically and even gained minor distribution in the US, where it is said the few cinemas showing it were packed, which beggars the question of why it didn’t get a bigger release?
At first, it seems that what we have here is basically a slightly weird telling of an actress’s life, the weird element coming from the director and cameraman who are pulled into Chiyoko’s tale and film it. The first part details her childhood, but then we are transported into Medieval Japan, and it becomes obvious that Genya and Kjoji are in one of Chiyoko’s films. The sheer gall of this is astounding, and it continues as we travel partially through history and partially through Chiyoko’s film career. One especially audacious sequence has Chiyoko ride on increasingly modern forms of transport as backgrounds change and we pass through several centuries. We even have a sequence on the Moon, but all this stuff wouldn’t succeed so well if it wasn’t for the emotional core at the film’s centre. Perhaps Chiyoko’s life time, century-spanning pursuit of someone she has only met fleetingly is a little hard to understand, but I think it’s more an illustration of how hope is one of the major things that keeps us alive and how a destination is often less important than a journey. I was initially disappointed with the way the story ended, but after a couple of day’s thought, I wouldn’t want it any other way, and another major theme of the movie seems to be how so many of us fail to say the things we should.
The film is filled with allusions and suggestions, things to make you think about. Is Chiyoko’s life somehow related to earthquakes? Is the strange old lady who curses Chiyoko possibly Chiyoko herself, thinking back to the past and mourning her lost youth? Was it a blessing rather than a curse, as she accomplished a huge amount in her life? Is the unnamed artist more a symbol of the ideal to which we strive for than an actual romantic figure? Millennium Actress, while extremely bittersweet, is not heavy or depressing though; on the contrary; despite the general downbeat nature of its story, it exhibits a surprisingly light touch throughout. I especially loved the ways in which Genya is caught up in the many events, constantly becoming different characters who all devote themselves to Chiyoko, and Kjoji’s comments are often hilarious. The animation throughout is fantastic, often changing styles and colour palettes, and sometimes truly beautiful when it replicates varying kinds of Japanese art. Sometimes actual photographs seem to be being used, sometimes it feels like we are looking at Japanese woodblocks, sometimes it looks like we are in an Akira Kurosawa samurai movie. Honestly, the diversity is very striking, but the film knows the power of subtlety too, such as the way sometimes a simple change in lighting indicates a time change.
Susumu Hirosawa’s electronic score is a little grating at times, and there are times when the film rushes by so fast you cry out for it to slow down [ despite this not being an action film, it has the pace of one]. Generally though, this is the best animated film I’ve seen in a long time, and one of the best actual films too. Works like this remind one of what animation can do, and make us realise how unimaginative and restrictive so many animated films are, but one can say the same about films full stop. I was certainly reminded of other several films whilst watching Millennium Actress, including Titanic and Orlando [and that’s a bizarre combination for a start!], but overall it’s a total original and I still can’t stop thinking about it, its incredible images, its ideas and its themes, which are universal ones all of us can probably relate to and came through loud and clear despite the fantastical nature of much of what I was watching. I have a feeling you’ll be reading a more detailed review of this movie from me in a year or so, after I’ve watched it a few more times as well as checked out all of Kon’s other work. Wow!