Kon’s magnificent debut Perfect Blue used animation to project the audience into the troubled psychological hinterlands of a woman who is attempting to reinvent herself as a serious actress. Kon’s second film, Millennium Actress uses a similar set of themes and techniques but rather than focussing on the painful process of becoming an actress, the film looks back over the life and career of a woman who managed to become precisely what the world of film required of her.
Millennium Actress opens on a director and cameraman making their sweaty way up a large hill. At the top of the hill is a house. Inside the house is a reclusive and long-retired actress based upon the legendary Setsuko Hara (who unexpectedly retired in the same year that the director Yasujiro Ozu died). Once the actress begins talking, Kon removes us from reality and positions us alongside the camera crew inside the woman’s memory. However, as the actress speaks, the world of the film shifts from memories of her childhood to memories of her life on set as a child actress and finally to memories of the roles she played on films. “What are we shooting?” asks the cameraman as samurai clash; cities burn and youthful actresses wring their hands in melodramatic lamentations. Good question.
Initially, Millennium Actress feels like a journey into senility. Ronald Reagan reportedly confused the things he had done on film with the things he had done in reality and the film’s movement between memories of making films and memories of film suggests a similar form of confusion. However, as the film progresses and the boundaries between films begin to dissolve, a pattern begins to emerge: each of the actress’s roles drew upon the realities of her life at the time of filming. Thus, by revisiting each of the roles the actress played, the camera crew are witnesses to the emotional beats of the actresses’ life. The further the film progresses, the older the actress becomes, the quicker she ages and the more her life comes to resemble a head long rush towards the grave. While the film’s opening acts sometimes feel like an elaborate but hollow technical exercise, the conclusion weaves all of these disconnected threads into the magnificent tapestry of a life in film.
Much like Paul Schrader’s biopic Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Millennium Actress explores not only the importance of the creative process in the lives of creative people, but also the way in which these very public displays of emotion forge a bond between the audience and the artist. Kon brilliantly explores the nature of this relationship by having the director insert himself into the memories of the actress in order to serve as her protector and guardian of the sacred flame. Aside from keeping the actress’s flights of fantasy on track, the director also directs her attention to the areas of her life that he finds most interesting suggesting that, far from being passive, fans can have a good deal of control over the lives of their idols.
Though undeniably a touching tribute to the enduring power of film, Kon’s film suggests that the relationship between performer and audience is actually a good deal more complex and problematic than we might otherwise believe. Indeed, despite being a central figure in the lives of millions of people, the actress never quite got to live her own life on her own terms. Great emotions flowed through her and back towards her but they never really belonged to her… they were never entirely private… never entirely personal.
In a sense, Millennium Actress is the perfect response to Perfect Blue as it answers that film’s un-posed question: Why would someone want to put themselves through the dehumanising and humiliating process of becoming an actor? Because to be is to be perceived and to feel is to be felt.