2016 gave me a fairly diverse series of Secret Santa titles: Electromagnetic Girlfriend, Millennial Actress, and Strike the Blood. This year I went with Millennial Actress. As always I will try to watch and review all three shows but I never make that promise. I have seen the price of hubris from previous participants and I learned to not over promise on what I can deliver especially around the holidays.
Theoretically, the risky choice is Strike the Blood. At the same time, Strike the Blood seems the most middle of the road show. I remember the show coming out but I have no real recollection of the anime beyond that. I can’t really think of anyone who really loves the show or hates it. I am curious what about the show made my Secret Santa think I would like it but I figured it would make a good third choice if I have the time.
Electromagnetic Girlfriend is a complete unknown to me. At first, I thought someone was asking me to watch Ground Control to Psychoelectric Girl (aka Electromagnetic Wave Woman and Adolescent Man) but this turns out to be a different show. The mystery element is rather intriguing. I’m really going to try my hardest to also do a review of this one if I can.
I finally broke the seal on one of my safety movies. Since I started the Secret Santa Project I have deliberately not watched a few movies so that people have things to recommend me. I have owned Millennial Actress and Tokyo Godfathers but I have not watched them so I could hopefully watch them during a year where my choices were dire. As the years have gone by I built up a large list of titles I have not seen but probably should get around to watching. So I figured it was time to finally watch a masterpiece for once.
When Ginei Studios closes Genya Tachibana gets an exclusive interview with the actress Chiyoko Fujiwara who has been a recluse for thirty years. After Genya gives her a key she lost she tells him the story of her rise in falls as an actress in the shadow of WWII. As she tells her story the line between her life and her films blurs as Genya and his cameraman get draw into her tale of her mysterious revolutionary artist she has chased her whole life. Why did Chiyoko leave acting and what is the significance of the mysterious key?
At this point is it really worth doing a normal review of a Satoshi Kon movie? Satoshi Kon is one of the few directors who has an almost universal critical praise. Even directors like Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii, and Katsuhiro Otomo who are generally considered some of the best directors have failures, deeply flawed works, and divisive films. It is not that Satoshi Kon was a perfect director. Most people have works from him that they enjoy more than others. He also has a fairly distinct style with some themes he really likes to touch on in all of his stories so if one of his films is not your cup tea than there is a distinct chance none of his filmography is going to click with you. But he is arguably one of the few directors whose work is almost universally beloved. He even receives praise from critics outside of animation fans. At this point is seems more notable to mention if you don’t like a Satoshi Kon and then eloquently explain why because that has the potential to be more enlightening than another review that praises his work.
That said there it is easy to heap praise on the movie. It is a well-choreographed feast for the eyes that has all of the styles you expect from Satoshi Kon. It also has the added benefit of being able to mix the visuals of several different genres despite being a historical drama set during one lifetime. You have pieces of a ninja drama, science fiction romance, Bakumatsu adventure, and yokai tale all being parts of the story alongside the main tale set around the events around the Second World War. This makes what would otherwise be a solid historical drama take on a fantastical visual element that justifies why this is far more suited to being an anime than any other medium.
At the same time, the additional visual elements allowed the layered storytelling that is another hallmark of a Satoshi Kon movie. This allows the movie to have a grand theme while each of the separate thematic messages without sacrificing the main message. It also allows for a greater meta-commentary on the relationship between films, actors, and the audience. And of course, it touches on the general theme of the blurring of the lines between reality and dreams because it’s not really a Satoshi Kon movie if he does not at least touch on that concept. This lets Millennium Actress simultaneously be fairly straightforward if you just want to sit back and relax but leaves a layers puzzle box for anyone wanting to do a deep dive.
It is those various layers that are the most interesting thing to talk about when discussing Millennium Actress. Because it has several layers what pops out to someone writing about the movie is probably where you’re going to get the most insightful pieces on the movie and where you will see things you did not already see on your first viewing. There is the straightforward tale of a young man chasing after a mysterious revolutionary painter and her quest to return a key to him. But each piece tells its own little thematic story that adds to Chiyoko’s story while also being able to be its own little world. Each movie it both the microcosm that Chiyoko makes it and yet they are all pieces of the tapestry that are her career.
Just the main story of Genya and Chiyoko deals with several major ideas. The concepts of films in general, time, audience immersion, an actor losing themselves in their films, and the sweet but poisonous joy of losing self-delusion are all easy themes to see on the surface. There is also a deeper theme of passion, love, romance, lust, obsession and how all of them are different ways of viewing something but never mutually exclusive. The fact that chasing after someone and being with someone are two vastly different things and the great difference between the dream of a person and the truth of who they are. There is a look at jealousy and what women give up for love.
The most interesting part of the story is the very subtle criticism of the Japanese government treatment of its own citizens during World War II. It is never anything that gets a character making a big speech which lays out the sins of the government. But if your pay attention the message is clear. Look at the zealous almost Javert-like fanaticism as the Man with the Scar chases his Jean Valjean in Man with the Key. When the Man with the Scar shows up in the present Satoshi Kon’s message is complete. The Man with the Scar’s life becomes a walking billboard to Satoshi Kon’s condemnation of how the Japanese government acted.
The thing is I have left out half a dozen different themes and layers the film has. As it stands any of the themes I did mention could be a whole article or even a paper within itself. Chiyoko is a world of papers, interpretations, and messages within herself. Genya alone and then how he interacts with Chiyoko adds the second axis. The Man with the Key and the rest of the cast makes the film fully three-dimensional. Millennium Actress can be examined with breadth, width, and depth in a multitude of ways.
That is probably the best endorsement of the film I can give. It is a film you can watch a dozen different times and take away a dozen different feelings. Each time you don’t even have to see something new, although you often probably will, but the richness of its construction allows it to have that complexity. If that does not make a film a masterpiece I don’t know what does.