What They Say:
A movie studio is being torn down. TV interviewer Genya Tachibana has tracked down its most famous star, Chiyoko Fujiwara, who has been a recluse since she left acting some 30 years ago. Tachibana delivers a key to her, and it causes her to reflect on her career; as she’s telling the story, Tachibana and Kyoji Ida, his long-suffering cameraman are drawn in. The key was given to her as a teenager by a painter and revolutionary that she helped to escape the police. She becomes an actress because it will make it possible to track him down, and she spends the next several decades acting out that search in various genres and eras.
The audio presentation for this release is pretty straightforward as we get the original Japanese language only. At the time when the bigger studios got involved with anime, it was hit or miss as to whether they’d dub it or not and DreamWorks, in particular, was bad in this area. The Japanese 5.1 mix is pretty solid all around and I rather enjoyed just how subtly crafted much of it is. While it does have a fair number of big bang for your buck sequences, it’s the much softer and subtler moments that really shine here as we get immersed into the story being told. This is a great mix and really helped build up the overall mood of the film.
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and enhanced for anamorphic playback, this transfer is simply gorgeous. Like most of the theatrical anime that gets truly known, the animation is done up in as close to a real-world style as possible but combined with the movie magic aspect of the film, colors and vibrancy are all over the map here. Colors are rich and solid, cross coloration is non-existent and there was just one scene where some aliasing became noticeable. This transfer was just such a treat to take in and enjoy.
The cover art is a bit subdued for this release, with a nice image of Chiyoko when she’s young and wearing her kimono set against pictures of her from her various films. The back cover gives a brief rundown of the shows premise and mentions other similar films for those not familiar with anime. A few images from the show are included as well. Unfortunately, the listed extras for the release are misleading. If you knew that the Japanese release had an audio commentary, the phrasing on the back here would make you think it’s here too. The standard grid of technical information is nicely listed at the bottom and apparently like a number of recent releases, there is no insert included.
The menu is a nice piece that has some animation from the show looping in part of the background while the area that holds the selections has a nice collage of images of Chiyoko from different times in her life. Submenus load nice and quickly and access times are fast – both pieces useful considering how poorly done the setup menu is done. When you go in and choose either a language or a subtitle, it boots you back out to the menu. Add to the fact that you can keep selecting what’s already selected and it’s just not that well designed.
While there’s the US theatrical trailer here, the real extra is in the form of the 40-minute interview and commentary piece. This was originally in the Japanese release but was not subtitled, so finally getting to understand what’s being said is a plus. This is a really good extra as it goes into the creative process with Kon, Maki, and many other people involved, talking about what lead to various inspirations and the different kinds of luck they had in making such a film. My only disappointment with the extras is that the audio commentary by Kon and Murai was not included and translated, as that would have made this a perfect release.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
The story of Chiyoko Millennium Actress is both simple and complex. The film opens up with the slow moving moments of a science fiction movie, showing a young woman who is going into space because she must. As we watch this and pan out of the film into the real world, we become introduced to Genya Tachibana. Genya’s a bit older than he looks, but he’s also something of a big man in general with his frame and tightly trimmed beard. Alongside the very slim and gangly cameraman of his, the young Ida, Genya looks like a bear of a man. But this man has had a long time fascination with the actress in that movie, Chiyoko Fujiwara.
It’s been some thirty years since she last filmed, and as the studio where she did all her movies is now being torn down, Genya is intent on finally having her story told to the world in a documentary. She’s all but disappeared since then, but he managed to find a way to not only meet her but to get her to talk about her life. With a bit of a struggle, Genya and Ida end up in her secluded little home in the countryside and he’s able to present her with a very small black box. While this woman, now in her 80’s but still very much the vestige of her cinema days, shows no emotion over the revelation of a simple key in the box, it’s arrival in her life has immense consequences.
From here, the film takes on an amazing quality, something I’m not quite sure I’ve ever seen before, especially in such a way as this. With the key in hand, Chiyoko becomes quite willing to talk about her past, from her birth in 1923 to the beginning stages of her acting career and how her mother was dead set against it. We see her stumble across an artist on the run from the law, and watch as this young schoolgirl hides him away and tries to take care of him before he heads off to Manchuria to try and help his friends there. In this young schoolgirls eye, we see the blossoming of a strange youthful love that will ultimately consume her.
What makes the presentation of Chiyoko’s past so different is that as she tells it, she ends up reliving it all herself, often with most of it playing out from the movies she was in. The key scenes from the films she made over the next twenty-five years or so provides the backdrop of her searching for this mysterious love of hers while trying to deal with the day-to-day realities of life, acting and others who are in love with her. But it’s almost always coming back to her continuing search for the mysterious man. And in an effort to provide some kind of external reference for the various films we travel through, Genya and Ida end up becoming so wrapped up in her storytelling that they see things through the films as well. Amusingly, Ida can’t believe it as it goes along, yet continues filming, while Genya becomes just as wrapped up in it and ends up taking on roles throughout the films, most often as a protector of Chiyoko.
There are real life moments interwoven throughout the tale, such as when she travels by train through Manchuria only to have it then shift to a feudal period in Japan where she takes on the role of a princess. The back and forth layering of the film is so seamless at times that you begin to forget which one is “reality” and which one is the “film”. Such craftsmanship is very hard to accomplish in any kind of filmmaking, but Kon and his crew have pulled it off masterfully here. The film manages to go through a variety of films and genres, from feudal to post war and to science fiction, without any problems all while letting you see how she was outside of the films as well.
With it’s 87-minute running time, Millennium Actress is very tightly written but also allows a good number of moments to allow characters to reflect on their situation. These moments also tend to bring characters from the past to the present as they’ve aged and changed, and the quite moments give us a chance to put the pieces together from earlier “film” moments and realize just what they were saying there and how it affected her life. In a way, it’s very hard to describe it, but playing out visually, it’s just an amazing piece of filmmaking.
Once Chiyoko began to weave her story, I found myself on edge for pretty much the remainder of the film, wanting to see where it would go next and how her chase would play out. This is a movie with a very deep and warm heart to it, something that may leave a profound impact once it’s been fully absorbed. Knowing little about the film going into it, I had some vague fear of Satoshi Kon simply reworking his already wonderfully executed Perfect Blue script into something slightly different, but still trying to hold onto that success. Instead, he’s done something wildly different yet kept the key ingredients that made it work. Millennium Actress is an amazing piece of work and is a gem in my collection that I wish more people were able to easily share and enjoy in.
Japanese 5.1 Language, Japanese 2.0 Language English Subtitles
Content Grade: A
Audio Grade: B+
Video Grade: B+
Packaging Grade: B
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: B+
Released By: DreamWorks
Release Date: October 28th, 2003
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.