With anime great Satoshi Kon’s death at the age of 46 in August last year, a gaping void was left in the world of animation. He may not be the Walt Disney of western animation, or the Miyazaki of Japanese animation, but the genius of the man is unquestionable. When I first watched Millennium Actress, I was blown away by its depth and poeticism. With Kon’s death, I’ve come to realise how we’d come to take his great talent for granted. There is now such an emptiness in the anime world that it is impossible to fill.
This is a post discussing various symbols and motifs used in the film. There are bound to be spoilers for those who have not watched it. You might want to avoid this post in case you are yet to watch the film. If you are interested in the movie from an academic point of view or are looking to discuss it further, this post has some questions and answers that might be of interest.
Millennium Actress or Sennen Joyû (in its native language Japanese) is not a simple film to narrate. Considering that director Satoshi Kon actually fabricated the theme while working on the animation explains why this movie is so fresh and new in terms of approach to the medium and the subject.
The story follows the life of a celebrity sensation by the name of Chiyoko Fujiwara. While the famous studios that thrust her to fame are being torn down, a filmmaker, Genya Tachibana decides to make a documentary on her life. He goes to visit her in order to interview her and tells her that he has something to give to her. She is now an old and frail woman living in isolation but she decides to throw light on her life this one time. Tachibana hands her a box which she opens. She finds a key. As she describes it, the key is “the key to the most important thing there is.” We are then flung into Chiyoko’s past.
As a teenager, Chiyoko is approached by a casting agent who wants her to act in a movie set in Manchuria. However, Chiyoko’s mother declines the offer. An enraged and frustrated Chiyoko vents out her anger by throwing snowballs at the wall. As she runs, she bumps into an unknown man carrying a canvas. He hides from the police who are pursuing him. Chiyoko leads the police astray and shelters the unknown man and ultimately falls in love with him. She spends only one night talking to him, where it becomes evident that he is a painter but according to the police is an ‘anti government rebel’. He tells her that he is on his way to Manchuria to help his friends fight.
She looks at a key around his neck and wonders what it is the key to, telling him to let her guess until the next morning. However, the following day, Chiyoko finds the key lying in the snow with blood on the ribbon attached to it. She runs to where she had sheltered him only to discover that he has fled and that the police are pursuing him. She runs to the train station, unable to return him the key. There she makes a promise that she will follow him until they meet again.
Knowing that he might have gone to Manchuria, Chiyoko decides to join the movies so that she can go there. She accepts the offer to act in the movie set in Manchuria so that they may see him there.
From there on, the movie picks up pace and shifts from reality to cinema. Kon’s technique (which he usually incorporated into his other movies) has been used here too. The dividing line between reality and cinema is blurred. While at one point in time we are watching Chiyoko’s life in a flashback sequence, we discover that the sequence is also one of her movies. Chiyoko follows the unknown man through different genres and eras.
WHAT THE EYE DOESN’T SEE
Millennium Actress is a movie full of symbols and signs and metaphors. Indeed, the movie completely rests on these aspects. From beginning to end the flashbacks incorporated, the movement of characters through real and imaginative time and space become increasingly important to the overall theme. The director has left scope for various interpretations. This is what makes Millennium Actress very different from any other normal movie.
The movie’s strength lies in its seamless transitions between reality and fiction. As Fujiwara Chiyoko narrates her life story to Tachibana, Tachibana and his assistant are taken through her life as spectators. The flashbacks are literally ‘watched’ by them. They even participate in her flashbacks sometimes. Though their participation in her flashbacks is quite a common thing – especially during the later flashbacks, this has only been used for comic effect. The viewer then knows that he is watching her real life. This however becomes even more uncertain as real life starts merging with her movies. Tachibana and his assistant are suddenly thrust from her real life to her reel life (done seamlessly and smoothly by Kon) without even being aware of it. Similarly the audience goes through the very same confusion.
Millennium Actress is packed with symbols. These play an important role in explaining the characters, the theme, the reasons for why things happen the way they do. There are symbols throughout the movie but there are some that are more prominent than others.
“Usually the earth has to move for her to see anyone”
When Tachibana says he has to meet Chiyoko so that he can give her something, the caretaker of Chiyoko’s house says that the ‘earth has to move’ for Chiyoko to allow anyone to meet her. Though this simple statement seems rather matter-of-fact, it is actually more profound. In the literal sense, it refers to earthquakes when the ground shakes.
In the beginning of the movie, when the famous studio that thrust Chiyoko to fame is actually being torn down, Tachibana is watching old movies of Chiyoko. Suddenly a huge earthquake takes place and the ground begins to shake. This is when Tachibana decides to actually make a documentary on Fujiwara Chiyoko. So when the caretaker states that, the earth has literally moved for Chiyoko to allow Tachibana to interview her. Similarly when Tachibana hands Chiyoko a key, Chiyoko opens the box. She then touches it and there is another earthquake, almost as though there is an unstoppable tremor in her heart, or like old feelings have been unearthed again.
This is when Chiyoko starts telling Tachibana that her life has been linked to earthquakes. She was born during one. Her father died in it and it was almost as if his life had been traded for hers. So indeed, the first earthquake in her life was what brought her into the planet.
The pivotal scene where Chiyoko is shooting a movie where she goes to space in search of her beloved in the studio, an earthquake occurs. She is sheltered by young Tachibana who was a minor crew member in the unit. Though she is saved from the earthquake, this is the point where she leaves movies altogether. This is also where she forgets her key behind and Tachibana finds it.
Towards the end of the movie, Chiyoko explains to Tachibana why she had stayed away from movies. When she explains this, a huge earthquake takes place and though Tachibana is able to shelter Chiyoko from a falling frame hanging from the ceiling, she becomes hospitalised, where she finally breathes her last. Therefore the last earthquake of her life is the one that claims her life.
On a symbolic level, the earthquake depicts the turning point for something. It becomes the birth of Chiyoko, it becomes her death, it becomes the reason for her leaving movies and leaving the key she’s been holding on for all her life, it becomes the reason she decides to talk about her life to a documentary filmmaker. It also can be said to represent the tremor in her heart, almost as though the earthquake is the beating of her heart.
“The key to the most important thing there is”
Tachibana hands a key to Chiyoko a few minutes after the movie starts. As viewers, we have absolutely no idea what it is the key to or who it belongs to or why it is so important. However, our doubts increase furthermore when Chiyoko very vaguely states that it is “the key to the most important thing there is.” The moment she touches it, there is an earthquake. That furthermore emphasises that the key has a significant role to play in the story. This mystery surrounding the origin and utility of the key is what draws the viewers into the story.
After a casting agent approaches Chiyoko to act in a movie for Japanese soldiers, Chiyoko’s mother turns the offer down, calling it a ‘dubious’ profession. Angry and frustrated, the teenage Chiyoko runs out of her house, bumps into a man and falls down. He apologises to her and stretches out his hand to pick her up. They share a moment of introspection, a silent stare at each other for a second or so. Then he is pursued by police and he runs off into a wood. The police ask Chiyoko if she has seen a rebel carrying a canvas. She deliberately points them the wrong way and goes to the man and decides to shelter him. While Chiyoko does this, she discovers that he is actually a painter. He hangs a key around his neck. She looks at it and asks him what it is. He says “the key to the most important thing there is.” She tells him to give her till morning to let her guess what it is. However when she returns from school to meet him, she finds a small trail of blood, and the key on a ribbon lying in the snow. She runs to where she had sheltered him. She finds people and police surrounding that area and she is told by her father’s associate that he let the man escape and that he is currently heading for the train station. This is where Chiyoko runs after him, misses the train and promises to follow him forever.
The key becomes her key to many things, symbolically and literally. It becomes the reason she joins movies. The man she saved had told her that he would be going to Manchuria to fight with his friends. She joins the movies because the agent who had previously approached her had mentioned that the movie she would be cast in would be set in Manchuria. In the hopes of meeting him and returning the key to him, Chiyoko joins the movies.
When Chiyoko leaves her shoot to go and search for the same man, bandits stop the train. Chiyoko bangs against the door of the train to go out but she is unable to. The moment the key hangs out of her neck, the door suddenly flings open.
In a scene where Chiyoko is trying to find her lover, the rebel samurai, that the police are chasing (in another of her movies), she bumps into the same man again. She offers him the key but he tells her to keep it until their next meeting. Perhaps he does not want to take the key back because symbolically the key represents their spiritual bond. He wants her to safeguard it so that he may see her again.
Later in the movie, when the viewers are seeing a part of her flashback that is both her life and a movie, there is a moment when Chiyoko is let out of jail because the police say they have found the rebel they were hunting. When she sees them taking him inside a room, she runs after them pleading them to stop. The doors are shut upon her. She again bangs them and in a similar manner, the moment the key hangs out, the door flings open. Essentially the key becomes her entrance to a lot of places without ever being turned.
In another scene, the son of the producer of Chiyoko’s movies who later becomes a director himself, approaches Chiyoko and tries to win her love. He says that a director is like an artist and that he had found the perfect colour for his canvas, which was Chiyoko. She is almost taken in, and lets him hold her hand, but the key again hangs out from her neck and clinks against her wine glass. She then realises that her dreams belong with someone else and she runs off.
There is a particular scene when Chiyoko is in her 30s. She is shooting a scene and is not able to act out her part properly just because her mother tells her that the man she is going after might actually be dead by now and that she needs to get married. She takes a break from the scene only to realise that her beloved key is missing. She searches the world over but it unable to find it. As the story moves back to present time, Tachibana asks her if that is when she got married. She says that was when she realised that she was way too old for dreams. She married the director of her movie. The story moves back to flashback once more where Chiyoko is cleaning her home. She hits her duster against a box and a pile of books. When they fall, the box opens and the same key is revealed. She holds it up for her husband to see, questioning him. She discovers that her husband had asked her rival, another famous actress to steal the key. Chiyoko is devastated. She leaves her husband and pursues the man once more.
The space shuttle scene where Chiyoko loses her key is the defining moment of the movie. She leaves the key behind, she leaves the movies and she leaves the pursuit of that man for a solitary life.
Also, when Chiyoko is lying on her deathbed, she tells Tachibana “thanks to you, I now have the key” and therefore she will be able to pursue him once more even after death. She says that this time she will surely find him.
We never really get to know what the key opens or why the man was carrying it in the first place, but it becomes one of the most enduring symbols in the movie and forms the basis for the events that take place.
Often described as Satoshi Kon’s crowning masterpiece that is ‘poetic’ in its approach, Millennium Actress is full of underlying meanings that can never really be analysed in a particular manner. Because of its abstractness as well as poeticism, it can only be analysed through different interpretations, thus allowing a deeper experience of the movie as a work of art.
With such poetic beauty coming to the forefront with such a lovely piece of art, it is painful to think that Kon has left the world, leaving behind a limited number of films, yet an enduring legacy.
I think the themes, the mesmerising soundtrack by Susumu Hirasawa, and the film’s poetic beauty really makes this work of art one of my favourite movies of all time.
I can’t bear to think that Satoshi Kon is gone. Before the man of indefinite genius and talent finally succumbed to prostrate cancer, he wrote a very heartbreaking letter to his friends and fans.
These were his last words on paper:
With my heart full of gratitude for everything good in the world, I’ll put down my pen.
Now excuse me, I have to go.