Fantastic Memories: Satoshi Kon’s “Millennium Actress” & “Magnetic Rose”
Published on September 27th, 2010 | by Janna Hochberg0
“Millennium Actress” is, above all else, a film about the relationship between memory and fantasy. It is, in a way, a ghost story, the ghosts that drive one’s decisions in life. It is a film that revels in the past, honoring it and loving it, allows it to speak for itself and, most importantly, lets others speak to it. It is a pure joy, watching Chiyoko, Genya and Ida interact. In this world memories are a shared entity. There are no real flashbacks to events themselves. Instead there is an individual’s past that has become a sort of common property. The past is constantly changing, shifting and adapting with each new mind that touches it, takes something from it, and brings in something new. Each memory needs the other to sustain itself, living as long as there is someone imagining.
Chiyoko herself has long forgotten much of her experiences. When she interacts with Genya and Ida they return her key, and with its introduction and influence we see her history come back to life vividly, allowing her to visit her most cherished memories at the end of her life. On the other side of things there is Genya Tachibana, who constantly places himself into the positions of the characters he relates to in films. These characters were all protectors and constant admirers who too chase the person they love, knowing they can never touch that person, instead choosing to protect said person through time. Genya not only joins in Chiyoko’s memories, but also contributes his own. Had he decided not to contribute, the story told would not have been incomplete, merely different. Genya changes the story by adding another element; he also chooses to withhold important information so the tale is not sullied in Chiyoko’s mind.
The passage of time creates gaps and alterations in what is remembered, which makes it all the more important that Chiyoko remembers moments of her films as real. This is something the film implies mostly through her love interest and the man with the scar. Even though it obviously was never them, to her those figures will always come from the most important point in her life. The characters she played were such a large part of her life that the stories of her characters became her own. She was a ninja, a princess, and desperately needed to catch that train; these are not just things that she acted, they were her own actions, or at least remembered as such. The truth has been discarded for a memory that may be in no way related. Chiyoko’s films in and of themselves are lies. Not the historical context, or the general action, or even most of the dialogue, as Genya seems to know the films by heart. It is in their portrayal, subtle moments and purposeful character replacement that we see how every film becomes a flashback to young Chiyoko meeting her painter.
The idea of what we remember as elective is rarely dealt with outside of trauma; this is a very human trait that is rarely expressed to any real extent in film. “Millennium Actress” is a film about this from beginning to end, a fantasy designed to capture unstated truths about reality. Not to go too far into a tangent, but this is a trait that strikes a personal chord. When I was young I would discard reality and incorporate pieces of fiction into my personal canon. This is how my stuffed cat was taken away after an illness, completely ignoring how I had recently heard the tale of the Velveteen Rabbit. I realize of course that I had fabricated the memory, but to this day it remains in my mind one of my clearest memories of childhood, and in a strange way, I still miss that cat, and I remember it better than most toys I actually owned. That is the best way I can explain this film to anyone who has not seen it; it is a compilation of all of the strongest memories in a lifetime. The best and worst memories all blended together through the fictions that were the driving force of her life. And some may say that lies and illusions are ugly unwanted things, but this film proves that they can be heartbreakingly beautiful.
The subtle science fiction scene that opens the piece, moving into Genya Tachibana and Kiyoji Ida heading out to meet the woman on the screen, could not be more exciting. When Genya holds back his tears by the train, stating that he had already ‘cried 53 times at this scene’, introducing us to the incorporation of films, I was smitten with the film. By the final scene I was putting on my brave face, all the while crying into the arm of the couch. They weren’t sad tears though, not really, they were the kind of tears that appear when you know something is going to end. I was going to miss it when it is over.
Though “Perfect Blue” was his first film, “Millennium Actress” was the first to come from an original concept and it shows. Chiyoko is a strong focus for her comrades, if in different ways. Genya, the ultimate fan-boy, has reactions that varied from admiring and protecting to nearly creepy stalker. Over the top reactions decreased as the film progressed, especially after his younger self enters. His dedication is seemingly endless while Ida is more focused on the effect of her memories, the draw of them inspiring both fear and awe. Patience with Ida for the first forty minutes is a bit of a trial. His initial reactions are important, questioning the changes in the world around him, but he continues this train of thought long after we have accepted as an audience the illusion that Genya and Chiyoko immerse themselves in. Really, the only consolation received as a viewer is that the environment takes a countermeasure against him for each protest, be it a bag in the face or flaming arrows. Ida does regain composure and a place in one’s heart later in the film as he gives himself fully to the story; he chastises Genya for not “keeping up.”
Then there is the wraith, a creature of Chiyoko’s fears and imagination, often implemented as a transition device; as such she is the weakest link in the film. She is generally displayed as too much of a specter, rather than a projection of insecurities. Maybe it was just me, but there was no real subtext with the wraith, she was at times poignant, yes, but she was never really deep. This does not necessarily detract from the film as a whole. It is the awareness of time that features heavily, the changes physically, mentally. This haunts her, confronting the fact that she won’t be the girl who met the painter forever. Her decision to go into seclusion is her way of controlling her own image, making much of her interaction with the old wraith seem heavy handed. On the other hand, there is a scene after the war where Chiyoko speaks with her mother about letting go of the past. When her mother states, “you are too old for these little girl dreams” the wraith appears in the same frame the Mother is replaced by Eiko; this scene is crafted masterfully. Imbalances like these are a reflection of a first attempt at executing one’s own concept. Yet, that these are the only bits one could have qualms with, and minor ones they are, speaks volumes for the film as a whole.
For those who rarely delve into the world of animation, this film should, and does, live up to the standards of any live-action drama, and in some ways is superior in execution. Animations tend to be sort of lumped as a solid sort of ‘other’ in terms of entertainment, but the fact that this film is animated allows it to transform in new and exciting ways that would feel artificial and cold in a live-action context. Because of the nature of the format, a suspension of disbelief already exists. This allows a sort of non-reality in which the viewer is able to more easily accept large and seemingly disjointed changes that tend to pull the audience out of other films.
The shifts of, not perspective, that seems the wrong word, more of the switch of vantage points throughout the film are all so smooth that it sometimes takes a moment to register, but it never makes you take a step back. That these changes can just be accepted as a natural progression is no small feat, and the large changes, such as when we find Genya on the couch with a helmet on and Chiyoko passionately reciting her lines, are done purposefully, and to mass effect.
It is hard to find another film that properly compares to “Millennium Actress” in story or execution; the only things that are comparable are the other films of Satoshi Kon. With this said, the theme of “Millennium Actress” does seem to pull from Satoshi Kon’s first penned script. “Magnetic Rose,” one of three shorts in Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Memories,” is based on a manga by Otomo himself. Where Satoshi Kon did not direct this short he did interpret it for the screen. This film loaned a lot of itself to “Millennium Actress” in theme, if not in tone.
“Magnetic Rose” comes across more traditionally as a ghost story. An S.O.S. from the middle of a ship graveyard, secret pasts, temptations and loss frame the piece as an eerie melodrama of illusions. Where “Millennium Actress” is about the beauty memories hold, “Magnetic Rose” is a warning about the danger of their sheer power. It is, in a sense all about living in the past, and being unable to accept change, especially the kind of change that effects everything in one’s life.
There is no real villain; the singer Eva Friedel is as much a victim of her memories as those it had drawn in. Her mind is simulated, a woman who took the best of her own world and tried to preserve it, so her love could truly be everlasting. The pain in “Magnetic Rose,” why if feels so haunting is that it is also a fabrication, a delusion left of a love that was lost long before the body. This love, though deeply tied to her love of Carlo, is about much more. It was about her losing her greatest love, her own voice, which is what held her world together. For however much she loved her Carlo, she loved loving him more, and she loved him when she loved herself. She is rarely shown not singing, calling others to her through song. For the artist to loose her craft, I can’t think of anything more devastating.
The women of both films hold onto this feeling of love, drawing others to them and into their memory. The real difference is the importance of remembrance versus dwelling. Where Eva forces her will on others Chiyoko allows others to help her relive moments. For whatever feelings Chiyoko has for her painter, she loves herself and the life she lead so much more. As she says herself, “it’s the chasing after him I really love.”
As time passes memories shift and change and in many cases end up complementing and combining with one another, and sometimes there are memories that remain vivid in our minds, surrounding those less important, somehow dimmer memories, leading off to the ones we can’t really remember at all. These shifts in “Magnetic Rose” are grand, overstated holograms, a collapsing world transforming into a full bloom. In “Millennium Actress” it is through softer transitions in style. The color pallets may be attributed to the age of the film they represent, but for me the colors will always be a gauge of how much a memory stands out to Chiyoko.
It is generally accepted at this point that “Millennium Actress” portrays a stunning vision of Japan’s history of filmmaking, so much time won’t be spent talking about it. The film wasn’t about her being an actress; it was about her as an echo of each era, a falsification in and of herself by profession. She describes history in a very personal way, through war and suffering, and rebuilding. The stages of her life very intentionally echo the changes of the country and it’s history, through war and restructuring.
Instead, It seems more important to make note of Satoshi Kon’s love of cinema in general. Every film that he made during his life was in some way about the movies. Not just in the way that his films tend to feature the industry, but in the visible process.
“Millennium Actress” was actually the last of Kon’s films I saw, so I already had a casual idea of what to expect, which is to so say I couldn’t make any assumptions beyond the production value. A common thread throughout Kon’s films; what’s there is a story with a focus on the art of film itself, a celebration of film and filmmaking. It delves into the craft of it, tries to explain to the audience the beauty of it. This works now only because Satoshi Kon loves his film, which shows in every frame, but he also loves everyone else’s films. The themes he tends to explore are memory, fantasy and dreams, mostly in the form of shared experience (“Perfect Blue” being the exception, focusing instead on isolation and identity). These themes are portrayed as metaphors for the feelings of creating and viewing films. It is a rare thing to feel that a director not only respects you as a viewer, but loves you. He really wanted his audience to appreciate the beauty in the film. How gleeful Genya is as he recites his favorite lines, a dedication that comes from a love of the process as much as of the films or their protagonist. Satoshi Kon’s films seem to be a way for him to share his dreams and fantasies, and to allow those things to become our own. That is why his films succeed, and why they will always be among the most influential films of my own life.
The loss of Kon Satoshi was heartbreaking, but I’d like to believe he passed in a way similar to our beloved Chiyoko, smiling, loving every minute of his life and chasing his dreams into the beyond. As an animator myself, his works remain more than an inspiration, they are something to strive for, and a privilege to have experienced.
I tried to write about this academically, but the more I thought about this film and the more I went back and watched it the more I realized it would be impossible to write about it in any way other than personally. So forgive me any indulgences, from one film lover to another.