While pondering more about what to watch rather than actually watching any film, as we scroll through the endless sea of content put out in our Netflix library, drool dripping from my mouth with one hand eternally raised with the ‘ bhater graash’ (handful of rice) on my way to my open mouth and y other hand just scrolling through the options. Content is rampant, and so is the dilemma. So I finished my Kon saga and watched the final piece I had not yet. ‘Millennium Actress’, the second film by the late Santoshi Kon, a Japanese icon of cinema. After his debut with the much ahead of its time ‘Perfect Blue’, released in 1997, with its theme of cybercrimes and the rise of the internet, idol and camera personas and loss of identity and self. Kon, in his brief lifetime has only made 4 films and one series, all distinct from each other, but all distinctly Kon with his signature art style and his notable blurring of dream, fiction and reality. But I would say Kon’s most fantastic touch is, his blurring of the lines doesn’t necessarily indicate solving a puzzle, he takes you along in his journey of abstract-icising the urban psyche to come to his overarching message.

And that is what he does with Millennium Actress as well, his love letter to cinema and in my opinion, why he does cinema. Released in 2001, Millennium Actress is loosely based on the lives of the actresses Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine. The film follows the journey of two documentary makers, Genya Tachibana and his cameraman Kyoji Ida following along (quite literally) the legendary, 70-year-old retired actress Chiyoko Fujiwara’s life story. It is essentially, and even more literally under Kon’s storytelling, films within a feature film. Genya is a diehard fan of Chiyoko, as the film opens with him rewatching one of Chiyoko’s hits where she plays the part of an astronaut and she takes off in flight in search of ‘him’. As the rocket engines gear on and the ship shakes with turbulence, so does real life and an earthquake interrupts Genya’s fascination. A montage follows and proceeds them to the retired actresses’ home, in a secluded hill, surrounded presumably by a film set, on the process of being taken down. Kon is brilliant at setting the tone for the film, cutting sharply with the humour when it gets too dramatic, but the dramatic, theatrical moments (literally and metaphorically) draw you in and make you believe in the ‘actors’ sentiments. Kyoji serves as the insert for the audience, bamboozled as to when the camera suddenly travelled back into time, its lens focused on the young Chiyoko instead of the old, in a war-torn Japan and offering moments of stark humour with his dramatized expressions and one liners within scenes of intense drama. Genya begins the interview with offering Chiyoko a key, something she remarks she put away a long time ago, something she had left behind and Genya had found. A mini earthquake happens as she opens the box obtaining the key and she reinstates that she was born during the earthquake of 1923, her father dead at what she felt at the expense of her own life. She eventually gets an offer to act in films by the managing director of Ginei studio. Starry eyed and naive school student enthralled with women’s magazines and in hopes of finding a prince, Chiyoko storms out of her home dejected and frustrated with her mother’s disapproval of the profession and best believes for her daughter to settle down with a man and take charge of the family shop; even as the director tries to persuade that the film will take place in Manchuria and give some motivation to the soldiers fighting there and Chiyoko would serve the nation! Her mother shuts it down with the singular rigid mindset of bearing children for the nation as a greater act of service.

Throwing snowballs in frustration at the wall with a patriotic poster, Chiyoko encounters a mysterious man who bumps into her and runs away hastily. The cops come to find him and Chiyoko covers for him, noticing the drops of blood that were left behind when he hobbled away. She finds him and tends to his wounds, getting curious about his clothed canvas, and he tells her he’ll finish it once he reaches the place where it’s filled with snow as far as the eye can see. She wishes to see it and he promises to write to her once peace comes; his friends are out currently fighting in Manchuria. Chiyoko remarks it’s the full moon, but he says it’s tomorrow and he likes it best the day before for it gives hope for the next day. He shows her the key around his neck that ‘holds the most important thing’ but she tells him not to tell her until tomorrow and they share a pinky promise. The dissident political artists get found out the next day and he flees, leaving behind his key and she follows after him but ultimately fails to give it to him at the station. In a gripping chase scene where Genya and Kyoji follow with their camera, Kon first displays his interweaving of reality and cinema here, as a bewildered Chiyoko falls to the ground and calls out into the winter wind how she’ll definitely find him. A teary-eyed Genya remarks how he cried 53 times during this scene and a confused Kyoji remarks ‘when did this turn into a drama?’ Just after saying ‘now that’s drama!’ (Kyoji learns to adapt eventually though; a very splendid cameraman indeed!)  And a modern-day Chiyoko remark that’s how she started making films, with the frame resting on her coffee table spread with magazines of her legacy and filmography.  

So young and smitten Chiyoko sets out to Manchuria to ‘serve her country’ but she does not care about making films, only with the hopes that ‘he’ will recognise her once she makes her name. On board she meets Eiko Shimao, a middle-aged actress with a distasteful doubt for Chiyoko’s skills. Afterall, Chiyoko acts best when the lines she speaks come out of her desperate need to find the mysterious man. Kon makes us travel in Genya’s documentary along with Chiyoko, who rushes off set when she gets wind of the man, and the train gets ambushed by bandits. Chiyoko opens the door of the burning train to emerge out into a burning castle, in robes and traditional Japanese attire from the Heian era. Her lord is dead and she attempts to kill herself, but an old witch with a spinning wheel appears and promises that she will meet him. She drinks a potion but the spirit actually tricks her, cursing Chiyoko to burn eternally in the flames of love! The visuals spark a sense of aesthetic similar to that of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.

With quick deftness, we move from the Heian era to the samurai, with young Chiyoko becoming the chameleon with the change in costumes and roles, but nevertheless the chameleon is always on the search for ‘him’ in her stories. Genya shapeshifts into different side characters, holding unrequited love for Chiyoko and aiding her and protecting her from one era to another and it occasionally tunes back to the modern setting in the old Chiyoko’s room as the two get swept up in the nostalgia and passion of the roles itself. And just like that, Kon seamlessly breaks the illusion of a film set with reality and we theatrically go back into the films again when earthquakes quake through in moments of intense monologue. Chiyoko’s ‘films’ have recurring characters throughout, the policeman searching for the mysterious political activist, Eiko the disdainful actress, Genya the side character, and Chiyoko herself, often on the verge of finding her love but moments of liminality flash when she sees the witch in her mind’s eye condemning her with the curse with “I hate you more than I can bear, but I also love you” in her gravelly, withering crippled old woman voice. 

Genya the fanboy and the monofaceted Chiyoko.

From the Heian to Edo periods, from young girl to geisha roles, to World War 2, Chiyoko grows into a woman, hitting her peak during the 50’s, running from one frame to another, encountering a painting of her young self on a wall of the ruins of her bombed city. The photo and key hanging down her neck stored in what seems eternal memorial and hope, before the pressures of marriage come with being the hot shot. She eventually marries a hot shot director herself, after losing the key in a film set, precisely talking about her marriage life and how shell wither, her lecturer switching from her mother to Eiko. Years later she finds the key as she cleans her husband’s house, and we are back to a more theatrical set, Eiko coming up offstage and admitting she was the one who stole it, she was envious how Chiyoko’s love kept her young and passionate.

The key ends up with Genya once Chiyoko has already begun her complacent-ness with her chase for ‘him’, an earthquake rattling the set of the astronaut film and young Genya, working in the studio at the time, was the one who had shielded her from danger. Chiyoko shamefully admits how she forgot the one who had saved her, ashamed of her evolution. It was at that time that she had left the key behind and Genya had picked it up.

But the cop in search of Chiyoko’s rebel appeared one day, begging for forgiveness and handing her the letter that he had left for Chiyoko in prison. In what would be the last chase montage of the film, Chiyoko starts running towards Hokkaido, the mystery place finally revealed; amidst heavy snow and traffic, through jungles, frames of Godzilla, and modern sci fi, to the moon, decked in her suit, to the unclothed painting of a man walking in snow, face not revealed and waving her goodbye inside the painting.

In the calling of final moments, a heart attack that quaked through within her, on a day that started off with earthquakes, Genya recalls on his way to the hospital, the cop that came in, stripped of pride and arrogance, with one fake eye, withered and in homeless clothes, seeking atonement. After Chiyoko ran off to her chase montage (and Genya joins later as a sidekick dropping her off as a truck driver of course), Genya was left alone with the man, who painfully admits his sins and how he had tortured the man to death.

Kon, motifs and the turn of the century:

Through Millennium actress Kon essentially discovered a lot Japan and Japanese history himself whilst making this film. He explored from a point in what he felt was a disconnect between him and his culture, its history and its media produce. In a time where, Japan had Western media imported as entertainment, no doubt produces of the West inculcated a sense to produce one’s own work and release it in the market and even more so in the face of crude national tensions. Media, after all, served as a ‘swadeshi’ asset ‘boosting the national interests and morales’ of the homeland people. Therefore, Chiyoko was serving in Manchuria, as the director symbolised her, a patriot.

In an interview with Tom Mes in 2002, Kon states- “Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress are two sides of the same coin, I think. When I was making Perfect Blue, I thought it would be a positive film, but little by little it became negative, darker… I had the intention of making the two films like sisters, through the depiction of the relationship between admirer and idol. So, in adapting that relationship I wanted to make Millennium Actress in completely opposite, more positive images.” (Sharp, Jasper 2020)

Unlike Perfect Blue, where he blurs reality and dreams of the titular character who’s an idol aiming to be an actress, Kon explained to Mes, “for Perfect Blue, in the beginning there was a story and to tell that story we applied this method. Whereas with Millennium Actress, the method itself is the aim of the film.” (Sharp, 2020)

Kon’s depiction of passage of time and constant change reflected in the media provides a sense of connect and discovery through things inherently Japanese, the hit melodramas in the Edo period that eventually become obsolete, and larger, grander narratives bleed into cinema that are more global- astronauts, space missions and laser shooting dinosaurs. The actress remains unchanged, a chameleon with her costumes, but still the same ‘maiden’ essentially, until she finally has to shed her youth, and what could be seen the passion behind, when she leaves the key under the set piece of her space film. Genya’s perplexion about her discarding of the one thing that kept her going prompts Chiyoko to painfully admit she was afraid he might not recognise the person she’s become, the version she came to be disappointed in. And the continued use of the prop of Chiyoko’s painting on the ruined wall by supposedly the love of her life.

The final earthquake was Chiyoko’s now old and worn heart that leads to her death, and she holds on to the key and says she’ll continue looking for him even as she crosses over. But really, when she shuts her eyes and in a familiar melodramatic fashion is unable to complete her sentence, we return back to start of the film, her taking off in the rocket ship and exclaiming “it’s the chasing after him I really love!”

Perhaps it all sums up to that, that love and passion keep you driven, on the go, on the chase, loving the chase itself. After all, Kon says the film itself is about the process, perhaps a never-ending change, to love the frames as they are being drawn, even hating them out of sheer frustration. Much as the withered woman spirit who curses lovers, “I hate you more than I can bear, but I also love you.” Hate and love, not two sides of the same coin but perhaps both children of driven passion.

The final takeoff!