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Review: Millennium Actress

I finally got around to watching Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress, an out-of-print animated masterpiece that’s been collecting dust on my DVD shelf in Florida. Honestly, I’m glad I waited: this thematically nuanced and emotionally evocative meditation on nostalgia, love, and the transformative power of art covers so many periods of Japanese history, and pays homage to so many cinematic genres and traditions exclusive to the country’s culture, that I might not have fully appreciated its subtleties back when I first bought it.

The story begins when a two-man documentary crew tracks down a reclusive former movie star. As they conduct their interview, however, the actual details of the elderly woman’s life intermingle with the various roles she’s played, leading to a spectacular and romantic journey that takes the trio from the political turmoil of the Sengoku era to the soaring optimism of the Space Age.

Kon, who tragically died of cancer before completing what would have been his last project (Dreaming Machine), was a visual poet of the highest caliber. His narratives follow the free-associative logic of memories and dreams—one of his protagonists, for example, might trip while chasing a train, only to collapse onto the balcony of a besieged 13th century castle—allowing him to elegantly depict abstract feelings and concepts without resorting to the industry-preferred method of hyper-stylization. I’ve now seen his entire body of feature-length work, and I can say without hesitation that Millennium Actress is my favorite: simple, earnest, uncluttered with any unnecessary plot twists or abrupt tonal shifts—just an intimate, immaculate, richly-detailed character portrait.

[Originally written April 27, 2017.]

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