The effect "Millenium Actress" leaves, upon first viewing, is largely bewildering. The barrage of images, emotions, styles and time periods seems at first an overly hyper orgasm of artistic implications. But this is a film that requires time to expand within a viewer's mind. Once reflected upon, discussed, and then finally viewed again, Satoshi Kon's creation reveals itself for the enormously strong, ultimately moving endeavor that it is.
The initial premise revolves around the closing of one of the most famous (fictional) film studios in Japan. While making a documentary of the studio and its unfortunate collapse, TV reporter Genya Tachibana (Shozo Izuka) gets permission to interview its most beloved and profitable star, Chiyoko Fukiwara (voiced by Miyoko Shoji, Mami Koyama and Fumiko Orikasa at different stages of the character's life). During the interview, he reveals a key belonging to Chiyoko that was found on a movie set a long time ago. This sparks nearly forgotten memories in the actress, taking the film through both her film career and her personal life. Both Genya and his cameraman (Masaya Onosaka) watch on as the events unfold.
What Kon is actually doing isn't altogether subversive: the film is partly a welcome whirlwind through Japan's history and homage to its cinema (from Kurosawa Samurai epics to kung-fu slashers up through later domestic dramas like those of Yasujiro Ozu and yes, Godzilla also gets his cameo). Cinema, the film argues, is how past life is captured and remembered. For one such as Chiyoko, who is constantly in the midst of film, life can only be recalled through a purely cinematic consciousness. She was seen by all through her movies, therefore she sees herself in a parallel fashion.
This conclusion is drawn from the inclusion of Genya, who cannot bear to think of her as existing too far outside of her legendary movies. He sees the Chiyoko that always looks gorgeous (or at the very least picturesque) no matter what she goes through. His active participation in her life may at first seem a crack at the relationship between the public and celebrity, but that notion is a bit of a misfire.
Genya's involvement in Chiyoko's story creates the human backbone of the film. The film belongs to both characters; Chiyoko's life, as we see it, is a fusion of both hers and Genya's views of her. Their personal fantasies, dreams, and pains are brought together in one collective memory that is allowed to flow in whatever direction it will. It creates a kind of film that is both surreal and ultra-real; a type of hybrid dual flashback and plutonic love story that does not confine itself within the boundaries of genre. After all, a film that spans a century of Japanese film and 1000 years of Japanese history cannot be created through the view of a keyhole.
This bond between Chiyoko and Genya, as well as the personal realizations the two make throughout the course of the film, are ultimately what completes "Millenium Actress" and makes it an experience worth repeating. For laced through, underneath, and above the various moods of the film is a genuinely touching thread. Any melodrama the characters may engage in is always serves a larger purpose, but even that never really matters. The core of the film is so constantly absorbing and believable that one is always attached to its questions, challenges and the heartfelt story outlining it. "Millenium Actress" is a fresh, rare work of art that certainly earns its title.