This week at the Wellington Film Society: the late Satoshi Kon.
Not even Film Society members at Monday night’s screening could escape the reverberation of natural disasters: both an overanxious attendee concerned about the earthquake-readiness of the Paramount Theatre at the Annual General Meeting beforehand (it may be Wellington’s oldest surviving cinema, but moving the Film Society to another venue is, frankly, unthinkable), and the film itself, which factored aftershocks into its plotline, were a tad on the nose. In Millennium Actress, earthquakes precipitate abrupt and dramatic shifts in the storytelling while framing a wider historical context for the narrative to unfold within, beginning with the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, before passing swiftly through other traumas of the last century, such as the firebombing that devastated parts of Japan during World War II. Now, at this very moment, a cruel repetition of history plays out in the images of apocalyptic destruction on our television screens. An entirely coincidental choice, Millennium Actress was an uncanny reminder of recent catastrophic events; on any other occasion, it would have been a celebration of its late director’s genius cut short. I would speculate that few in the audience were aware of Satoshi Kon’s premature death last year (aged 46), even though many would have been familiar with his work: Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika all well represented by film festivals here in the past. If Hayao Miyazaki is regarded as the master of Japanese animation, then Kon was its maverick, and save for a final, yet-to-be released film (The Dream Machine), there are sadly to be no more creations, posthumous or otherwise, from this singular animator.
For a man who was largely uninterested in making movies about giant robots, moving castles, and busty saucer-eyed babes, there is an undeniable logic in Kon’s resolve to animate “real world” human dramas, one confirmed in the visual agility and plurality required of his ideas. And although the point is often made that Kon’s projects, for their mature stories and lack of conventional fantasy, could have been alternately filmed and better served as live action, Millennium Actress defies this rationale. Conceptually, the most impressive of Kon’s features up until Paprika and the unheralded anime series, Paranoia Agent, Millennium Actress illuminates a forgotten star actress of a bygone studio era; now in her seventies, she recounts her personal and professional life as if one. As her biography is coaxed forth by an earnest documentary crew (who, as an entertaining anachronism, hijack Japanese history as if they were time travelers in its midst), Kon lets the fixed borders between illusion and reality merge, spawning a multiplicity of films within his film that is at once surreal and highly engaging. Once the story gets going, we are treated to a virtuoso display of intercutting and transition, where the narrative leaps dexterously between “scenes” in the titular actress’s career—among them, roles that pay homage to Kurosawa and Ozu, as well as staple genres in the Japanese cinema canon (chanbara, jidaigeki, and even Godzilla movies). Kon rarely distinguishes between the past and present tense during this continuous series of episodes, and it’s exhilarating, if at times disorientating to watch.
As head-spinning as the constant overlapping of layers gets, never once does the film threaten to derail, and I would argue that animation is what enables Kon to hold together his multidimensional patchwork. Indeed, not only does the medium allow for the protagonist to seamlessly age (from malnourished child, to bright-eyed teenager, to elderly hermit), but it also makes it possible to reconstruct seven decades of history in a single breath. (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in contrast, had to work a lot harder to pull off the same feat.) Through this continuity, a wonderful transparency is achieved, whereby the personal, historical, and cinematic narratives become one, and the stitches in the filmmaking process become invisible. A melodrama of unrequited love, what Millennium Actress lacks in emotional subtly—one facet of dramatic storytelling animation perhaps struggles to convey (the films of Studio Ghibli would be an obvious exception)—it makes up for with romantic sweep and a deep affection for film history. In a manner that is ostensibly at odds with the darker, contemporary concerns of Kon’s other anime features—where media and spectatorship are critical talking points—and yet remains loyal to his pet themes, the film is as much about the creative ability to reclaim and reimagine the past, as it is about acknowledging the storyteller’s role in the manipulative filmmaking process. Cartoonists such as Art Spiegelman and Joe Sacco, among others, have helped establish a literary seriousness in comic book publishing; with traditional film animation, the prospects of a similar, alternative movement emerging are less certain. One can only hope someone will pick up the baton left behind by the trailblazing Kon.