Millennium Actress (Sennen Joyû)

Without a doubt, and for reasons that will soon become clear, Satoshi Kon’s 2001 masterpiece is one of my favourite animated films. The story is relatively simple: we watch a film journalist, Genya Tachibana, and his unnamed cameraman interview the famous retired actress Chiyoko Fujiwara about her life whilst a series of earthquakes shake the building. The interview concludes when the actress collapses and is rushed to hospital. Before that, she has recounted something extraordinary. As a young girl in the 1930s, Chiyoko saved the life of a Japanese revolutionary on the run from the police by sheltering him in the storehouse of a shop. In the brief time they spend together, the future actress falls desperately in love with the revolutionary, who is also a painter, and leaves behind him a portrait of her on a wall and a key to the box he carries, which contains, in his words, “the most important thing in the world”. The man then leaves, and Chiyoko despairs of ever seeing him again, so she decides to become an actress, which will allow her to travel the country and continue her search.

The rest of the tale concerns the films of Chiyoko Fujiwara, many of which devotion to a lost love so that when the young woman acts reality and fiction coincide. Unsurprisingly (if you were an eighteenth-century theatre critic like John Hill), such performance based on true emotion captures the hearts of everyone and Chiyoko fast becomes a star. Yet she never gives up her quest: thrown in jail by some policemen, she catches a glimpse of a man who might be her painter in another room; receiving news much later whilst filming in the midst of another earthquake that her true love was from Hokkaido, she rushes north but finds no trace of him.

There’s much to say about this film, especially its way of dancing between fact and fiction. What I want to bring out here now, though, is how the whole piece is structured by desire. We’ve already heard of Chiyoko’s impossible love, but it soon becomes clear that the journalist, Tachibana, is also in love. Tachibana at first begins to appear in Chiyoko’s reminiscences of her films; he then also surfaces in her memories of life in the studio, as a lowly intern: each time, it becomes more and more evident that he is obsessed with her, selflessly devoting his efforts to help her own goals even if their realisation would put an end to all his dreams. At the beginnning of his interview with Chiyoko, Tachibana hands her the painter’s key, which she lost thirty years ago, only for him, devoted still, to return it to her.

Desire is layered over desire, and impossible love furthers impossible love. In the final scene, Chiyoko, dying on her hospitable bed, blurs into her role as a spacewoman, departing (as ever) in search of someone. At the moment she does so, she says something like, “in reality, I always preferred the chase”: Tachibana is distraught, but the film ends with Chiyoko, as an astronaut, serenely entering warp speed.

Tachibana’s responses made me think of a very peculiar passage in an eighteenth-century art of acting. In it, the author (John Hill, who keeps cropping up at the moment) is trying to distinguish between different kinds of theatrical illusion. His point is that the illusion only ever really works when there is a true emotion behind it, but the argument he deploys involves comparing the disinterested audience (who need true emotion from the actors to be deceived) and the infatuated suitor of an actress (who is easily tricked by her faking of affection). I’ll finish by quoting the passage in question, but it does raise one interesting question about this film: was Chiyoko such a great actress, not because she was mixing reality and fiction, but because we, like Tachibana, had fallen under the spell, become infatuated and so lost the ability to separate out the true?

Here’s the Hill:

It will be natural to set up the common arts of women in private life, against this general necessity of feeling upon the stage. If an actress, it will be said, can feign a passion for the man who supports her, of which she feels nothing, why cannot she dissemble with us as well upon the stage? Certainly there are some who do this in private, and why may not they deceive a disintereseted audience, who can impose upon the man that devotes his life and fortune to them? For that reason, because an audience is disinterested. The lover is desirous to believe the lady is fond of him; and therefore he is easily made ot receive the pretence of such a fondness: but an audience are unbiased; they look with eyes of impartiality; they will not allow what does not exist; and will exclaim against that pretence for robbing them of their shillings, which the lover would receive as the price of his whole fortune. The lover is willing, and the audience are also willing to be deluded; but when the passion of the one makes everything pass upon him, the others, having their eyes open, expect some colour or resemblance in what they are to receive for the present as reality.

I’m sorry if that’s a bit long: having just typed it up, it strikes me that Millennium Actresss is a powerful riposte to Hill. Chiyoko is in love (so her performance has a foundation in reality) but Tachibana is also infatuated (so, for example, helps Chiyoko recreate the scenes of her youth, even when she is too elderly to perform them well). The question, then, is whether the audience sees through the journalist’s eyes or not.


2 thoughts on “Millennium Actress (Sennen Joyû)”

  1. I watched the theatrical version of Millennium Actress (舞台版「千年女優」) in Tokyo several years ago. It was beautiful and marvelous. Five actresses act more than 200 roles (“embedded structure”), and each one of them acts Chiyoko. So there can be five Chiyokos on stage… it must be interesting for those in theatre studies to see an actress acting an actress acting a role, as well as an actress acting a role.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ayumi: the idea of a play based on this film really intrigues me, and I’m going to see if an English version of it exists. All I’ll have to do then is find five actresses ready to do 200 roles…
      Regarding the point about acting someone acting, it’s a really fascinating situation, because in such moments the actor is not in fact pretending to be something else but rather simply pretending to pretend. One might say they are the most realistic parts of a performance, because they acknowledge artifice.

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