There is no better way to recover from a nasty exam than by watching a weepy movie. In many respects, I actually watched the weepy movie for me. Although there are a lot of movies that I will declare ‘make me cry’, what I typically mean is, There’s a lump in my throat, my eyes sting and if I blink hard I may shed a single tear. When it comes to openly weeping - you know, tears, sobs the lot - I have only actually done so three times in my adult life (which amounts to four years). Emotionally repressed, I know. I cried very easily at school, where I was conditioned out of it entirely in that friendly fashion children are renowned for.
The reason I’m sharing this is to tell you that of those three times I have properly wept, two of those times were the two times that I have watched the film I am talking about: Satoshi Kon’s award-winning animated film, Millennium Actress. Only two times, because I'm deathly afraid of becoming immune to its beauty. Since I have nothing better to do (except revise for another three exams), I think I’ll share a little more about it.
Documentary-maker Genya Tachibana is a huge fan of Chiyoko Fujiwara, an actress of a former era, now living in seclusion. As the studio that she worked for is demolished, Genya resolves to seek her out and interview her, along with his slovenly cameraman, Kyoji. Unsurprisingly, she agrees to the interview and begins to recount the details of her life. But, rather than adopting the typical flashback style of more conventional movies, writers Kon and Murai instead place Genya and Kyoji within Chiyoko’s memories, where they continue to film and interview her.
As a young woman in an imperialistic Japan, Chiyoko is talent scouted by a movie studio who feel that she’d be perfect for a role in a patriotic movie to be filmed in Manchuria. Much as she might want to accept this job, her stern mother is intent that her role should be to raise a family. But then Chiyoko encounters a political dissident. An artist, he wears a key around his neck - “the key to the most important thing there is” - and is planning on going to Manchuria himself, albeit for different (implicitly subversive and adventurous) reasons. When he is forced to flee from the authorities and leaves his key behind, Chiyoko suddenly realises that the romantic mission of returning it gives her the courage to defy her mother and become an actress.
At this point the next clever card up the scriptwriters’ sleeve is played, and the story of Chiyoko’s attempts to return the key is played out within the settings of the movies she has starred in - with Genya and Kyoji still tagging along. The movie settings progress chronologically through a thousand years of Japanese history, taking us from samurai and ninjas to moon buggies and rocket ships, and thereby justifying the snappy title of Millennium Actress.
I’m dying to write more about what happens, about what I feel the film's themes are, what I think the key ‘unlocks’ (I’m sure most people will say ‘love’ without even having seen the film, but I think that’s only one possible answer), how Genya’s character is developed to become as interesting as Chiyoko’s… but, although I know many people seem to hate being surprised by a film, I love it, and if you want to know more, you’ll just have to buy the film and find out for yourself. Or nose around on the official English language site, which contains a few spoilers (although you should be safe to look at the trailer and the couple of (subtitled) clips).
As I should have made clear by now, I love this film. It really makes me cry, it really makes me laugh. Why this should be the one film to really make me cry, I don't know. Is it because the film is so perfectly tailored to my interests, with its hallucinatory images and recognition of the subjectivity of memory, that I can't help but be carried along with it? Is it that the nature of its emotional moments is somehow attuned to me and my life? Perhaps it's just because it's really bloody good.
And now I’ve finished my wine, so I’m going to stop writing.
Addendum: I did not once correctly spell ‘millennium’ while writing this, and must therefore share credit with my spellchecker.