***½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B
screenplay by Satoshi Kon and Sadayuki Murai
directed by Satoshi Kon
**½/**** Image A Sound A Extras C+
screenplay by Keiko Nobumoto and Satoshi Kon
directed by Satoshi Kon and Shôgo Furuya
by Walter Chaw Four years separate Satoshi Kon's astonishing Perfect Blue and his astonishing Millennium Actress; it seems that what the intervening period brought to Kon's palette is a strong sense of visual humour and an affecting pathos to cut the existential dread of his identity crises--the year or two distancing Tokyo Godfathers from Millennium Actress further refining Kon as a humorist even as it blunted his razor's edge. Where Perfect Blue is the first film in decades to use Hitchcock correctly in a sentence, it still fails for the most part to jump from horror to hilarity on the turn of a heel, making its story of an actress being stalked by a doppelgänger brilliant, no question, but also relentlessly grim. Millennium Actress takes many of the same themes (down to the same basic structure) of performance and meta-reality, stage and screen, cradling them in a story about a man's lifetime of unrequited love for an actress, herself suffering from a lifetime's unrequited love for a mysterious revolutionary. Both threads entwine in a mutual affection for the life of the cinema, which, by film's end, serves as the ends and the means by which their respective love stories are resolved. Like Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress is about living with ghosts, but where the one is all shadow, Millennium Actress is all alight.
Chiyoku Fujiwara (voiced by three different actresses according to age, starting with Fumiko Orikasa, then Mami Koyama, and ending with Miyoko Shôji) is the titular starlet and the object of desire of Genya Tachibana (Shôzô Îzuka), a man who, in his middle age, tracks down the now-reclusive actress at her secluded estate. Determined to make a documentary of Chiyoku's life, Genya brings her an old brass key that serves as a catalyst for a flood of memories that drown the both of them in a deluge of recollections celluloid and otherwise. The line between the real and the manufactured blurs within the film even as the film itself, an anime of unusual beauty and skill, is a palimpsest of representations: a fiction, a drawing, a voice performance, a choreography, and so on. Tracing the point at which reality begins and fantasy ends is beside the point of Millennium Actress: contemplating the futility of trying to draw that line when it comes to the weight of memory on an individual's psychic and emotional development is closer to the core of Kon's concerns.
Breathless and jolting, Millennium Actress is a sprint along the surface of the reservoir of unconscious images filled from years of cultural assimilation in our medium of choice. If anything, the picture represents an understanding of the lineage of Japanese cinema, from the Samurai epic to the post-apocalyptic war allegory to the piquant science-fiction, encapsulating it all in a ravishing ode to true love and the craft of movie-watching that inspires the inner critic rather than the fledgling filmmaker. It's no surprise that Millennium Actress is a critical darling, as it's about how film--or any art--only becomes important when an audience that respects it enough to engage it on multiple levels opens it up to a broader dialogue.
Tracing the lineage of Japanese cinema can either lead from the traditional stage (Noh and Kabuki (as in Ozu, perhaps, or, more recently, Hayao Miyazaki)), or it can lead from the American westerns of John Ford, as in Akira Kurosawa's work and, via a more circuitous route, the modern gangster cinema of Takashi Miike and Takeshi Kitano. So it is with Kon's latest film, Tokyo Godfathers, a remake in basic plot and spirit of Ford's 1948 film 3 Godfathers. The titular guardians of an orphaned baby this time around are a trio of homeless souls: troubled teenage girl Miyuki (Aya Okamoto), transvestite Hana (Yoshiaku Umegaki), and curmudgeon Gin (Toru Emori) find that shepherding the infant across the desert of inner-city Tokyo proves to be a catalyst for reconciliation in their own lives over a magical holiday season. The potential for sap is great, and the greatest danger for Tokyo Godfathers is that it's read as drama when, in fact, it's a gentle, often delightful, slapstick comedy. Unlike Kon's previous two films, Tokyo Godfathers seems disinterested in any issues more unwieldy than the tidy resolution of each of its subplots--in healing the wounds of its characters and their pasts in ways of which the protagonists and antagonists of Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress are largely incapable. There is no existential rift in the picture because there is only one perfect fantasy of hearth.
Animated and executed with typical care and, that word again, respect, Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers represent the other limits of what is possible through a medium that should be the most agile of mediums but is instead, in the bulk of American mainstream animations, the host of a pestilence of convention, fear of controversy, and outright laziness in every quality that matters. While Tokyo Godfathers is undoubtedly slight, it has a firm mooring in the traditions of cinema and an understanding, most importantly, of where it belongs in the flow of the celluloid narrative. It's not the stylist that endures with the best filmmakers, it's the core of humanity and their ability to address big questions in accessible ways; with three films (compare to Tarantino after his third film), Kon has established himself as an auteur on the world stage.
DreamWorks presents Millennium Actress on DVD in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is as sharp and colourful as the palette warrants, though edge enhancement does prove occasionally distracting. It seems like quibbling when just the fact of its existence and inexpensive ready-purchase in markets where the film never screened theatrically is cause for celebration. The Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is agile and lovely, as is a 44-minute documentary featuring a revealing and often fascinating interview with Kon. The process of scouting "locations" for the picture as well as the ways in which the voice actors' paces are described speaks to the extent to which the Japanese treat anime as an equal to live-action and not the ward of the children's table. The resultant aesthetic decisions--simulated camera movements and lighting, the score--bear out that dedication to actual filmcraft that make examples of the genre routinely superior to the best live-action pictures the United States can offer. A trailer for Millennium Actress rounds out the platter.
Columbia TriStar weighs in with a 1.85:1 anamorphic DVD presentation of Tokyo Godfathers that is, like Millennium Actress, marred by edge-enhancement, if much more vibrant-looking. (One wonders if something about the animation process favoured by the Japanese industry--a combination of traditional cel animation and CGI--obliges a standard amount of artificial sharpening during the telecine process.) On the audio end of the spectrum, the Japanese DD 5.1 track* is loud, but the picture is less about pyrotechnics than carefully timed deadpan reaction shots.
A 22-minute making-of documentary is a curious thing capturing the night before the picture's debut at New York's Big Apple anime Festival, with Kon and his trio of voice actors in attendance. The centerpiece is a peculiar and telling conversation between Kon and actress Okamoto as they sit in a deserted lounge and chat about how lonely the holidays are for them both. Kon, an unattractive man who appears to be married, confesses he surrounds himself with people and drinks a lot, while Okamoto, an extremely attractive actress (this is her first voice work), confesses that she works all day then sits at home at night, completely alone and staring at the floor. Though I would have liked some insight into what that premiere screening audience thought of the picture, the docu's unconventionality is enough to recommend it. Rounding out the disc: Tokyo Godfathers' trailer; trailers for Astro Boy, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Cyborg 009, Memories, Metropolis, Returner, and Steamboy; and liner notes by Ken Eisner. Originally published: May 10, 2004.
*Columbia's back-of-box assertion that the original Japanese language track is a special feature is something that should not remain uncommented-upon.