Generally speaking, each of director Satoshi Kon’s films are beloved by critical and general audiences. Each one is revered for its ability to entertain whether evoking thrills, drama, or laughter; each one considered for more mature audiences, despite being constructed via a medium too many consider for children. Personally, not until I watched Pascal-Alex Vincent’s extraordinary documentary Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist during 2021’s Nightstream Film Festival did I realize just how impressive and influential Satoshi Kon’s four films are to filmmakers of today. Of his films, I knew of Perfect Blue (1997), Tokyo Godfathers (2003), and Paprika (2006) by reputation prior to the documentary, but Millennium Actress (2001) was a total blank. A story that’s disguised as a documentary in which a woman’s entire life is explored through the lens of the movies she made throughout her life is enough to catch my interest as I love films about people making movies. What sets Millennium Actress apart from films like The Player (1992) or Tropic Thunder (2008), is that truth and fiction, time and memory, love and loss, all intermingle until the only way to get to the end of the story is not through the linear path but by jumping forward and backward and forward again as memory becomes the road we travel. Available already on multiple formats, Eleven Arts, via Shout! Factory, is re-releasing Millennium Actress in a limited-edition steelbook with one new “Making Of” featurette.
In preparation for a retrospective on failed filmmaker Ginei Studios, interviewer Genya Tachibana (voiced by Shôzô Îzuka) and his cameraman, Kyoji Ida (voiced by Masaya Onosaka), journey to see retired actor Chiyoko Fujiwara (voiced by Miyoko Shôji). The typically reclusive individual accepts Genya’s offer an interview for one reason: he has something of hers she thought was lost forever. With the item returned, the interview is initiated and the story of Chiyoko Fujiwara’s life and career begins, exploring the various films she’s made tackling over 1,000 years’ worth of time periods from the past to the far future.
Coming into Millennium Actress without any fore-knowledge makes it a truly unique experience. There’re certainly more details to be discovered or moments to be savored once the surprises are gone, but that first-time watch truly impresses. It starts more-or-less where it ends, with Chiyoko playing a character in the future, leaving a moon station to go on a journey into the unknown, driven by a promise she plans to keep. It’s only when we hear Genya’s voice overtop that of another character do we realize that we’re watching a film, not an actual event. This moment is the first clue that truth and fiction are going to be blended, the second coming soon after when Genya rewinds the tape he’s watching and we’re shown a close-up of the footage from the film he was watching and several others rewind before us. Brilliantly, this signals that everything that comes next in the film will be a combination of traditional narrative cinema in which we observe characters go on a journey in chronological order with the tricks of cinema thrown in to twist our perception. So when we see Chiyoko as a young girl running down a wintery path only for her clothes and location to shift without warning, it’s not entirely unexpected. We know that time will be mercurial, something which almost requires us to be constantly on-guard and ready for shifts, and we can, therefore, prepare. The next shift, and perhaps the best part, is that Genya and Kyoji end up jumping into the story, as well. This helps maintain an anchor in the present, enabling the audience to remember that what we’re seeing is, in fact, an interview. Though Kyoji rarely changes in appearance, Genya is constantly undergoing costumes changes after a fashion, blending in with whichever period or location Chiyoko is in, implying that his investment in the interview goes far beyond professional interest. While I’ve danced around the particulars, a perhaps silly attempt at avoiding spoilers for anyone who reads this and hasn’t seen the nearly 21-year-old film yet, I will state plainly that I love how unrequited the narrative is, how incomplete. In life, we don’t always get the answers we seek and, in this case, the answers are far less important than the journey itself. The quest *can* be the reward. Especially as so much of the story bends, melts, and reforms forward and backward through her life, making it unclear when we’re watching a scene from one of her film’s versus a moment in her life, Millennium Actress conveys the sense of a conversation made real, winding in and out as one remembers and forgets details. Truly wonderful, imaginative, and completely bittersweet.
Now on to the bonus materials.
Having done some research, it appears that Shout! Factory did release a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack previously in December 2019 which included the four interviews that accompany this limited-edition release. So what sets this edition apart from the 2019 release? There’re a few things, so let’s start outward and go inward.
First, there’s the packaging. The 2022 edition is a limited-edition steelbook featuring a full-colored Chiyoko in one of the younger roles surrounded by a collage of her throughout her years in varying shades of red. The design is minimal yet striking, likely to attract steelbook collectors. The inside of the case is the image of the eight forms of Chiyoko, representative of the various lives she “lived” across 1,000 years. On the right of the case, the Blu-ray and DVD in their own secured positions. On the left, an insert with four essays, mostly brief excerpts, providing analysis of the surreal film. On the disc you can choose from the original Japanese audio or the 2019 English dub. Having never seen Millennium Actress, I opted for the original audio, which came through crisp and clean. As mentioned, there are five bonus features, four legacy interviews, and one brand-new featurette, the 34-minute “The Making of Millennium Actress,” which does include director Satoshi Kon. If you’re new to Kon’s work, the “Making of” featurette provides some interesting insights into why this project and why this style of concept would be the follow-up to thriller Perfect Blue.
The next question is, is this a worthy pick-up? Frankly, it depends.
Frustrating as that might sound, it’s true. The bulk of what comes with this limited-edition is already available in the 2019 release and you can get it for a few dollars cheaper. If you’re a steelbook collector, the design is attractive enough to make someone lean toward snagging this. Considering that the insert includes previously released essays, a fan of Kon’s would likely have already read these, so those alone aren’t much of a draw. However, if you combine the design of the case with the insert and the new featurette, there may be enough to convince someone who already owns Millennium Actress to re-up on the 2022 edition. Certainly, if you’re a fan of Kon or animated film in general, should this not be in your collection, the 2022 edition is the way to go.
Millennium Actress Special Features:
- *NEW* The Making of Millennium Actress Featurette, featuring a rare interview with director Satoshi Kon (33:57)
- Voice actress Laura Post interview
- Voice actress Abby Trott interview
- Producer Taro Maki interview
- Producer Masao Maruyama interview
Available on limited-edition Blu-ray/DVD steelbook combo from Shout! Factory March 22nd, 2022.