Monday, July 27, 2015


Chiyoko Fujiwara and Genya Tachibana, the protagonists of MILLENIUM ACTRESS.
It seems that I have never written about Satoshi KON or any of his mind-boggling films. Kon (1963-2010) was one of the great visual storytellers and a true visionary whose parallel editing and overlaying of several levels of reality influenced film makers like Aronofsky or Nolan. Today, I will focus on the first scene of MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (2001) which is practically a master-class in how to open a movie.

[SPOILER ALERT] This analysis naturally reveals a lot about the storylines of the works discussed.

The first page
Novelists usually introduce us to characters, settings, conflicts and tone of a novel in the first few paragraphs, quite often on the very first page. Most of the time we do not consciously take in all of this information. It nevertheless shapes our expectations and influences our decision to read on. Sometimes a narrator even foreshadows the outcome or parts of the narrative arc as can be seen on the first page of two of my favorite novels:

Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird

In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird the first three paragraphs tell us that the narrator is relating events that happened some time ago in her childhood. The first sentence belongs to her older brother who used to be a primary source of knowledge to her at the time and whose broken elbow marked the end of a chain of "events leading to his accident" - in fact, the events that make up most of the novel's storyline.

Already in the second sentences she addresses the recurring motif of fears that are finally assuaged but define much of the atmosphere, especially in connection with the Ewell family as well as the children's interest for their reclusive neighbor Boo Radley. By the end of the third paragraph, the narrator's father Atticus - the novel's most beloved character - is introduced as a wise but unconventional consultant on what is right or wrong

Only then the narrator delves into the quasi-prologue of the family history and the Southern sense of ancestral roots. But now the reader is already hooked and at least wants to know why Jem broke his arm and why both Jem and the narrator can be right about who started what.

Many of the same narrative devices can be found in a much more recent and experimental novel like Paul Auster's City of Glass:

Paul Auster: City of Glass

The narrator is again concerned with how "it" all began and how much time has passed since then. In fact, the key to the whole book is right there at the end of the first paragraph: "The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell." Even though the second paragraph begins with "As for Quinn, there is little that need detain us. Who he was, where he came from, and what he did are of no great importance.", the reader is provided with information about Quinn's age, relationships, work, personal interest and that "what he liked to do was walk". 

At the same time, the setting of New York City is introduced both as an defining part of the protagonist's life and as "a labyrinth of endless steps". Although we might not yet know what all this means, through the words of the narrator the author primes us for a story that revolves around a relationship with a stranger, a man who endlessly walks around the City and a protagonist who will eventually get lost. Having read this setup, we are hopefully eager to get answers to enough questions (who was on the phone, what did he say, what happened) so that we continue reading even if we as readers get lost in the narrative labyrinth Auster is drawing us into.

The opening scene of MILLENNIUM ACTRESS

A similar interplay of parallel realities and subjective perception is at work in Satoshi Kon's anime MILLENNIUM ACTRESS. When you see the film for the first time, you only gradually realize how great this opening scene was:

If we take into account all we know by the end of the movie, we see how well this completely mysterious scene prepares us for the following story: 

Synopsis: A beautiful girl named Chiyoko Fujiwara falls in love with a mysterious stranger she has only met briefly. Searching for her long lost love defines her adult life as a travelling actress. At least in her memories she practically acts out her own story in films set in different historical eras and genres. After 30 years of living in seclusion, Genya Tachibana – a former employee of her film company who she did not remember but who saved her life and has been secretly in love with her for decades – is granted one last interview and thereby learns that she is still driven by her yearning for the stranger.

The moon and beyond
The moon as a visual motif.
First the camera pans past planet earth to a slowly opening space base. Strangely the rocket that is about to launch seems to be stationed on the moon. Throughout MILLENNIUM ACTRESS the moon serves both as a metaphor and a visual motif for Chiyoko's hope that drives her search for the stranger she met on a night just before the moon was full.
Plant: Chiyoko meeting the stranger who links the moon to hope.

In a subjective flashback that mixes blurred memories, fever dreams and scraps of a movie plot Chiyoko even travels to the moon - only to find that her lover has already left.
The "lonely white landscape" later on changes between moon and snow.
A final farewell

In the best dramatic tradition, we enter the scene in the last possible moment when the astronauts say goodbye. Soon we realize that MILLENNIUM ACTRESS on the whole is about an actress' farewell. From the sparse dialogue we overhear, it becomes clear that the woman is looking for another man while the astronaut on the platform would like her to stay knowing that she may embark on her last journey. So we already know that Chiyoko is determined to sacrifice everything in order to be with her object of desire.

Doppelgänger and Alternate Realities
Then we get a closer shot /reverse shot situation when the young man on the platform tries to hold her back by confessing his true feelings. More importantly however, Kon cuts to an extreme close-up of an older man mimicking the young man's words we now hear coming from a video tape creating an audiovisual link between the two men while doubling the hint that this will be a story about longing for someone who will be out of reach forevermore.

In a film titled MILLENNIUM ACTRESS we most likely expect to see scenes of movies within the movie. So it only takes a few sounds, bluish color and fragments of VHS cassettes in the background for us to understand that he is watching a movie. Apparently this man has seen the scene many times before.

Much later, Chiyoko learns that Genya was a young assistant who once saved her life.
The following group of shots emphasizes the connection between the young astronaut and the old man in front of the tv screen. But then Kon creates an impossible shot - reverse shot juxtaposition of the old man in his room and the astronaut actress.
Top: reflection; middle and bottom: a shot/reverse shot across time and space.
Since lonely middle aged men gazing at beautiful movie actresses has become such a well-worn stereotype, we might not yet understand that Kon has just established not only the actual male protagonist (Genya) of MILLENNIUM ACTRESS but also the core relationship that motivates the whole movie. This setup emphasizes the fact, that - as we later find out - the relationship is basically one-sided with the man gazing at an inaccessible object of desire. 

Moreover, we are getting prepared for the movie's formal structure of seamlessly matching shots across time and reality levels in a rather unobtrusive, comprehensible way. When this farewell scene recurs in the last part of the film, Genya as a middle aged man will actually be there in the frame which by then we have learned to accept as Chiyoko's memory filtered through the interviewer's own perception and imagination.
Genya in the frame during an intense re-imagining of their shared memory.
And if you pay close attention you can see the reflection of the young man (above) observing the rocket launch. Reflections are fairly common in subjective films about self-reflexive characters. But as you can see in the pair of screenshots below (from later in the film) Kon draws parallels between Chiyoko's life and her movies by exchanging characters from her life (in this case her mother) with characters/actors from her movies (her senior rival Eiko). Although Chiyoko herself is in both scenes, first we see her real reflection and in the soundstage scene we see the ghostly reflection that haunts her.

Later in the film, reflections are not always what they appeared to be.
Then the take off does not only shake the frame within the video but metaphysically affects the viewing situation as well - or so it seems. Even the tapes and discs around Genya fall off the shelf as if he were close to the rocket.

But what could easily have been an expression of the emotionally agitated protagonist's subjective perception is finally revealed as an objective earthquake. Unfortunately, I do not know what the actual Japanese wording is but the English and German subtitles imply that earthquakes are quite common to these characters because when the lights go on again, Genya does not say "oh, an earthquake" but rather "That was a big one!"

It later becomes clear that earthquakes have been pivotal in both Chiyoko's life (e.g. being born during the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake) and in Genya's relationship with her.
Then we really see Genya's office for the first time and from the dialogue we learn that he is the long haired young man's boss and that they are about to leave for an assignment. As it turns out, they are about to interview Chiyoko, the very actress we have seen as an astronaut.

Non-Linear storytelling
There is one last formal information left, however: just before Genya leaves his office, he rewinds the VHS tape in play mode and primes us for the fact that MILLENNIUM ACTRESS will not only seamlessly alternate between reality and film but jump around in time.

As it later turns out, this space adventure was Chiyoko's very last film before her withdrawal into seclusion for 30 years. And the image below will be one of the last shots of MILLENNIUM ACTRESS as well. While it is not uncommon to begin a film full of flashbacks with an enigmatic scene the significance of which will be understood only after it is replayed at the end, here we are introduced to both Genya's story about interviewing Chiyoko (forward) as well as Chiyoko's trip down memory lane (backwards) in the same frame.

During the immediately following credits sequence everything around Genya triggers memories of Chiyoko's films which Kon juxtaposes based on visual connections.
Within less than two minutes, Kon has introduced the protagonists and their relationship as well as the setting, tone and narrative structure while planting bits of information that only pay off up to 70 minutes later.
Hold back the key!
However much is alluded to in the opening scene, the narration holds back one crucial piece of information until an excited Genya meets Chiyoko face to face: the literal key that triggers her memory, has guided her life for many years and is instrumental in revealing Genya's true feelings for her. 

1 comment:

Torgo25 said...

Thank you for writing up a post about this wonderful film. Kon was a fantastic filmmaker whose works deserve more study.