What I'm saying is that the first directing work of Satoshi Kon messed me up pretty bad. The fact that I keep going back to him for other projects he's worked on tells you just how amazing his works are as well, because I don't tend to go back to things that strongly disagree with me.
Millenium Actress was Satoshi Kon's second directorial project, the story of an actress who vanishes at the peak of her career, and the small documentary crew exploring her life to find out why.
When I first saw Millennium Actress, it was the early 2000s and I didn't know much about Japan, anime, or even animation in general. I had already seen Perfect Blue, so initially the idea of seeing another movie directed by the same guy who gave me multiple sleepless nights wasn't that appealing. However, I decided to buckle down and watch it and much to my surprise, it was...rather unremarkable, actually. It had a neat concept, but it didn't impact me anywhere near as much as Perfect Blue did.
Having just watched it again recently, I can tell you that if I could meet my younger self and hear him go "meh" about this movie, I would likely slap him and tell him why he's wrong. Seeing it now, a bit older and a bit wiser in the ways of movies and history, I'm willing to go on the record as saying that Millennium Actress might be one of my favorite animated movies of all time.
Big words, I know. However, it's on that list.
Taking place during some rather pivotal years in Japan's history, the story follows the life of Chiyoko Fujiwara, the top actress for a major Japanese studio for years, but who suddenly quit at the peak of her fame and vanished from the limelight. A small two-man documentary team interviews her, and as she tells her life story they (and we) are transported to her flashbacks. The lines between her memories and the roles she plays start to blur, and eventually the documentary crew find themselves taking active roles in her memories, becoming characters in her films, and helping push the story along.
Satoshi Kon is probably one of the best I've ever seen at blurring fantasy and reality together, and it helps when the story is told in an animated style, which is in of itself fantastic. Scenes involving train robberies, ghosts, heartfelt confessions, war, and giant monsters all swirl together as you learn how Chiyoko used the personal drama in her own life to fuel her film career and shoot into stardom.
The crux of the story is a love story between Chiyoko and an artist she meets (literally "runs into") one day as he's being chased by the authorities. The two have a small, tender moment together, but a keepsake of his left behind leaves her determined to find him again and return it to him. It's during the story you get some wonderfully tender moments, like her explanation of why she keeps making movies: "I hope one day he'll see one of them and come find me."
The cinematography of the movie is simply a delight to behold. I'd go into a lot of talk about the detail, the crispness and cleanness of the lines, the wonderfully expressive faces and amazing backdrops, but I'm not. I'm just going to link the trailer to the film.
Now, all that being said...it's not for everybody. If you don't have any knowledge of Japan's history or its political struggles, how the landscape has culturally and politically changed over the decades, or any kind of knowledge of the history of Japanese film, this movie might not really be for you. After all, it wasn't for me the first time I watched it.
On the other hand, I did have Perfect Blue to measure it against, and THAT movie is definitely not for anybody who doesn't want to have their mind blown, so this might be a good first step into the worlds of Satoshi Kon. They're wonderful places to visit and present ideas about film making that are still fresh and original.