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Anime: Millennium Actress

A 2001 anime film by Satoshi Kon, the director of Perfect Blue (1998) and Paprika (2006), Millennium Actress explores the relationship between art, life, love, and memory. Satoshi Kon co-wrote with his long-time collaborator Sadayuki Murai.

Director Genya Tachibana, who has been making a documentary about reclusive (and retired) movie star Chiyoko Fujiwara, manages to secure a rare interview with her. The informal and deeply impassioned interview covers her career from her first movie, made a few years after the Japanese invaded Manchuria, to her retirement in the mid-sixties—along with her love life, including her marriage to (and divorce from) her most prominent director. Much of the story is told using episodes and scenes from her movies, the settings of which span a millennium — from the Heian period (794-1185) to a futuristic space age, with the various scene and era changes lampshaded by Kyouji Ida, Genya's snarky but seemingly imperturbable cameraman. Along the way Kyouji and Chiyoko discover that Genya has much deeper connections to Chiyoko than either of the latter would have any way of knowing.

Millennium Actress won a slew of anime awards both in Japan and abroad, some of them shared (or split) with Spirited Away.


This anime provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: See Lady of War.
  • An Aesop: Pick one: Don't give up on your dreams. Chasing a dream will keep you young at heart. It's not the destination, it's the journey.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Genya doesn't get Chiyoko and she doesn't get the man of her dreams.
    • Also Otaki for Chiyoko. Although he does manipulate her into marrying him, for a time — until she finds his Idiot Ball. (On the other hand, there are hints that he views her more as a fine jewel to be collected than as a person to love as an equal.)
  • Almost Kiss: Between Chiyoko and her director at the porch of his beach house. They get interrupted when Chiyoko's key hanging from her neck bounces against a cocktail glass.
  • Anachronic Order: Skips around from the present to flashbacks of Chiyoko's past; also, from one time period to another, each time period reflecting on Chiyoko's mental state at the time. (See also Empathic Environment and Time Travel, below.)
  • Animal Motifs: There are a lot of cranes around if you keep an eye out for them. Possibly a symbol for a deep wish, or immortality.
  • The Atoner: The cop Chiyoko first encounters chasing a rebel artist is last seen making his way across Japan apologizing to people he's wronged.
  • Author Appeal: A lot of motifs recur throughout the works of Satoshi Kon; similar music (often by the same composer); Mind Screw; the female lead often looks similar; surrealism and Genre-Busting.
  • Bait-and-Switch Gunshot: In the Samurai sequence, the man with the scar is aiming his gun at Chiyoko, we see a close-up of Chiyoko looking terrified, there is a shot, Chiyoko squints her eyes, but then we cut to Genya as he falls from his horse, hit by the bullet.
  • Batman in My Basement: Chiyoko, hiding the rebel artist in an empty room at her place.
  • Beauty Mark: Chiyoko has the classic tragic anime mole just below her left eye.
  • Been There, Shaped History: The film takes us on a tour of Japanese history/Historical Fiction with the actress and the film crew turning up as characters chasing after her.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Genya comes to save Chiyoko in several scenes. See Heroic Sacrifice
  • Big Heroic Run: The famous "Run" sequence, where Chiyoko runs after the artist while the time period and Chiyoko's current reincarnation/movie costume change several times.
  • Biopic: The movie is a recollection of of Chiyoko's life through flashbacks of her film projects.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Why hello there Eiko.
  • Bittersweet Ending: After a strong earthquake strikes Chiyoko's villa, she collapses (possibly from a heart attack) in Genya's arms and is taken to the hospital. She dies there, but not before telling Genya that she will find the man she was searching for in the afterlife, and even if she doesn't — chasing him is more fun, anyway.
  • Book Ends: Chiyoko taking off in a spaceship. Earthquakes are Book Ends in Chiyoko's life.
  • Christmas Cake: Played in the world of movies; Eiko Shimao is barely a decade older than Chiyoko, and undeniably beautiful, but after Chiyoko becomes a star, Eiko is only ever cast as the scheming older woman opposing her.
    • Averted with Chiyoko, who reaches the pinnacle of her stardom in the 1950s, when she is in her thirties, and who is still a wildly popular star in her early forties when she abruptly quits.
  • Contrived Coincidence: An Invoked Trope and a Discussed Trope.
  • Crash-Into Hello: Chiyoko meets the man with the key twice this way. When, as an adult, she bumps into a random stranger on the street, she half-expects it to be him.
    • To drive home the irony of the situation, she's standing in front of a billboard with her face a dozen feet high, but the stranger doesn't recognize her. (Then again, she's wearing dark sunglasses.)
  • Damsel in Distress: Chiyoko has to be saved by Genya in a couple of situations.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Kyouji Ida (the cameraman).
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Parts of the film, specifically to contrast with the more vivid colors of things Chiyoko remembers with fiery intensity.
  • Determinator:
    • Chiyoko. Made explicit with her stubborn journey to Hokkaido.
    • Genya, with his feelings towards Chiyoko.
  • The Dulcinea Effect: Both Genya's reverence for Chiyoko and Chiyoko's devotion to the man of her dreams.
  • Empathic Environment: Up to Eleven: not just the weather, but the historical era itself reflects Chiyoko's emotional state. A Justified Trope, in a sense, in that much of what we see is a mix of Chiyoko's movies with her memories and the imaginations of her and Genya; that is, the "environment" in question really is Chiyoko's emotional state, not a real place that just happens to mirror it. See also Time Travel.
  • Everything's Better with Princesses: Chiyoko is/plays a Fujiwara princess. See also Lady of War.
  • Evil Laughter: The old creepy lady ghost vanishes with an evil laughter.
  • Expy: Chiyoko, especially in her twenties, looks a lot like the young actress Mima from Perfect Blue. (They have the same nose.) However, their personalities are not especially similar.
  • The Faceless: We never get a good look at the face of the man with the key — in part because the "reality" we see in the "flashbacks" is subjective, and Chiyoko no longer remembers what he looked like.
  • Fanboy: Genya's main reason for doing the interview.
    • Arguably a Subverted Trope. As it turns out, Genya knew and loved Chiyoko in real life, and worked with her back at the studio, from about the second quarter of her career not long after the end of World War II. Although he knew and loved her she didn't know he existed; she had been a movie star for nearly a decade, whereas he was just some lowly member of the crew. (Not that she was by any means a snob; but he was too timid to dare intrude into her world.) Then one day during an earthquake he saved her life, and perhaps she would have noticed him after that — but that was the day she fled the movie industry forever, and became a recluse. Besides, she was already In Love with Love.
  • Fate Worse Than Death: After Chiyoko drinks the cup of poison in the "Romeo and Juliet" flashback, hoping to reunite with her lover in death, it turns out the old lady ghost actually gave her a "Thousand-Year Tea", gloating afterwards "Now you will burn forever in the flames of eternal love!".
  • Fish out of Temporal Water: Genya and his cameraman look out of place with their modern dresses and technical equipment in the medieval settings.
  • Flashback: Most of the movie consists of flashbacks, although few of them are to be taken literally: they freely mix Chiyoko's memories with her film roles, and also with her present-day imagination, and the imagination of Genya (and his cameraman Kyouji Ida). See also Anachronic Order, Empathic Environment, Pensieve Flashback, Time Travel.
  • Fortune Teller: A Subverted Trope: the fortune teller was bribed, and given personal information, by Chiyoko's rival Eiko, specifically to get Chiyoko off the set and thus fired and possibly blackballed from the movie industry. (Given the political situation in that time and place, it could easily have gotten her killed.) For whatever reason, the plot failed in its larger purpose: Chiyoko did not get fired, although she did land in plenty of trouble.
  • Framing Device: The documentary.
  • Freak Out: Chiyoko has a few. Perhaps the most fateful is the one that drives her forever from the movie business and into her life as a recluse: after an earthquake that nearly kills her, she abruptly decides/realizes that she is now middle-aged, and thus no longer the girl the artist who gave her the key would be looking for. She quits the movie business, not wanting the man to see her as anything other than a girl. Unfortunately for all involved by that time the man is already long dead.
  • Generic Cuteness: An Averted Trope. With a few exceptions, only the in-universe actresses and actors are beautiful (and by no means all of them, especially if they play minor characters); the members of the crew and other minor characters tend to be average-looking. A notable exception is Chiyoko's Love Interest, the mysterious artist who gives her the key. But we never see him all that clearly, and to the extent we do, we still mostly see him through Chiyoko's eyes.)
  • Genre-Busting: As we move through Chiyoko's film history, many genres are being touched, including Romance, Drama, War, Action and Sci-Fi.
  • Gilligan Cut: When Genya and his cameraman ascent to Chiyoko's house, he claims she will never grow old. Cut to the old-looking lady answering the door. Turns into a Bait and Switch, as it wasn't Chiyoko but the maid we see.
  • Girly Run: An Averted Trope, although Chiyoko spends a lot of the movie running. In the interview section of the DVD, the director says he shot footage of a girl running specifically for the animators to study, so they could depict Chiyoko running in a realistic — and elegant — manner.
  • Green Eyes Monster: Genya in several situations, seeing that either his love Chiyoko is interested only in the man of her dreams or the director making advances at her.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: In several of the flashbacks Genya comes to [[Big Damn Heroes save his love Chiyoko at the last possible moment while putting himself in danger. These moments includes:
    • Diving Save: When the space-shuttle soundstage collapses, Genya throws himself over Chiyoko to protect her from falling debris.
    • Taking the Bullet: In the Samurai sequence, the man with the scar aims but hits Genya instead of Chiyoko.
    • You Shall Not Pass: Genya takes on the mooks in the forest, so Chiyoko can escape.
  • He Went That Way: In two of the stories does Chiyoko dupe the police who are chasing the young painter.
  • Ignored Enamored Underling: Young Genya is this to Chiyoko when he worked in a minor position at her films.
  • The Ingenue: Chiyoko as depicted in her early flashbacks.
  • In Space Everyone Can See Your Face: The spacesuits have helmets without reflective coating, so the faces are nicely showing.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Genya. In the Show Within a Show movies, he (fused with whichever in-universe movie character he happens to be "playing") keeps sacrificing himself, over and over, in order to give Chiyoko (fused with the in-universe movie character she's playing) another chance to pursue the ever-elusive man she loves (fused with Love Interest of said character). Also, as it turns out, more than three decades before the Framing Device documentary takes place, Genya saved Chiyoko's life during an earthquake; thus his role as perennial savior is to some extent justified.
  • Imperial Japan: The police officer who persecutes Chiyoko is from the Kempetai, Imperial Japan's near-equivalent of the Gestapo.
  • In Love with Love: Chiyoko.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Chiyoko, as a princess, in one of her film roles. The demonic spirit who interrupts her suicide and curses her turns out to be her own self as an old hag.
  • I Will Find You: A running theme of the movie.
  • Jidai Geki: Many of Chiyoko's old movies; the cameraman points out that Genya is dressed for the wrong era after one scene change.
  • Lady of War: One of Chiyoko's roles is as a Fujiwara princess during the Heian period. She's also an Action Girl. See also Everything's Better With Princesses.
  • Loving a Shadow: Perhaps she loves the chase more than the man.
    • Genya for Chiyoko, almost certainly.
  • Match Cut: Many transitions to and between flashbacks are done by matching Chiyoko's face from one setting to another.
  • Meaningful Echo: The movie is saturated with them, some of them verbal, but most of them visual or situational.
  • Meaningful Name: Chiyoko's surname is Fujiwara. The Fujiwara clan was a powerful political entity during the Asuka (538-710) and Nara (710-794) periods, and they went on to become the dominant political power in Japan during the Heian era (7941185), freely intermarrying with (and often presiding over) the Imperial House itself. Furthermore, Chiyoko's own name means "Child of a thousand generations" - a thousand Reincarnations?
    • Genya's surname name is Tachibana. Tachibana was another powerful clan during the Nara and Heian eras.
  • Meet Cute: See Crash-Into Hello. In some ways a Subverted Trope, in that it doesn't lead to a real, flesh-and-blood romance.
  • Method Acting: In-universe example. When making her first picture, Chiyoko forgets her lines upon which the director advices her to grow into the character, so the lines will come up naturally from inside.
  • Memento MacGuffin: The key.
  • Mind Screw: A given for director Satoshi Kon.
  • Mood Whiplash: Several, but especially when Chiyoko walks off a movie set into the devastation of firebombed Tokyo.
  • Mook Chivalry: When Chiyoko plays the Lady of War in the forest, the mooks are coming at her one at a time.
  • No Name Given: The mysterious man who gives Chiyoko the key.
  • Only Sane Man: Kyouji Ida (the cameraman).
  • The Ojou: Chiyoko is from a well-to-do family that doesn't approve of actresses. Chiyoko doesn't necessarily fit the personality — although her mother certainly does — but she has the semi-aristocratic bearing and manners.
    • Chiyoko is called "ojou-sama" even before she becomes an actress.
    • She plays (or is) a princess in the Fujiwara clan in a movie set the Heian era. See also Meaningful Name.
  • Pensieve Flashback: Mostly in the form of movie scenes, but we get a few real ones.
  • Posthumous Character: The artist Chiyoko loves died in police custody shortly after they met. Neither she nor the audience is aware of his fate until the end of the movie.
  • Proscenium Reveal: In the scene where adult Chiyoko talks to her mother, we are to believe this is a real scene, but in the next shot we see this being a scene in a movie and the director shouting "cut".
  • Race for Your Love: Her entire life, Chiyoko was literately and figuratively chasing the man of her dreams.
  • The Reveal: A bunch of them. For example, the fate of the man who gave Chiyoko the key.
  • Scenery Porn
  • Show Within a Show: Chiyoko's movies, although they blur with her memories and indeed the "present day" in Millennium Actress.
  • Spiritual Successor: To Perfect Blue (according to Word of God, in the interview section of the DVD).
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: The romance between Chiyoko and her on-the-run love interest never comes to fruition.
  • Time Travel: Not literally, but the characters do skip around from one era to another — or at least those time periods as depicted in Chiyoko's films. See also Anachronic Order and Empathic Environment.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Rather, the creepy old woman with the spinning wheel in the mirror — eep.
  • Those Two Actors: In-Universe, Chiyoko and Eiko Shimao, no matter how much the latter hates it.
  • Time-Compression Montage: Combined with Good Times Montage to illustrate the heady early days of Chiyoko's career in the gloriously animated "Rickshaw Montage" sequence.
  • Together in Death: Chiyoko calls upon this trope in the "Romeo and Juliet" flashback.
  • Train-Station Goodbye: Chiyoko chases that artist to the train station but arrives just as the train departs. subverted in that he's already dead.
  • Wanting Is Better Than Having: Chiyoko's last line is that it's the pursuit of the artist that she truly loves.
  • White-Dwarf Starlet: For the most part, an Averted Trope. Chiyoko wasn't abandoned by the movie business; she abandoned it. Years later, she harbors no illusions about returning to her former glory. Moreover, she was never drawn to the glamor of the movie business; she became an actress in hopes to meeting the artist who gave her the key; she stayed an actress after the war to keep food on the table during Japan post-war devastation, and she chose to accept her role as a star because she hoped it would lead to a reunion with the artist who gave her the key. When she realized she was no longer the girl he had known, she had a Freak Out and quit, because she wanted him to remember her as he had known her.


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