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Anime / Millennium Actress

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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. The film was inspired by Real Life actress Setsuko Hara, who retired from the business in 1962 and never said a word to the press from then until her death in 2015 at the age of 95.

This anime provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: See Lady of War.
  • Actually, That's My Assistant: The identity of the old woman answering the door to Chiyoko's house briefly surprises Genya and his cameraman. Turns out it's only the maid and not Chiyoko herself.
  • 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.)
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  • 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. In particular, for torturing the Man with the Key to death
  • 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 filmstar 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.
  • Bookends: Chiyoko taking off in a spaceship. Earthquakes are Bookends 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.
  • Conservation of Detail: All of the fat has been stripped out of the story. For instance, we're shown how a jealous Eiko nearly got Chiyoko fired from her first picture by bribing a fortune teller to send her across Manchuria on a wild goose chase but the actual chase and its aftermath get left out as superfluous to the story.
  • Cradle To Grave Character: The title character's life story is depicted by way of her film career. It also plays with the concept as the settings of her films span from medieval Japan to science fiction.
  • 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.
  • Dead All Along: The artist died during the war, having been tortured to death. Something Chiyoko never learns and even then she indicates that she doesn't care either way since she'll be able to chase him in the afterlife.
  • 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 that much of what we see is a mix of Chiyoko's memories with the movies she was making at the time as conjured by her and Genya' s imaginations so the environment really is Chiyoko's emotional state, not a real place that just happens to mirror it. See also Time Travel.
  • Evil Laugh: 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 making his documentary.
    • 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 a lowly intern. (Not that she was a snob; he was just too timid to dare intrude into her world.) Then one day he saved her life during an earthquake and perhaps she would have noticed him after that — but that was also 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: Kouji always retains his modern dress and camera equipment, even in the the medieval settings. Genya not so much.
  • 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 along with her present-day imagination with contributions from Genya and his cameraman Kyouji Ida. See also Anachronic Order, Empathic Environment, Pensieve Flashback, Time Travel.
  • Flower Motifs: Lotus flowers are seen prominently throughout the film, Chiyoko mentions identifying herself with them, and even the launching hatch for the spaceship in the space era is shaped as a lotus flower.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The film is sprinkled with hints that Chiyoko will die at the end:
      • Her first words during the interview are that the most significant moments of her life are punctuated by earthquakes. She was born during one, and there is an earthquake before the interview, with its aftershocks interrupting it occasionally, until Chiyoko collapses during a major quake as the interview ends.
      • When Genya notices that Chiyoko doesn't feel well, she insists on continuing the interview because she won't be able to do it the next day.
      • After an aftershock, Chiyoko refuses her medication.
    • Genya starting to say the Anguished Declaration of Love at the beginning of the film along with the actor in the Show Within a Show. Also, during said film was the incident where Genya saved her life and got the key she lost and why Chiyoko quit acting.
    • Genya's insistence on helping Chiyoko throughout the film reach the painter. Notice when Chiyoko began her run to Hokkaido, the younger Genya stayed behind with the former policeman, which was when the latter tells him the truth about what happened to the man.
  • 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 Manchuria at the time it could also 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: Genya's 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 Roulette: 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-Eyed Monster:
    • Genya witnessing/remembering Chiyoko's relationship with their former director Otaki.
    • Eiko, who can tell from their first meeting that Chiyoko will soon supplant her.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: In several of the flashbacks Genya comes to save his love Chiyoko at the last possible moment while putting himself in danger. These moments include:
    • 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.
    • Tuck and Cover: Genya throws himself over Chiyoko to protect her from falling debris when the space-shuttle set collapses.
  • He Went That Way: Chiyoko dupes the police who are chasing the young painter twice by pointing them in the wrong direction.
  • Ignored Enamored Underling: Genya started his own filmmaking career as an intern for director Otaki on several of Chiyoko's films, a fact only revealed near the end of the picture.
  • The Ingenue: Chiyoko as depicted in her early flashbacks.
  • In Space, Everyone Can See Your Face: The spacesuits helmets have big visors without reflective coatings to make the actors' faces visible.
  • 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 from that movie). Genya also saved Chiyoko's life during an earthquake more than three decades before he starts making the Framing Device documentary so his self-appointed role as Chiyoko's perennial savior is somewhat justified.
  • In Love with Love: Chiyoko.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Chiyoko in one of her film roles as a princess. 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.
  • Jidaigeki: 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.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Cameraman Kouji does this all the time, calling attention to the constant shifts in location ("What happened to Manchuria?") or era ("Aren't you dressed for the wrong period?") as Chiyoko's story progresses.
  • 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 (794–1185), 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. Chiyoko forgets her lines when making her first picture and the director advises her to grow into the character so the lines will come up naturally from inside...and they do, shocking Eiko and proving Chiyoko is indeed a natural.
  • 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.
  • Montage: the justly famous "rickshaw montage" that summarizes the golden age of Chiyoko's career is a masterpiece of animated filmaking.
  • 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, although Genya himself knew all along.
  • Propaganda Piece: In-Universe Chiyoko's debut (or one of her early films, it's deliberately left unclear) was an Imperial propaganda film set in Manchuria, with the producer even using service to her country as a way to convince her.
  • 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.
  • The Rival: Eiko to Chiyoko. Eiko is an older, established actress who is relegated to side roles once the young Chiyoko breaks onto the scene - and it's something of a one-sided rivalry because Chiyoko doesn't seem to bear Eiko any ill will.
  • Sailor Fuku: Chiyoko wears a genuine 1930s-era winter uniform made out of heavy wool for durability and cut with "room to grow" bagginess in the scenes depicting her childhood.
  • Scenery Porn
  • Shout-Out: The creepy old spirit lady who haunts Chiyoko's life (first appearing in one of her jidai-geki films) has a strong resemblance to the woods witch with the spinning wheel from Kurosawa's Throne of Blood.
  • Show Within a Show: Chiyoko's movies, although they blur with her memories and indeed the "present day" in Millennium Actress.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: This film is more idealistic and heartfelt than his previous film, Perfect Blue.
  • 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.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: It's shown in flashback that Chiyoko's mother had this view and didn't want her to become an actress in the propaganda film viewing marrying and having children as more patriotic, as was very common in 1930s Japan. And while she does relax this view later on, she still pressures her to get married if only for the sake of her career.
  • 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. And her goal to find the artist she loves in the afterlife after she passes away.
  • 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.
  • Typecasting: in-Universe Eiko quickly grows to resent Chiyoko because she tends to get typecast as the antagonist in her stories (the Femme Fatale, Alpha Bitch, Evil Matriarch, etc.) no thanks to her age.
  • The Unreveal: Pretty much everything about the Man with the Key—what his key goes to, what the painting he was working on was of (although Chiyoko imagines what it is at one point), what sort of "anti-government" activity he was engaged in, even what he really looked like.
  • 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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