Nowadays anime films are taking more and more ground, reaching a wider and wider audience of people. If you are into this genre and you like to watch somewhat more recherché films, you have certainly heard about Millennium Actress (2001), a Japanese animated drama co-written and directed by Satoshi Kon. Loosely recalling the actresses’ Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine lives, it tells the story of two documentary filmmakers investigating the life of a retired acting legend called Chiyoko Fujiwara. As she tells them the story of her life, the borderline between cinema and reality gradually becomes blurred making us viewers feel lost, before coming to an ending in which everything connects.
The common thread of the entire movie is undoubtedly love. Not the typical one of romantic movies that while tormenting leads to a happy ending, but rather the kind of devotion that becomes obsession and corrodes the soul of those pervaded by it. Toward the end of the movie this love becomes almost enervating in the eyes of us viewers, who feel helpless in front of this young woman who has lived her whole life as a function of finding a man she has seen only once in her life. Love is therefore presented as a constant quest, which turns out in the end to have no result. The woman even decides to become a famous actress, hoping that one day the man she is in love with will see her on the big screen. If at times her sentiment seems noble, at others it verges on obsession. In the end we start asking ourselves, should this girl be rewarded for pursuing the same goal with perseverance her whole life or should she be blamed for wasting all her best years? As she herself says in the end while she is in the shuttle:
“After all, it is the pursuit of him that I really love”.
This sentence lets us understand that it was actually and only the illusion of looking for him gave her a reason to keep living.
Satoshi Kon’s movie is therefore the story of a platonic love that helps the protagonist to survive through war and the difficulties of life. The war was indeed the only element that kept the two lovers away from each other. Chiyoko’s montage of films in Millennium Actress can also represent the parable of everyone’s love life; the search for Love, and thus happiness, that is sometimes totally denied to us. As that “ghost” of an old woman who often appears in the background always says:
“What is not in this world will be in another world, time or space.”
Referring to another movie or to the afterlife. This sentence indeed seems to affirm that even if Chiyoko’s love died in that film it does not necessarily have to die in her other films, and in life itself; the essence of love does not expire while its physical part does. The protagonist will never escape her fate:
“Poor fool, you will have to keep chasing him as far as and when you can, no one can escape his fate”.
The movie is also imbued with very strong Symbolism. First of all, earthquakes. The film both starts and ends with a strong earth tremor, a natural catastrophe that is strictly linked to Chiyoko’s existence. As we learn from her story, her father dies right after her birth under the rubble during Kanto’s earthquake in 1923 and she herself dies after tremor. She herself says “my fate seems to be tied to earthquakes.” This natural catastrophe symbolizes upheaval and a continuous change, it destroys our certainties and securities to lay the foundation for building a new life project. And this is what often happens to Chiyoko during her existence; growing up in a reality (Japan’s) where riots and confrontations were the order of the day; the change from a bewildered young teenager to a successful actress; the meeting with the nameless painter who would become the beloved she chased all her life; the multiple identities she assumed during the performances of her films.
Another strong symbol is the lotus flower, as Genya works for the Lotus Studios. The lotus flower (for Buddhist culture) is connected to the concept of purity of soul and body, that is, a spiritual elevation provided by the particularity of it, which, although rooted in muddy environments, manages to keep itself pure and uncontaminated. Moreover, such a flower manages to grow even in adverse conditions. Such characterization of the lotus flower perfectly reflects Chiyoko’s character, who turns out at times to be a fish out of water in a corrupt world.
The figure of the interviewer is also crucial, who constantly follows Chiyoko in order to protect her. He accompanies her in all her films, always interpretating the so-called “helper”. He is a key presence that seems to be acknowledged often but not always by the actress, who does not even remember that it was him who had saved her life during the on-set accident. In other moments, however, she says of him, “I will never forget your affection and loyalty.” Perhaps this is the only form of love the actress will know in her whole life: a man totally devoted to her protection and happiness “Born to be near you, to serve you, to make you happy.”
In philosophical terms, the whole movie could be interpreted as a metaphor for the human condition. As humans, we spend our entire existence always longing for more and never being satisfied about our condition. In Gustave Flaubert’s roman Madame Bovary, a new kind of mental pathology is represented and was named by scholars Bovarysme, which basically denotes a tendency towards escapist daydreaming.
The protagonist of the story, Emma Bovary, as a child, used to read many love stories, which lit up in her the desire to live those adventures herself. However, as soon as she grew up and married a country doctor, she realized hers was a dull life and started to search for happiness in lovers. Unfortunately, she ended up being abandoned and convinced herself that the only way to escape a reality of suffering was through suicide. It is evident how Emma’s personal life is marked by constant dissatisfaction. She continuously creates an artificial life in her mind where she can get away and compensate an existence she considers to be undesirable. In the end this refusal of reality makes her become what she despises the most: the “anti-hero” devoid of energy, who loses any sense of reality and falls into madness.
Bovarysme is therefore a phenomenon highly applicable to modern civilization that consists in “the human will to see things as they are not”. People who suffer from this syndrome do not bear being alone and idealize the partner even when a relationship seems to be impossible. They are attracted by complicated and troubled individuals and are characterized by a deep fear of losing them.
This description comes very close to that of our dear protagonist Chiyoko, who derives complacency from the constant search for something that in the finale will turn out to be unattainable, as her beloved painter had actually died during the war.
By Serena P.