Through four features (and one TV series, “Paranoia Agent,” still unseen by me), Satoshi Kon- who passed away at the all-too-young age of 47 this past week- created himself a singular place in the world of Anime. He eschewed the kiddie fantasy and violent genre entries that are largely associated with the art form, and created films born of the hearts and minds of their characters. Whether it’s the psychologically-unbalanced actress of “Perfect Blue” (one of the best thrillers Hitchcock never made), the homeless caretakers of a child in “Tokyo Godfathers” (itself based of a film by John Ford), or the dreamscapes at the heart of “Paprika” (which paved the way for Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”), Kon was in a class by himself.
His 2003 film “Millennium Actress,” however, is an entirely different beast, and in many ways, the most audacious experiment in all of Anime. On the surface, you could do this film in live-action, but it’s unlikely it would be a good one, because, well, you just couldn’t follow it. Well, maybe if Charlie Kaufman wrote it…
A legendary movie studio is being destroyed, and to mark the occasion, a documentary filmmaker is to interview the actress who brought the studio many of its greatest successes, only to disappear from the spotlight at the height of her career. Now she lives as a hermit near the studio. She agrees to the interview after the director gives her a key she lost many years ago.
What does the key symbolize? A lifetime of memories, long lost. In a way it’s similar to the drawing in “Titanic”- it opens up the floodgates for a lifetime that was never fully understood by anyone other than the woman who lived it. And like James Cameron, Satoshi Kon mixes modern day moments with the past to tell his story.
In the end, though, Kon wins out. The way he blends past and present is by creating a fantasy journey that the filmmakers seem to literally be drawn into. As the actress unlocks her memories, we see the interviewer and his cameraman thrust into the action which, when all is ultimately revealed in a surprising and emotional revelation, seems more and more right.
While his stories are more adult, Satoshi Kon- in his artistry- is the closest rival to Miyazaki that the medium has delivered. This is such a beautiful and deeply moving film- truly one of the most original films I’ve ever seen (to even hint at the surprises Kon has in store is to do him a disservice). And it’s the masterpiece of a filmmaker who forged his own path, and made my moviegoing life more richly satisfying as a result. He will be missed.