Earlier this year we lost Japanese animator Satoshi Kon to pancreatic cancer at the far too young age of 46. He left behind possibly the most heartbreaking note I’ve ever read. It concludes with, “With feelings of gratitude for all that is good in this world, I put down my pen. Well, I’ll be leaving now.” He also left behind a handful of the most remarkable animated films imaginable. To commemorate his death, the Asheville Film Society is screening his Millennium Actress (2001), the second of the four feature films Kon completed. (His final film, The Dreaming Machine, is being completed by his collaborators.) If you only know Kon from Paprika (2006), you’ll likely find that this won’t get you as high, but it probably has more emotional resonance. That, by the way, isn’t to say Millennium Actress is exactly your normal narrative. It spans 60 years, several countries and outer space—and it freely moves in and out of movies and reality.
The film—which begins with a science-fiction-tease opening that finally becomes central to the narrative—works from a simple framing story that has a TV interviewer seeking out a once famous, but now reclusive movie star in order to shoot footage of her telling her life story. He, however, is much more connected to the star than he lets on. As the actress tells her story—all of which is focused on her attempts to find a man she fell in love with as little more than a child—the line between past and present, reality and the world of the star’s movies becomes increasingly indistinct. That probably sounds more difficult to follow than it is. In truth, the narrative flows smoothly—with a winning combination of humor, emotional resonance and striking, indelible imagery. It’s a film to be savored, though I wouldn’t want to say too much for first-time viewers, since it’s also a film where the first viewing has a special magic of its own.