The Daily Stream: 'Millennium Actress' Is A Masterpiece For The Ages

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: Millennium Actress

Where You Can Stream It: Criterion Channel

The Pitch: Two documentary filmmakers score an interview with an elusive legendary actress who had mysteriously retired 30 years earlier. While she walks them through her life from her childhood in war-torn Japan to her career as one of the most beloved screen icons in the country, they find themselves transformed from observers to participants in her life and her movies, aiding the actress in her eternal search for a man with whom she met and fell in love with as a teenager.

Why It's Essential Viewing: The Criterion Channel recently added Millennium Actress to its Art-House Animation series, which is a good time to remind you that director Satoshi Kon, in his tragically short career, never made a single bad movie. While Western audiences may be more familiar with his widely influential masterworks Paprika or Perfect Blue (which inspired films like Inception and Requiem for a Dream, respectively), Millennium Actress remains my favorite film of his. A dreamy, nostalgic love letter to cinema, Millennium Actress is possibly Kon's least cynical and most romantic film — even when Chiyoko, the titular actress, admits of her eternal search for her lost love: "After all, it's the chasing after him that I really love!"

Yearning. It's what powers so much of cinema — the yearning for love, for power, for connection. And Millennium Actress both unpacks and embraces that yearning, by telling the story of a young woman, Chiyoko Fujiwara, who is forever searching for one man for her entire life.

She meets him as a teenager, after he bumps into her on the street and kindly offers her a hand before she notices that he's bleeding. Realizing that he's a political revolutionary on the run from the Japanese government, she hides him away in her family shed, where he tells her that he's a painter who opposes the Sino-Japanese War and promises to tell her about his hometown. However, before she can meet him again, he's discovered by authorities and is forced to go on the run again, but not before he hands her a key that he tells her unlocks something "important."

Chiyoko cherishes the key and decides to become an actress so that someday the man might see her and they can be reunited again. The yearning lights a fire not only in her soul, but in her acting career — always playing a character searching for the love of her life. It turns her into a screen icon and a national treasure, so much so that she eventually begins to lose the distinction between the characters that she plays and the teenage girl she was when she fell in love. Even the two documentary filmmakers, who parse through Chiyoko's life as she tells it, starts to mix reality and fiction together too — traveling with Chiyoko from the wintry vistas of Manchuria where she shot her first film, to feudal Japan where she played a warrior princess, to the skies that she traverses as a lovesick astronaut, to the war-torn World War II countryside where Chiyoko is taken prisoner for abetting a political fugitive.

The film is depicted in muted colors in a nostalgic imitation of Japanese cinema from the '40s to the '70s (some of the shots might be pulled directly from a Yasujiro Ozu film), with the exception of the bright red scarf that Chiyoko remembers her lost lover by. It's a lavish, reality-blurring piece of cinematic art that plays with the medium in ways that live-action would be hard-pressed to imitate, nor should it.

There is so much stuff in Millennium Actress — a star-crossed romance, an All About Eve rivalry between an aging diva and a young starlet, a tapestry of the rich and complicated recent history of Japan. But amidst all of these things — not to mention the love letter to cinema that spans sci-fi, kaiju, historical, and horror genres — is a surprisingly subdued treatise on identity. It's one of Kon's favorite themes — he's explored the construction of the self in the psychological thriller Perfect Blue and the sci-fi adventure Paprika. But here is Kon's most delicate examination of the idea, one that is much more ordinary and bittersweet. Age, and eventually death, may come for us all, but it's in the yearning that we stay eternally young.