Millennium Actress screens at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, March 27 to Tuesday, March 29. For tickets and more information, scroll to the bottom of this post.
On the banks of a manmade lake in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park stands a line of Grecian columns that are not Greek.
They’re Victorian and salvaged from an 1891 mansion that collapsed during the 1906 quake. Visitors to the park rarely notice the columns, likely distracted (or chased by) squawking waterfowl in Lloyd Lake.
Those who wonder at their improbable location long enough to pull out their smartphone—
if it isn’t out already, documenting every moment of waking existence in our nation’s garden of technology—find out what these pillars are.
Arnold Genthe, a German-American photographer, photographed these columns shortly after the decimation of the city of San Francisco. He used the charred entry of Alban Towne’s Nob Hill mansion as a frame within a photographic frame. The burnt-out husk of a city peeks out from beyond the blackened edges.
Genthe’s photograph is now in the DeYoung Museum’s photography collection; it has reached its historio-aesthetic apotheosis. I do not know if the photograph saved the marble entryway. And I do not know if the photograph got its title (“Portals of the Past”) after the pillars were relocated to the park.
Lived experience and art can be slippery like that. Delusion, allusion, and illusion all converge in the mind to describe how we feel and who we are and have been.
We enter the heart of Satoshi Kon’s 2001 masterpiece Millennium Actress through a portal to the past, too. Following a documentarian-cum-film actress otaku (Genya Tachibana) and his snarky cameraman, we arrive at the antiquated yashiki where Chiyoko Fujiwara lives. She is the anti-Norma Desmond, a gentle woman who has withdrawn from the public eye much like real life actress Setsuko Hara did after the passing of director Yasujiro Ozu.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) took us through a similar cave—one that also acted as a line of demarcation between a recognizable contemporary reality and something fantastical. Kon is known for the fantastical (Paprika, 2006), but Millennium‘s graceful manipulation of allusion and parallel feels more playful—or at least far less threatening than his other films, like Perfect Blue. Millennium is a film of parallels and mirrored images, of poetic chime and graphic matches. It is a love letter to cinematic history that takes creative license, much in the same way a film like Singin’ in the Rain does.
The film’s allusions are less familiar to Western audiences: Millennium references Keisuke Kinoshita’s Twenty-Four Eyes (1954); Shichihenge Tanuki Goten featuring Mizora Hibari (1954); Yasujiro Ozu’s oeuvre; and even pop-cultural, one-offs like 1987’s Here Comes Miss Modern. While a casual viewer of the film will recognize kaiju movies like Godzilla, it’s these more subtle glances at Japanese film history that haunt the film and its protagonist. If we look closely enough, we see almost perfect graphic matches of lesser-known cinema classics that were never afforded the international attention they deserved at the time of their production. Many of these films were gendaigeki, seishunmono, or ningen dorama, films that portrayed the smaller triumphs and travails of contemporary Japanese life.
Unfortunately, the Western moviegoing public from the 1950s until, well, very recently, only wanted images of quaint, preindustrial Japan (jidaigeki).  Rashomon’s runaway success with Western audiences fit a colonialist and racist image that imagined Japan as a land of samurai and geisha despite having just engaged in an armed conflict with the country that clearly did not involve much swordsmanship.
Through its allusions to these contemporary films, Millennium becomes more nuanced. We see that Chiyoko’s family sympathizes with leftists, just as the schoolteacher in Kinoshita’s Twenty-Four Eyes shows concern for a colleague found in possession of a Communist reform pamphlet.
Chiyoko’s experience entangles itself with the fictional roles she is assigned and brings a more complex understanding to the viewer: namely that we are “like people in history” (to steal from Felice Picano), that we are swept away by time and circumstance. Bumping into a stranger on a snowy day could lead to a life of creative output and passion.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, social turmoil, and in the shadow of a looming refugee crisis and, perhaps, a third World War, this all seems more pertinent than ever.
Other animated films like Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises subtly convey this message too. The films remind us that, while we feel entitled to criticize past generations and assign personal responsibility to people who didn’t resist enough, life is a little too complicated to paint with such a broad brush. Future generations might ask us why the people of our time didn’t regulate Facebook, or why we didn’t do something to halt climate change.
So, in our present age of sweeping historical winds so much larger than ourselves, where we live our lives more and more through the intermediary of digital images and social media, Millennium Actress seems prophetic for a two-decade-old film. We chase after love through the propagation of memes and challenges on social media, through the application of the just right GIF in a text exchange. We are all living like Chiyoko does in her old age: unable to discern the origin of the allusion, the illusion, or the image.
Two nights ago, I dreamt of earthquakes and women in hakama and Napoleonic headgear because of this film. It was strange and mildly alarming, but joy and new thought can be born out of confusion and struggle. The film ends on a similar note (that I won’t ruin for you), but chimes with these lines from Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story: “Despite my fears and my aching loneliness, I believed without a doubt in a better world, which was adulthood or New York or Paris or love.”
 For more on this kind of argument, see Meghan Warner Mettler, “‘Godzilla versus Kurosawa: Presentation and Interpretation of Japanese Cinema in the Post World War II United States,’” The Journal of American-East Asian Relations 25, no. 4 (2018): 413–37, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26613850.
 Edmund White, A Boy’s Own Story (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 134.
Edited by Brad Stiffler and Michelle Baroody