Millennium Actress (2003)

We’ve elected the Terminator. He’s returned from the future again, this time to save California, which should be easy, compared to saving the planet. But the recall election is only the latest, and perhaps most tragically hilarious example of the ever-blurry line between truth and fiction.

Millennium Actress, the second anime offering from director Satoshi Kon (who made Perfect Blue in 1997) explores this shifting territory in a style as elegant and epic as the Terminator’s is brutish and plodding. Now available on a DVD from DreamWorks, the film comprises the memoir of fictional Japanese movie star Chiyoko Fujiwara (voiced by Miyoko Shoji in her 70s, Mami Koyama in her 30s and 40s, and Fumiko Orikasa in her youth), as she speaks to a documentary filmmaker and his cameraman. Her narration quickly gives way to flashbacks, in turn intertwined with her movie roles. Memory fuses with fiction and history, and both are subordinated to Chiyoko’s overwhelming drive to fulfill a girlhood desire.

In the first flashback, set in WWII Japan, we see a preteen Chiyoko help a mysterious artist to escape from the police by hiding him in her family’s storage shed. He sneaks away one night, leaving behind a mysterious key that he has told her is “the key to the most important thing in the world.” From that moment on, Chiyoko has found her life’s pursuit: to return the key to its rightful owner, a man with whom, in the swoon of adolescence, she is convinced she is in love. Narrating a luminous career encompassing roles in everything from Shogun-era historical epics to futuristic space adventures, she manages to bend the storyline of each movie to her single, relentless quest to return the key and be reunited with her beloved. The costumes, scenery, and supporting characters change endlessly around her, but the drama is ever the same.

Simultaneously a personal memoir and a snapshot history of Japan over the past century, Chiyoko’s story suggests that the line between truth and fiction is not only blurry; it’s invisible. Scenes transition so seamlessly or suddenly that it’s never exactly clear where in time and space she’ll end up next. In one startling sequence, Chiyoko plays a Meiji-era (1868-1912) prisoner who spies her beloved in the halls and chases him through a doorway, only to find herself back in “real” life, in the middle of a World War II air raid.

This continual flux of time, place and persona is balanced by the increasing involvement of the filmmaker and cameraman. Appearing initially as bystanders (akin to Mr. Scrooge’s ghostly visits to Christmas past), they eventually become part of the story, even becoming characters in Chiyoko’s films. As observers, they remind us that Chiyoko’s tale is itself a performance, composed for an audience. But as participants with their own memories of her films, they help to construct the story, grounding it in the reality of a shared experience: film serves as a kind of communal memory.

Millennium Actress is smart and complex and beautifully constructed. Unlike most of the anime films popular in the States, there are no giant robots, tentacle rapes, or morphing mutant blobs. Instead, it’s a brilliant, joyous roller coaster meditation on how desire can shape not only the course of one’s life, but also the process of recalling and understanding that life, and how our personal memories are thoroughly intertwined with community and history.

Such a rich and heady film rewards the kind of repeat viewings possible on DVD, and I was surprised to find that a friend of mine, a true connoisseur of anime, had been disappointed. Although he routinely absorbs the fantastic, complicated and disjunctive narratives of Cowboy Bebop and FLCL with ease, in this case I think he was looking for something else, a Japanese history lesson or something more closely resembling “reality.” At first I thought his reading too literal, but upon further reflection, realized that his reaction was not so far from my own just a few weeks earlier when faced with a similar suspension of “truth.”

In a class on the personal essay, my teacher had assigned a pair of readings. The first piece was a criticism of memoirist Vivian Gornick, who had admitted to “composing” parts of her memoir, Fierce Attachments. The second was Gornick’s response, in which she maintained that it was sometimes necessary to sacrifice absolute fidelity in order to communicate a greater, underlying truth. It bothered me that Gornick had played fast and loose with details of time, place, personality, and dialogue. Shouldn’t a writer who claimed to be writing from personal experience remain faithful to the “truth,” even if it was only the truth as she happened to perceive it on any given day?

To my surprise, not one of the other students in the class took issue with Gornick’s creative license. They all asserted that it was perfectly okay to use composite characters, compress timelines, and simply “make stuff up.” Oddly, I found myself siding with Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, who wrote, “There’s a word for that: fiction.”

I wasn’t sure why I was being so curmudgeonly. In graduate school, we tossed phrases like “social construction” and “subject formation” around like rag dolls. History is told by the winners; race, gender and sexuality are arbitrary markers along the continuum of human variation; individuality is merely a by-product of language. But this time I was the dumb bunny, the thickheaded literalist in search of “truth” and “reality.” Despite my excellent education to the contrary, it bothered me that someone could write a personal essay about something that wasn’t entirely true. It was acceptable to misremember, to have forgotten a detail — such is the purview of the “personal” — but to alter time willfully, or make up a conversation? It just didn’t seem right.

Like Chiyoko’s key, I suspected that the source of my intransigence began somewhere back in the recesses of childhood. In those days, the line between truth and fiction was sharply drawn, and fiction was my best friend. I knew entire passages of Black Beauty by heart, and was so taken with a book called Little Mouse on the Prairie that I turned it into a recurring game involving elaborate reconfiguration of pillows from our sectional. In contrast, my dad was and is strictly a nonfiction kind of guy. I always associated his reading list, full of business strategy and biography, with dry, adult reality. Fiction and make-believe were luxuries of childhood. Maturity seemed paved with books by Lee Iacocca.

So it seems perilous that lately I’ve been feeling rather grown up. I’d rather listen to NPR than the hyperactive dramas played out in popular music. I would watch the Food Network 24 hours a day if I didn’t have to make a living, and I haven’t read a novel in over a year. I’m beginning to understand my father’s fascination with “reality.” As I get older, I’m confronted with an ever-increasing number of things over which I have no control (I can’t think of a better definition of reality). Nonfiction, documentary, and even the news are more interesting because they’re all stories of how other people deal with things over which they have no control.

Of course, reality looks a little different these days. Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair have shown us that journalism, that bastion of objectivity, is susceptible to the wiles of fiction. And “reality” on television is set up and edited for maximum shock value. Everyone knows it’s fake, but therein lies its appeal. Unlike traditional documentaries, reality tv never fails to expose the seam between truth and fiction. It reveals the workings beneath the surface, not just by going “behind the scenes” (interviews with participants, night-vision “private” moments), but also by transplanting “reality” into the well-ordered universe of a game show. Reality TV is neither wholly real, nor totally fake: we know we are watching a performance, and the performers know we are watching them.

Similarly, Millennium Actress makes us aware of how we construct the narratives of our own lives. Although it remains firmly within the realm of fiction, it asserts that the power to understand our destiny and to share it (and hopefully shape it) with others lies within our own memories and imaginations. The very real fact that the Terminator is now my governor makes me want to cry, but it also makes me strangely proud to live in California, this state of hyperreality where truth and fiction are one.