Millennium AMAZING: Why Millennium Actress's Ending Succeeds

A while back, I wrote a rant about why Perfect Blue’s twist ending didn't work. One particular part of it still sticks out in my mind to this day:
“Ultimately, this twist makes me question why Perfect Blue is frequently considered one of Satoshi Kon’s best. It’s not, it’s a crappy movie directed by a man who’d go on to greater works in the future.”
Remember how I stated that Perfect Blue’s ending haunts me like a cocaine addiction? That’s because the ending wouldn’t really stick out as much if Satoshi Kon, the director, hadn’t gone on to improve his craft in future projects. Paranoia Agent, for example, would take what the twist represented, which wasn’t bad, and make it work, while Millennium Actress, his film following Perfect Blue, would demonstrate that he could, in fact, pull-off twist endings; in fact, it’s the latter work that I plan on discussing, as Millennium Actress’s ending really is that good.

I want to remind everyone, as with my Perfect Blue post, that this’ll contain spoilers. I’ll be dissecting the ending and revealing some plot details, so if you don’t want the movie ruined, then please click on another article. This is your last warning. For everyone else, allow me to shed light on why Millennium Actress’s ending feels like a direct response to Perfect Blue’s ending. Ready, and…go!

For context, Millennium Actress is the story of a bankrupt film studio that commissions a director, named Genya Tachibana, and his cameraman, Kyōji Ida, to interview legendary actress Chiyoko Fujiwara as a last-minute attempt to archive their history. Initially reluctant, Chiyoko opens up when Genya reveals a missing key that once belonged to her. Said key was given to her by a mysterious man during WWII after saving his life and offering him shelter from the police. Despite his stay being brief, the two promised to one day be together, and Chiyoko would spend the next few decades, as well as multiple film roles, searching for him.

Before I tackle the twists, there are some noticeable details that elevate Millennium Actress qualitatively over its predecessor. For one, the animation’s far crisper, a clear sign of a budget increase. And two, the film has a tighter focus, a clear sign of greater confidence. This isn’t to say the movie’s perfect, mind you: the core narrative’s a tad cliché, while the structure can often come off as repetitive. The recurring motif of earthquakes still doesn’t make sense after a repeat viewing, although I suppose it’s a metaphor for the fragility of Chiyoko’s psyche. Also, the whole “eternal youth” subplot makes no sense on a literal level, even if the potion that Chiyoko drinks represents her being doomed to chase the man of her dreams forever.

Anyway, the brilliance of the narrative comes into play at the end, when a mid-aged Chiyoko’s confronted by a police officer who’d caused her misery for so long. Said officer is hobbling on a crutch, having lost a leg, and is missing an eye. In his tired, regretful way, he apologizes for the hardship he’s put her through, and he hands her a letter the man of her dreams had written for her. In that moment, her long-dead search for the man reawakens, and she darts off to find him again. Cut back to the present, where Chikoyo passes out from excitement and is rushed to the hospital.

It’s here where we get the first twist. Unbeknownst to Chiyoko, Genya, who was present at the time, informs his cameraman that the officer told him the truth: the man of Chiyoko’s dreams was tortured to death all those years ago. Chiyoko’s, therefore, been chasing a shadow memory. This is a great twist because it passes my litmus test of being contextually relevant and a proper plot driver, both of which are important for a twist to work. But it’s also really sad, retroactively making Chiyoko’s quest a doomed one.

And then, as if to flip the first twist on its head, we get a second, even more powerful twist in the film’s last line: like Chiyoko says herself, it’s the chase she really loves the most.

This is brilliant for several reasons. Firstly, as with the first twist, it passes my personal litmus test. Secondly, it reframes Chiyoko’s quest from one of blind optimism to plain old optimism, giving her agency. And thirdly, and this can’t be stated plainly enough, it speaks to an ever-longing desire for purpose in life. So what if the goal is farfetched and impossible? As every good dreamer can attest, the longing for the dream is as important, if not more important, as the dream itself.

The best comparison I can make is to another movie that’s elevated by its end-twist. Remember Memento, Christopher Nolan’s second feature-film? It's brilliant, but a good chunk of that brilliance centres around its end twist. The film centres around Leonard, a man with short-term memory loss, figuring out the mystery of his wife’s murder. He uses pictures and tattoos to help him, all-the-while shirking off the warnings of a cop named Teddy. If that’s not complicated enough, the main storyline, which is told backwards, is interwoven with another storyline about a man with short-term memory loss who accidentally killed his diabetic wife through an insulin overdose, which is told forwards.

The twist in that film, which is revealed in the final minutes, meld both storylines via a single reveal: Leonard was the one who accidentally killed his wife. The “murdered wife” story was a coping mechanism, one he repeatedly uses to avoid his guilt. In that instance, Leonard transforms from sympathetic to unsympathetic, completely revoking all pity the audience has for him. And yet, because he can’t remember this anyway, it doesn’t end up mattering.

Millennium Actress, though different narratively and tonally, has a double-twist ending that works in a similar vein. Chiyoko may not be a Leonard, but she’s not passive. Her story goes from being about destiny to agency, similar to Leonard’s, and that’s why it’s so compelling. Not to mention, in keeping with the Japanese mantra of mono no aware (or “the apathy of it all”), her not caring if she’s chasing a lie, despite not knowing that it is one, adds an extra layer.

Which is what makes Millennium Actress so impactful. It’s as if Satoshi Kon looked at the feedback of Perfect Blue, saw what didn’t work about its ending and decided to fix it. The end-result wasn’t only an improvement, but also a complete rethinking on my part as to whether or not Kon could actually be clever. I’m still not completely in-love with his work, as I’ve stated before, but if Millennium Actress is indication, he probably could’ve done something this good again if he’d tried. It’s too bad he passed away at the peak of his career, but it’s no use crying over that…


Popular Posts