A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this Japanese animation is no simplistic Speed Racer adventure but an intricate, surreal plotline that blends the make-believe of filmmaking with the "real" life of an actress. Kids may be confused by the multiple levels, shifting time-periods, and the ambiguous, bittersweet ending (which is a tenderly metaphorical death from old age). There is studio-set violence -- war, ninja fighting -- that overlaps with the real deal, but never graphically. The heroine considers killing herself with a knife (in a role). Talk of another character dying under government torture. Be prepared for Japanese language with subtitles, rather than English-dubbed editions.
What's the story?
As a Japanese movie studio demolishes its old soundstages, blustery exec Genya and irreverent young videographer Ida start a documentary on one of their stars, actress Chiyoko Fujiwara, who retired at the height of her career. They find the reclusive Chiyoko -- 70, the same age as the studio -- gracious and hospitable. Her memories of growing up against the rising Japanese fascism of the 1930s are so vivid that Genya (who, comically, has a lifelong infatuation with Chiyoko) and Ida find themselves back in flashbacks with her, dutifully videotaping the girl's childhood brief encounter with a handsome, nameless artist running from Japanese authorities. This fugitive gives Chiyoko a gold key to "the most important thing there is" and disappears. Discovered by a talent agent, Chiyoko turns film actress to track her mystery man to Manchuria, where a propaganda drama is to shoot. During this, the two-man documentary crew reappears as observers/characters in Chiyoko's films -- historical pageants of thwarted love and romantic yearning, set amidst samurai, ninjas, and 20th-century soldiers. Truth and fiction blend in Chiyoko's life, career, and unending search for her nameless first love.
Is it any good?
It would be hard to imagine how to successfully realize the movie's dazzling premise outside of animation. There are three timelines, one spanning a thousand years (and extending into the space-travel future), the other Japan's last hundred years or so, and finally the arc of Chiyoko's own 20th-century life -- or reincarnations of several lives. Or re-enactments for the film-studio cameras. Or all of the above. Yes, it helps to have a knowledge of Japanese history, culture, and cinema (even a Godzilla lookalike cameos), but even without noticing the recurring lotus-flower or crane visuals, MILLENNIUM ACTRESS works beautifully as arty drama and a bittersweet, if rather rosy, picture of obsessive first love.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the meaning of the film and its complicated structure. Ask kids if they had trouble following the multi-faceted storyline. What do they think is "the most important thing there is?"
What are the "hot" Japanese titles in animation and comic books at the moment, and why?
Chiyoko suffers throughout the movie from an adolescent crush. Ask kids how deep they've gotten with hopeless love, and whether they think what Chiyoko puts herself through in this movie is even healthy.
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