Distinctly Japanese: Satoshi Kon’s Millenium Actress and the Nature of Modern Japanese Culture

Japanese popular culture is often noted for its distinct lack of “Japaneseness,” or the scarcity of features that can expressly define its cultural products as unequivocally “Japanese.” A perfect example of this is Sanrio’s Hello Kitty character, which is one of the most instantly recognizable Japanese pop culture icons on the globe, yet essentially is a cat intended to be of British background.  In particular, Japanese animation, or anime, is well-known for its ambiguous representation of purportedly ethnic-Japanese characters. The use of large eyes and multi-colored hair for character designs and the science fiction and fantasy settings often employed in anime allow many viewers to forget that they are watching entertainment created in Japan.  Thus these features lend a certain mukokuseki or “stateless” aura to any animated work. Mukokuseki has been cited as being a factor in anime’s popularity outside of Japan, by allowing non-Japanese viewers to enjoy entertainment originally created for a Japanese audience.

DVD_R1The 2001 film, Millennium Actress (千年女優, Sennen Joyū), directed by Satoshi Kon, uses distinctly Japanese elements to defy convention and create an animated work that fits within the umbrella of “Japan Gross National Cool” while inverting the concept of mukokuseki. The interweaving of Japanese national and cinematic history drives the film’s narrative about a famous actress whose life story is chronicled by an admiring documentary filmmaker and his cameraman. According to a review in the New York Times, ”Millennium Actress is a headlong cartoon love letter to the grand tradition of post-World War II live-action Japanese cinema, from samurai epics to urban domestic dramas to Godzilla.” Not only is the anime unique in its unabashed reliance on Japanese culture, it also comments on the nature of Japanese pop culture itself, and how that culture is produced.

Japanese history plays such as large role Millennium Actress because the acting career of its heroine Chiyoko covers such a significant span of Japanese film history, from the 1930s through the 1960s. In turn, the films that Chiyoko stars in touch upon approximately one thousand years of Japanese history, from late Heian-era Japan circa 1000 A.D. to the Edo period in the mid 1800s, and subsequently through pre and post World War II Japan. As the filmmaker Genya and his young cameraman interview the elderly Chiyoko about her younger acting days for a documentary, her own story about her development as an actor and the search for her true love becomes entangled with the history of Japanese cinema and the history of Japan itself.

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HeianTo fully appreciate the narrative of Millennium Actress requires some knowledge of Japanese history, since the rapid cycling through multiple time periods leaves little time for explanation for the viewer. At an early point in the anime, the film jumps from Chiyoko’s acting debut in Manchuria to a scene from one of her movies set at the end of Heian-era Japan. The scene change is so abrupt that only the characters’ appearance (with Chiyoko dressed in a twelve-layer kimono and sporting the trademark Heian painted eyebrows) and visual homages to the Akira Kurosawa movie Throne of Blood date the setting of the scene. Viewers without a background in Japanese film or history may not catch the visual clues and would find themselves lost amid the dizzying transitions from one historical narrative to another.

The specificity of the setting of Millennium Actress may have played a large role in its commercial failure outside of Japan. Although it was screened in several international film festivals to critical acclaim, and was released by DreamWorks in the United States, it enjoyed only a limited run in the American theaters and was met by only lukewarm reception by even the most ardent Japanese animation fans overseas. Perhaps the lack of an English dub (it was only screened with subtitles) hindered its widespread appeal. It can be argued that, despite being marketed as part of “Japan Gross National Cool” during its film release (such as advertising its connection with Satoshi Kon’s earlier and more popular animated movie Perfect Blue), the film failed to live up to that distinction overseas precisely because it was “too Japanese” and eschewed mukokuseki flavor by challenging the non-Japanese viewer to identify with a specifically Japanese setting and Japanese characters.

Despite its historical references, Millennium Actress was not meant to serve primarily as a commentary on Japanese history. In an interview about the making of the film, Kon confesses that he did considerable research before he felt confident in creating a film so closely tied to Japanese history:

“Yes, I researched lots of books in order to give this film realism. But you know what, I realized how little I knew about Japanese history or culture, and even manners and customs. I was so ignorant about my own culture. I thought that I was so presumptuous to even think about making a film like Millennium Actress.…… The best thing I got out of the process of making Millennium Actress was that I’ve learned quite a bit about my own country’s culture, and general history. I feel that I am more intimate with my own culture.”

Since even the director needed to learn more about Japanese history in the process of making his film, it is clear the film’s historical nods are more in service to the film narrative than meant to form the backbone of the film itself. Kon is more interested in using the image of Japanese history to convey certain themes in his movie.

04-266One central theme is that of the important role that fan culture plays in society. The filmmaker Genya is a passionate devotee of Chiyoko, and he turns his passion for her work into a documentary about her life. He essentially represents the “otaku” of Japanese society who are singularly devoted to their passions, but as opposed to other animated works (including Kon’s own Perfect Blue), his fandom is portrayed in a positive light. His enthusiasm allows him to connect with Chiyoko and to create a more emphatic portrait of the artist for his documentary.

Millennium Actress also serves as a commentary on the nature of Japanese pop culture itself. Scholar Melek Ortabasi argues that rather than being a pro-Japanese nationalistic work, the film is more concerned with the production processes necessary to form the cultural products that have come to define Japan. The film otaku Genya obsessively collects material about his muse Chiyoko and eventually creates an original documentary about her. So too is the movie a “collection” of film homages and famous historical reenactments that, when put together, form a new and original movie. Thus the movie alludes to the idea that the fan culture of Japan is producing the national culture as well.

Are mukokuseki/stateless themes necessary in order to create universally appealing Japanese cultural products? Can otaku like Genya play a positive role in Japanese society? What role does otaku/fandom culture play in shaping Japan’s image of itself and its nation’s culture?

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Sources

“Interview with Millennium Actress Director Satoshi Kon.” DVD Vision Japan. http://www.dvdvisionjapan.com/actress2.html

Ortabasi, Melek. “Indexing the past: Visual Language and Translatability in Kon Satoshi’s Millennium Actress.” Perspectives: Studies in Translatology 14.4 (2006), pp. 278 – 291.

Ortabasi, Melek. “National History as Otaku Fantasy: Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress” in Japanese Visual Culture, ed. Mark MacWilliams, (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2008), pp. 274 – 294.

Scott, A.O. “To the Samurai and Godzilla, with Love.” New York Times, September 12 2003.


Entry contributed by Megan Locke

 

Comments

  1. What I find most interesting about how Millenium Actress diverges from mukokuseki films and entertainment is the time period Chiyoko’s career was most active. Before World War II, most films shown in Japan were foreign: Hollywood films, French films, German films. The war brought a ban on films from many foreign countries, and it sparked a need for Japanese-made movies. This need for Japanese filmmakers sparked the careers of perhaps the three most influential Japanese directors: Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi. These filmmakers focused on various periods in Japanese history. Kurosawa made films like Ran and Seven Samurai, and Ozu focused on the disintegration of older values in the new urbanized Japan. Chiyoko was most active during this period, and I believe her character was based on an actress that starred in most of Ozu’s films. But sometime shortly after the war, these directors went out of vogue and were considered old-fashioned. Their legacy was only revived in following decades by foreign critics.

    So why did the Japanese lose their taste for films that reflected their own culture? Perhaps these films reminded them too much of the past, which went out of vogue and did not jibe with the new urban lifestyle that was becoming so popular. Perhaps the continued U.S. presence in Japan influenced the Japanese to embrace and even aspire to Western culture. Some Japanese girls even style themselves like Westerners, wearing bronzer and dying their hair blonde, eschewing their natural good looks for what they perceive as the American ideal of beauty.

    Personally, I think the Japanese are proud of their reputation as an advanced nationality, and the country’s position as a symbol for urbanization, efficiency and fast-paced city life. The slow pace of Ozu’s films, with their longing look back at the past, no longer interests them. Their past has lost its “cool.”

    As for otaku, I think there are positive and negative qualities to the lifestyle. Otaku perpetuate the stereotype of the Japanese as obsessed with detail and having strong, single-minded committments. Otaku culture can also be dangerous in the sense that some otaku become social outcasts by nature of their obsession and do not leave the house often enough. This is a sad fact, but it is not endemic to Japan, as otaku here suffer the same social problems and agoraphobia.

  2. aslabriny says:

    Very interesting post! I especially liked the ‘mukokuseki’ part. I think you could elaborate a little more on what being “stateless” means, as the concept is a bit confusing. Also, you may want to think about adding some counter-examples to Millennium Actress. What anime ARE considered to be ‘mukokuseki’? This may help the reader understand exactly why Millennium Actress is so different.