Review for Millennium Actress - 4K UHD Blu-ray + Blu-ray Collector's Edition
Well, here it is, my first 4K UHD purchase. I can’t watch it of course, not having a player, and for the purpose of this review I’ll be watching the Blu-ray disc included in the set, but I am now officially present-proofed for Millennium Actress (I’d say future proofed but I’ve always been one step behind the times). The film does get a standard Blu-ray release as well, but I’m a sucker for the packaging and artwork, and I really wanted the included booklet.
Ask me which Satoshi Kon film is my favourite, and I’ll probably name the one that I most recently watched, but I do have a soft spot for Millennium Actress. In his four feature films, Kon explored horror, sci-fi, and family and this is his romance. It’s also an ode to cinema and the film industry as well, and it is a film that has never failed to make me cry. You have to respect a film with that kind of power.
With the demolition of Ginei studios, an era of filmmaking is coming to an end. Documentary filmmaker Genya Tachibana is marking the event with an exclusive interview with Ginei’s most popular actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara. Chiyoko has been a recluse for the past thirty years, and the opportunity to interview her is a major coup, especially as Tachibana is a devout fan of her movies. He also takes the opportunity to return a piece of property to her, a key that she had thought lost since her retirement. The key literally unlocks buried memories for Chiyoko, and as she begins to relate the story of her life to Tachibana, it becomes clear just how much the key influenced her career and the path her life took. As her memories and movies begin to intertwine, Tachibana finds he is actively participating in the events that shaped her life.
Millennium Actress got a 4k re-master in Japan but in the US, it only received a Blu-ray release courtesy of Shout Factory/Eleven Arts at the end of 2019, and All the Anime repurpose that disc for the UK release. The 4k UHD disc has been newly created by All the Anime and MediaOCD for this release, although it is an SDR disc, whatever that means.
The new 4k scan was used to create the Blu-ray transfer, and there have been some choices made that to be honest I don’t quite appreciate, given that I have Manga Entertainment’s DVD release to compare and contrast with. The first thing to note is DNR, although thankfully it isn’t quite the egregious use that Disney employs with its own classic animations. Grain is still present, but it is very light, to the point where the character art can look a little flat and digital against the still organic and natural backgrounds. The clarity of the animation is excellent in all but distant characters, where the line art seems compromised. It’s a small nit to pick in the grand scheme of things, and far more immediate is that Millennium Actress now has a different, slightly cooler colour timing, shifted a bit to the blue side. Once again it’s a subtle change and really only visible if you watch this and the DVD side by side.
Millennium Actress still looks excellent on Blu-ray, a quantitative step up over the DVD release. The 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is flawless, with no signs of compression or digital banding. The colours are strong and the rich details of the animated world come through well on the transfer. The character designs are simple but effective, and the emphasis is on keeping the animation as realistic as possible, with a degree of minimalism in expression and motion that reflects the real world. However that changes when we begin to see Chiyoko’s memories, her childhood is represented in a stylised manner, and the films she starred in are shown in styles appropriate to their respective genre. While the characters stay consistent, the animation style varies in look and feel, and it’s easy to point out influences from other films.
You have the choice of DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround English and Japanese with translated English subtitles, and a Hard of Hearing English subtitle track (dubtitles). The subtitle font is easy to read with white text, and the subtitles are free of typos and accurately timed. It’s a nice, immersive surround presentation, the dialogue is clear throughout and Susumu Hirasawa’s music score has never sounded as good. One omission I did note was lyric translations for the end credits. It should be noted that Shout Factory commissioned a new English dub for this release, and newly translated subtitles as well. You won’t hear the Manga dub on this disc, which I believe was recorded to the sped-up PAL version of the film in any case, and would have had to be pitch corrected were it placed on this Blu-ray. The credit sequence text is in Japanese on this release as well.
You get two discs in a digipack which slips inside a thick card slipcase with some beautiful artwork to appreciate, with a blurb sheet on the back held on by the cellophane wrap.
There is a fold-out poster which seemed familiar at first glance. It turns out Manga used the same artwork on the poster they gave away with their DVD release, although this version is larger, and does away with a lot of the cinema listing text.
There is a 40-page booklet with contributions from Jonathan Clements and Andrew Osmond, along with plenty of artwork from the film. It is well worth reading for the two analyses of the film.
The disc itself boots to a static menu.
There are four interviews in the extras, with two English voice actors, and two of the producers of the film.
Interview With Abby Trott (7:46)
Interview With Laura Post (20:07)
Interview With Masao Maruyama (32.28)
Interview With Taro Maki (8:32)
Note that the making of from the Manga disc is conspicuously absent.
With this release, we have all of Satoshi Kon’s feature films on Blu-ray in the UK, and with MVM releasing Paranoia Agent in HD later this year, that will leave an HD release of the Memories anthology as the final missing piece of the Satoshi Kon high definition filmography. I can’t tell you how happy I am with this release, even with the few minor changes to the video presentation. It doesn’t look quite as filmic as before, but by five minutes into this masterpiece of storytelling, you won’t even care.
Satoshi Kon does it again; he creates a story where characters perceptions begin to overwhelm reality, where what is real and what isn’t begins to fade in importance in comparison with how people are affected by their beliefs and their memories. Unlike Perfect Blue or Paranoia Agent however, Millennium Actress doesn’t dwell on the theme of paranoia, but is instead a love story that takes place over half a century of Chiyoko’s life, or a thousand years of Japanese history. It’s the best kind of love story too, as we see how one event can shape someone’s entire life.
The key that Tachibana returns to Chiyoko is the symbolic key that unlocks her memories, memories that she has suppressed for thirty years, and are now so overwhelming that Tachibana and his cameraman find themselves drawn into the past with Chiyoko. Chiyoko’s story begins when she is a child, and is approached to work in films. Her mother disapproves of her daughter becoming something as crass as an actress, but a chance encounter in a snowy street introduces Chiyoko to her first love, a dissident artist on the run from the authorities. She shelters him, and in return he gives her the key that she comes to cherish.
It isn’t long before he has to escape once more, and head to Manchuria to continue his fight against oppression. It’s when Chiyoko hears that the next Ginei film will be made in Manchuria that she makes the decision to become an actress, so she can keep her promise to return the man’s key. From that point Chiyoko’s recollections blur, mixing elements of her life and elements from the films she made, all of them concerning her desire to find the man who touched her heart when she was a teenager. In her memories two figures are always prominent, the mysterious and always unreachable man she pursues, and a scar-faced authority figure that always stands in her way. They are soon joined by the figure of Tachibana, whose own adoration of Chiyoko casts him in the role of protector in her memories, much to the consternation of his cameraman.
Just like Perfect Blue, there is more than one layer to this film. Millennium Actress is a celebration of the Japanese film industry, with the history of Ginei studios reflecting the past of many of Japan’s filmmakers from the pre-war years to the early seventies, as Chiyoko talks about her career in films. The roles she takes, and the films she stars in cover a period of a thousand years of Japan’s history, from the Warring States period, through the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries and beyond into the future. It makes for a variety of styles and a wonderful tapestry of design all in the space of one film.
Once again, I’m struck with just how real this film is. Although the animation is of outstanding quality, what strikes me is the emotional depth of the story, just how true to life each of these characters feel, how genuine their responses are to the situations they face, and how they interact. The story’s honesty of heart and realism of character elevate this above merely an animated film. Millennium Actress is an astounding film full stop. It’s by turns funny, moving, heart-warming, tragic and uplifting. I was lost in the life of Chiyoko Fujiwara, and by the end credits, I’m not ashamed to say I had a tear in my eye. I’d defy anyone else not to feel the same way.
If you have the Manga DVD, you’ll want to hold onto it for the Making of Documentary, in which Satoshi Kon is interviewed. It’s also useful for the English language credit sequences, to know who did what on the film without resorting to the IMDB or the ANN Encyclopaedia. And if you’re nostalgic for such things, you’ll also want it for the Manga dub and the different subtitle translation. But none of this detracts from just how good the Blu-ray is.
Millennium Actress has an actress recount fifty years of her life, a fifty year love story, that gets intertwined with the films that she made, films which reflect a thousand years of Japanese history, and she draws her interviewer and his cameraman into her recollections to the degree that they become part of the story as well. It’s a multi-layered complex film which makes absolute, perfect sense as you watch it, yet still manages to overwhelm audiences on a basic emotional level. Every time I watch it, I simply marvel at Millennium Actress’ audacity and achievement, and All the Anime’s Collector’s Edition release is the perfect way to celebrate that.