The Power of Three: Millennium Actress

Satoshi Kon was the original flim-flam man.

Well, probably not. The original flim-flam man probably dates back to about five minutes after the invention of portable currency. If the money can move, there are always folks who can figure ways to move it into their own pockets.

He wasn’t even the original cinematic flim-flam man. Google “George Melies”. Look up his films on YouTube. Enjoy. You’re welcome.

But Kon was a REALLY REALLY good flim-flam man.

His first film, Perfect Blue, is a perfect example. The entire plot is “Mima makes a TV show,” and that’s it. That’s all that happens. The entire movie is about emotional responses to that, particularly Mima’s own but also those of her agent, Rina. They play out at four levels of reality, though, and you don’t know which is which until Kon zooms back and you can see that the scenery is fake (or real).

By the time he made Millennium Actress he was ready for a more sophisticated story, and he made one. Then, because he was Satoshi Kon, he buried it under level after level of flim-flam, narrative as well as structural this time.

Nothin’ up my sleeve. Presto!

Okay, so there’s Chiyoko, the titular actress. She is very old now, living in retirement and isolation. Her life since she was a schoolgirl has been the movies, with one exception: back before she became an actress, when she was just the naive daughter of a shopkeeper during World War II, she met a mysterious man. He was an artist and a revolutionary; he was wounded and he was beautiful. It was TROO LURVE 4 EVAH. Of course, she never saw him again. All she had of him was a key he dropped, which, alas, she loses sometime in the ’50’s.

Then there’s Genya, the TV producer. He wants an interview with her, in part because he fell for her when he was a young production assistant at her studio. Although he is old (middle aged) and established now, deep in a corner of his heart he still adores the beautiful actress she once was. Oh, and when the old studio is being torn down, he finds the key she lost all those years ago.

Genya surrounded by the many faces of Chiyoko

Don’t watch Kon’s hands shifting the cups around. Keep your eye on the key.

On the surface this looks like a degenerate form of the Eternal Triangle. The Eternal Triangle is basically two people competing for the love of a third. You’ve seen it a thousand times because it subsumes TWO meta-plots simultaneously, the Comedy for whoever gets the third (Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy gets Girl: Comedy) and the Tragedy for the loser (Boy meets Girl, Boy gets Girl, Boy loses Girl: Tragedy). Even though it’s clichéd, if it’s done right it works because of that emotional double pump.

The degenerate form is when the triangle isn’t complete: A likes B, who likes C. See it? Without connecting A to C there’s no competition/conflict between them. Storywise that’s really lightweight and usually relies on the characters and performance of the actors.

That’s what it looks like we have in Millennium Actress, right? Genya loves Chiyoko, who loves the Mysterious Artist.

But the end works too powerfully for a story that simple. When it’s done the story feels resolved. But how can it be? Chiyoko does not come to love Genya, nor does the Mysterious Artist return to her. She dies at the end with that triangle unresolved.

Ah, that Satoshi Kon. He put it right in front of you and you were looking at the wrong thing. So was I.

I told you to keep your eye on the key. The triangle isn’t Genya/Chiyoko/Mysterious Artist. It’s Genya/Chiyoko/KEY.

WOOF! That be clever.

Now. I’m not saying she’s in love with the key. Not even I am that dumb!

But think about it, right? Chiyoko isn’t really in love with the Mysterious Artist, either. She’s in love with the IDEA of him: beautiful, daring, damaged, brave. Man, the dude is a walking crush object for a naive schoolgirl!

And the key is the symbol of that first schoolgirl crush, and her innocent life before she became a movie star, the simple life she had before she became an actress, and that she gave away for her fame.

And Genya HAS the key. That’s what completes the Eternal Triangle.

Now, the Eternal Triangle plot itself does not play a large role in the film. The critical act that completes the plot occurs very early: Genya gives Chiyoko the key as a gift right when he arrives at her home.

But the reason why the film works is because the rest of the movie supplies the context of the Eternal Triangle. Through the course of the film we discover WHY the key is so important to Chiyoko, and we discover what feelings Genya has for Chiyoko. The movie gives the legs of the triangle meaning.

And at the end Chiyoko dies.

Now, let’s look where we are and the trick Kon plays on us. One more time, remember how the Eternal Triangle works: For the “winner” the plot is comedy, for the loser, tragedy. It’s the combined resolution of the twin plots that makes the Eternal Triangle work (when it works).

Chiyoko meets Key, Chiyoko loses Key (Literally!), Chiyoko gets Key. Comedy.
Genya meets Key, Genya gets Key, Genya loses (gives away) Key. Tragedy.

Ultimately, though, although his story is a tragedy, to us Genya has what feels like a positive outcome: He has made the woman he loves happy on her final day with no thought of his own loss. How is that a tragedy?

And although Chiyoko’s story is Comedy, I mean, dude, she DIES at the end! How is that a comedy (happy ending)?

Everything is resolved, it all FEELS right because the Eternal Triangle is solved, but what the hell was it?

It was a beautifully warped story from the Original Flim-Flam man. He shows you the twin plots of the Eternal Triangle and then BOOM reverses the outcomes!

Dang. I have to say it again: BOOM. Yes, Satoshi Kon rates the very rare double BOOM. That’s what you get when you’re the original flim-flam man.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Three: Millennium Actress

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