Satoshi Kon made a very bold choice when being faced with the daunting task of following up his own Perfect Blue. Rather than to try and copy his previous success, he ventured into an entirely different direction and made an ode to Japanese cinema. The result is Sennen Joyu (Millennium Actress), a unique and nifty drama/comedy that guides the viewer through the highlights of Japan's rich cinematic history while fleshing out a solid drama at the same time.
Even though Kon tackles a completely different genre with Sennen Joyu, stylistically there is still plenty that links his second film to Perfect Blue. First of all there's Kon's somewhat static yet more realistic visual style, then there's his soft spot for scenes where the camera follows a person running and of course the constant blending of different realities. If you know what you're looking for, you will definitely recognize Kon's hand in just about every scene.
Kon didn't have to look too far for inspiration. Sennen Joyu is loosely based on the life of Setsuko Hara, one of Japan's leading ladies of cinema (and an Ozu favorite, most people will know her from Ozu's Tokyo Monogatari) before she became a recluse and disappeared from the public view altogether. The film is not a true biography, instead Kon uses Hara's life as a guideline to make his own homage to the popular genres of the past.
Rather than make a direct adaptation of Hara's life (she is named Chiyoko Fujiwara in the film though), Kon sends two reporters after her in order to make a documentary. They find Fujiwara living in a secluded area, somewhat reluctantly she agrees to an interview after one of the reporters returns a treasured memento from Fujiwara's past. From there on we shift between reality and film with the two reporters actively joining in while Fujiwara reminisces about times long gone.
Visually Kon has had a pretty consistent career. It's clear that he made progress with Sennen Joyu, the character animations are a little smoother, the camera work a little slicker, but all in all he kept faithful to his modest, rather realistic yet intricately style of animation. Where he truly excels is editing and timing though. Kon is a master in stitching together unrelated shots and scenes to reveal hidden dynamics and analogies, adding a whole new level of visual excitement. The editing is so sharp that at every point in a scene you could be transported to the next without ever expecting it. It's a true delight.
While Kon is clearly the leading man behind Sennen Joyu, he owes a fair share of the film's success to composer Susumu Hirasawa. Hirasawa was allowed to produce a score in his traditional but completely unique style and with that he helps to define the atmosphere of the film. Every time a song starts it demands just as much attention as the visuals and the story, making this one of the most extrovert and defining soundtracks I've ever come across. Absolutely gorgeous stuff and a great example for other films (and directors) out there. The voice acting too is impeccable, as always you should make sure to get the original dub to get the most out of it.
Sennen Joyu was made with a solid sense of humor. The two reporters sneakily enter the memories of Fujiwara, trying to help her along as secondary characters (either in her own life or in the movies in which she features). The blend of Fujiwara's personal life with the movies she makes is seamless (very much in the same way Perfect Blue seamlessly blends its distinct realities) and makes for a very dynamic and original way to tell Fujiwara's life story. It's just a shame that Sennen Joyu was Kon's last film to feature this dynamic in such a perfected way.
Kon's second feature film is a memorable ride through Fujiwara's personal life and Japan's canon of classic cinema. It's not too heavy-handed (even though there is plenty of drama to go around), it's quite action-packed and there is enough humor to keep a lighter tone. The animation is detailed, the direction solid and the the film avoids any kind of filler, keeping the running time below the 90-minute limit. Add to that a sumptuous score and Kon's perfect sense of timing and you have a beautiful film that will last you a lifetime.