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"I think that I get more from the combination of old memories or memorable scenes from films I saw in my childhood rather than particular scenes..."
COMMENTS FROM INTERVIEW WITH DREAMWORKS DVD PRODUCER
I feel very honored to be invited here. (DreamWorks)
In my first directorial film, “Perfect Blue,” I depicted emotional
confusion of the main character. To do that, I connected her imaginary
world and reality. In that film, the main character’s emotions get
entwined. I wanted the audience to follow her crossed-emotions. One
producer made a comment that the seamless connection between illusion and
reality was like a trompe l’oeil. So, the first step to make
“Millennium Actress” was the concept of a trompe l’oeil. After
I thought about how to make a trompe l’oeil- kind of film, I set
up a main character as an Actress. Her real life and the films she was in
are crossing over. That’s how I got this idea.
To develop the story, I also wanted to use a sense of time. For the main character, the past and present tense could exist at the same time, even though such a thing is irrelevant for other people. For ordinary people, past is past, present is present.
But for the main character, a sense of time gets surreal. I had been
intrigued by “sense of time.” It has been such an interesting theme
for me. In fact, I was very inspired by director, George Hill’s
“Slaughter House Five.” I
also liked the original book, but this film is visually very inspiring to
Japanese people who saw “Millennium Actress” often mention that I
know well about Japanese films. They also ask me if I saw many Japanese
films. As a matter of fact, I am not really familiar with Japanese film. I
have not seen enough Japanese films to talk about with confidence. I
have many favorite Japanese films, though. Especially, I was inspired by
Akira Kurosawa’s “Kumo no Su Jyo (Castle of Spider Web)” which
audience easily could recognize in “Millennium Actress.” Besides that
film, there are more films I was influenced by.
Speaking of inspiration, I think that I get more from the combination
of old memories or memorable scenes from films I saw in my childhood
rather than particular scenes from particular films. I cannot recall
memories or memorable scenes exactly, but they are definitely somewhere in
The major premise of this film is that an elderly woman who used to be
a big actress talks about her life history. While she tells her life
story, the films she appeared become entwined with her own life. The
present and past tense get crossed, and her story gets stormy throughout
her life history. It’s more like traveling through the different time
zones. So, that is the essence of this film, and that is my original idea
of “Millennium Actress.”
I was approached by a producer to make a trompe l’oei-
film. Of course, I had a desire to make that kind of film before. I cannot
make film of which concept does not interest me. So, I was motivated make “Millennium Actress” by somebody
else in the beginning, but it turned out to be a critical film for me. To
be honest, I cannot tell how I got this idea. It’s important for me to
build up and work on the idea regardless how I get the idea. When I
started working on “Millennium
Actress,” I was seriously thinking about how I should live on. In other
words, “how to live my life” became one critical theme for me. The
world is getting confusing and stupefying. Therefore, I set up a
strong-minded character who is decisive and straight-forward. I wanted to
be empowered by that kind of strong character.
There is no particular Japanese actress, who performed after WWII, I
had in my mind to depict Chiyoko’s character. In fact, I kind of
reflected various Japanese actresses on Chiyoko. For example, there was a great actress called Setsuko Hara in
Showa period. She became very popular, and all of a sudden, she
disappeared from public eyes amidst of her stardom. Another famous
actress, Hideko Takamine, gave people hope with her trademark, big smile,
after the war. So, that being an actress is a unique creature, but it is
not an actress I wanted to depict. It was more fundamental theme that I
was after. I wanted to make the film about a human being.
Every human being possesses virtue and flaws. Frankly, I wanted to
express strong desire or egoism to Chiyoko because I do have those in me.
Well, I cannot tell by myself how well I could manage the past and present tense in the film. Naturally, I’m confident that my audience will follow the change and sequence of time throughout the film. But I’m not sure if I should be commended for that. To me, the most important process of filmmaking is script writing. So, while I was writing the script, I tackled with the tough issues such as “dealing with different time tense.” That was a hard part of the process. I did manage the past, present and future tense rather smoothly, I think because I draw pictures. So, because of my visual sense, I could translate my visual images on my mind into actual words in the script. I think that was how it worked.
She is a mysterious old lady who is spinning a wheel. Her existence is
actually a symbol of time. I don’t think that a director should talk
about such an element. Anyhow, I used her to remind audiences of time.
That is, time is not linear as we naturally think. Human beings are
physically mortal. That old lady symbolizes mortality. On the other hand,
that spinning wheel represents time that is not linear, but revolving much
similar to a circle. Time is not necessarily linear, nor unilateral. So,
physical body will extinguish sooner or later, but the spirit, or thoughts
can sustain without actual time limitation.
I used the key in this film as an important element, so as to make the
audience wonder about the key. I really wanted my audience to question,
wonder and think. I mean, as Chiyoko said toward the end of the film,
“this is the key to open up a box of memories.” That could be one
explanation in terms of the meaning of the key. Again, I am reluctant to
talk about the detail. Anyway, it could be the key to solve all the
mysteries. Just like the spinning wheel, those elements can be interpreted
in many different ways. There is no one and only explanation. I would
rather want my audience to enjoy their own interpretation.
I’ve never really thought about “Eastern thoughts” per se. Being
Japanese, I must be taking for granted such a thing. But when I saw the
finished film, I felt some Eastern flavor. That surprised me since I have
been influenced mostly by the Western films, particularly by the American
films in order to have my own formula of filmmaking.
Most of American films are well structured. They are simpler. They
are easier to follow. Therefore, while being influenced by American films,
my own film turned out to be very Eastern, which is interesting to me.
Besides the other films, music did influence on making such an
eccentric film like “Millennium Actress.” When I was going to create
“Millennium Actress,” first I thought about film score. I’ve been admiring a composer names Susumu Hirasawa for a
long time. Mr. Hirasawa scored for “Millennium Actress,” which makes
me very happy, and I feel honored. His music is a combination of
scientific and mythological images. That really influenced me to write
“Millennium Actress.” So, when I asked him to score “Millennium
Actress,” he accepted readily. Having his music on this film is a big
success for me. As to dreams and poetry, I don’t think that any
particular dream of my own reflects in this film. However, dreams could
have their own formula. We usually do not remember our dreams. But we all
have experiences that somebody in our dreams are switched to somebody
else. There is no rule that we can fathom. That is the formula of dreams I
am trying to describe. In other words, relativity or relationship between
other person and self could transform or simply change. That could be just
“image” on our mind. So, for example, Chiyoko was talking to her
mother, and her mother is switched to somebody else. That’s how I
experimented the formula of dreams in this film.
I love Mr. Hirasawa’s music. I have been an admirer of Mr. Hirasawa
for a long time. In fact, I have wanted to make a film with his score. I
wished I could do that some day. I was not only a fan of Mr. Hirasawa, but
also I was deeply influenced by his music. When I started developing the
story, I wanted to use his music so badly. In fact, I had an image that
Mr. Hirasawa’s composition called “Lotus” was playing in the last
scene. I could not think about any other composer for scoring
“Millennium Actress.” Thus, this film cannot be “Millennium
Actress” without Mr. Hirasawa’s music. His music is perfect fit for
the theme of this film. Overall, “Millennium Actress” is blessed in
To create Chiyoko’s character, as a matter of fact, I didn’t have any specific actress in my mind. I was often asked the same question in interview, though. Because I researched a lot about Japanese actress, I sometimes name certain actress in interview. But again, I don’t think I can give specific name of actress. I did not create Chiyoko as some human figure. I don’t think that Chiyoko’s character can be real. In a real life, a person like Chiyoko could be nuisance to people around her. It may be better for audience to see Chiyoko’s character as a folklore character. I made Chiyoko more like a symbol of “spirit” or “thoughts.”
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.” Anyway, I wanted to give realism in
“Millennium Actress.” I had to study hard in a short period of time.
When I counted the number of books I checked out from library for research
there were more than 600 books. I researched into all kinds of subjects.
For example, I didn’t know much about Japanese traditional kimono. It
may sound funny to you, but I did not know. I had worn traditional kimono
only a few times in my thirty-something life. There are no people who wear
kimono daily basis around me. So, I researched the different styles of
kimono in each different time period. I had to learn about the basic
structure of kimono. I also had to understand specific design of kimono
responds to the certain period of time. I wanted to understand the
accuracy in visual and historical sense. Unless I grasp the basic design
or fabric, I cannot draw or deform the design. So, my job was dissecting
those visuals as well as I could draw abstract pictures. There were so
many things I wanted to have thorough knowledge and understandings. It was
very hard, but also rewarding. I
started to learn about those things while making “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
It is true that he is Chiyoko’s first love. He is an artist. But
Chiyoko only met him once. It’s not clear how many hours or how many
days they were together. It was a brief encounter. After that, she never
sees him again. So, his image became bigger and bigger, deeper and deeper,
which eventually became the meaning of life.
It’s hard to answer to that question, isn’t it? He actually existed as Chiyoko’s first love. He was an artist. It was such a short time when Chiyoko was with him. After that she could not see him anymore, his image became more significant. She pursued
him for the rest of her life. This is the exactly the same relationship
between my film and myself. When I had an idea for “Millennium
Actress,” I thought it could be a great film (laughter). But then, after
I started developing the film in detail, and my original idea or image
goes further away. My actual film gets closer to the original image, but
it will never reach the original image. It has been a constant
“pursuit” for me. You know what I mean?
So, suffice it to say that Chiyoko’s pursuit after her first love
symbolizes my attitude toward the filmmaking.
I had expertise in a different genre such as live film, musical or
theater, I could have thought about another possibility besides animation.
However, I could only make “manga”, which is a comic book, and/or
animation. Drawing is the common denominator for comic books and
animation. I don’t know any other way. I draw pictures. That’s how I
express my ideas and stories. When I make films, I cannot think of how to
do it without drawings. Thus, it was out of question for me to make
“Millennium Actress” with real actors. I only thought about drawing a
comic book or making an animated film.
I decided to make “Millennium Actress” with an animation film format from the early planning stages. I wanted to say ‘time is not linear” in “Millennium Actress.” Especially, the time transition is critical for “Millennium Actress.” An animated film has a limited time length; in this case it is 87 minutes. “Millennium Actress” lasts 87 minutes. During that limited time length, I wanted my audience to ask themselves “is time really linear?” In the case of a comic book format, when the comic reader cannot follow the story or gets confused, they can go back to the previous pages. They can even stop reading for a while, and come back to the story. There is no limitation time-wise. Thus, I cannot make readers wonder about time in a comic book format. Other differences between comic books and animated films are: a comic book is more personal in terms of the creative process. Animation is teamwork while comic book are mostly done by one artist. When I make animation that would be more like collaboration between staff members. We exchange ideas or images to make the final product more interesting. I learn something that I would have never thought of.
That’s the strength of teamwork.
Yes, the most of the staff are same people whom I worked with on my previous film, “Perfect Blue.” Well, “Perfect Blue” and “Millennium Actress” are both low budget films. But then, I’m proud to say that both films are very well made with high quality,
despite the low budget. Why was it possible? Because there we had
accumulated power, knowledge and experiences among staff members. Each
creator in this team is highly talented. We respect and trust each other.
So, the end result is like synergy, which money cannot buy. So, even
someone else with big budget couldn’t do what we did. “Millennium
Actress” owes a lot to our teamwork.
Yes, (laughter), but it’s common sense. In Japanese animated films, a
director’s most important job is drawing storyboards. It is not even
worth mentioning, just because the director draws all the storyboards.
That is the fundamental job for directors.
I had a sound design engineer in my team, whom I worked with on
“Perfect Blue.” So, he understands my taste and exactly what I want
for this film. In that sense, it was easier to work with him. He gave the
direction to the voice actors.
I attended the voice-over sessions. A sound design engineer who also
worked on “Perfect Blue” was in charge of the voice-over sessions. He
understood what and how I wanted to hear. So, he directed all the voice
actors before I said anything. When I wanted to give a different
direction, he translated my requests for the voice actors in a way that
actors could understand well. So, overall, I didn’t have any hard time
in voice-over. I rather enjoyed all the sessions.
I think that “Millennium Actress” was an eccentric assignment for
each voice actor, as well. Everyone really liked and enjoyed working on
this film. The most memorable thing about them was during the last scene
where Chiyoko passed away in the hospital. By that time, all the actors
except Chiyoko’s character finished their scenes. They could have gone
home. Yet, when we did the last scene, the rest of the actors stayed in
the control room, and watched to the end. In this scene, Chiyoko was
wearing an oxygen mask and laying in her bed. Chiyoko’s voice actor used
a plastic cover to create a sound coming through an oxygen mask. It was
impressive to see the rest of the actors. They were like Chiyoko’s
family standing and watching at her bedside.
I think that the most important theme to me was “time.” For instance, I am giving my interview here at DreamWorks. While I’m having a conversation with you, I also think about Japan, and the places I had been a long time ago. In other words, I have thoughts and images of far-distance while physically I am here at this moment. I could be thinking about a long time ago or what I shall do tomorrow, or in the near future. So, there are past, present and future tenses in one world. They all exist in one’s life or one’s world. That kind of thing is irrelevant to others, but it is ‘ultimate truth’ for that person. I don’t want to make a message evident in my film, nor I don’t want to make a message-oriented film. Frankly, I should not even explain what my message in this film is during interviews. You know, the audience will perceive any messages I put in my film when they see the film. It’s kind of difficult to put in words what I wanted for my audience. At any rate, I wanted to express my attitude toward filmmaking or any strong desires on my part through this film. So, my message to the audience would be that we all should be honest to our true desire or will, and that we should be positive toward life.
I didn’t have any hidden messages. I think I made my messages clear in the film.
The hardest thing for making this film was, like I said before, that I
had to do research on a huge amount of books and data. I had to check into
culture, history and customs which I had not known well before. And yet,
it was also fun for me. It wasn’t just a cumbersome process. In order to
draw pictures accurately, I had to study and understand about what I was
going to draw otherwise audiences would not have been convinced. This was
something I had to do. It was just so much volume of research materials I
had to go through. That was the hard part.
No, I did not think about another ending. First, I had an original idea
for “Millennium Actress,” then I wrote a short plot. Since then,
nothing had changed basically. While I was developing the script, I had
another idea for the ending, but I always went back to my original plot.
I developed the story to achieve that ending. If I changed the
ending, it would be something different than “Millennium Actress” for
Well, if you asked, is there possibility for collaboration with
DreamWorks? I mean, of
course! I wish! (laughter). But you know, I cannot have a specific image
how we can collaborate. After I toured DreamWorks studios, I saw so much
difference between DreamWorks and our way of production. Here, you have a
bigger facility, more resources a totally different production
environment. Even though we try to meet halfway, it won’t be that
simple. We may lose our own characters. But it will be great if we can
work together someday.
This is not a film where I can select a particular part as a memorable
scene. In “Millennium Actress,” a sequence of each cut or scene would
be the key element. So, I only want to ask everyone to see this film, and
to be immersed in the world of “Millennium Actress.”
“Millennium Actor” sounds silly. The theme is a lady, an actress, who traverses one thousand years. It’s like a time traveler. If I used a male character to do that, he would have been attached to each historical event or person. The film would lose the feeling of ‘running through time’. So, the main character had to be a woman.
Ah…well, what I’m proud of most? Hmm, well, yes, I had been wanting to make an entertainment film with a theme of ‘time.’ I am proud of “Millennium Actress” because this film’s main theme is ‘time.’
Yes, I finished “Millennium Actress” in January, 2001. Right after that, I started working on my next project. That is another feature film. The title is
“Tokyo Godfathers.” It is almost finished, and it will be finished by next year, about spring of 2003. So, I will keep working for another six months or so.
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