I wouldn’t be comfortable with Satoshi Kon telling my life story, I can only imagine what he would do with how crazy I already am!
Written By: Satohsi Kon & Sadayuki Murai
Directed By: Satoshi Kon
There is a story to be found in Sennen Joyû and it’s actually not that hard to ferret out. If all one is focused on is the surface of what they are watching then I could understand them not connecting with Sennen Joyû. The story of this Satoshi Kon picture is just below the surface, and with a tiny bit of effort the story can be discovered. Once you scratch the surface the entire world of the film opens up like a wonderful lotus flower.
Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying, Sennen Joyû does want you to work for what you are watching. That doesn’t, however, mean that it is a tough film to figure out. Obviously my view on film theory means that I am open to any interpretation, and I want to make sure that those reading this review understand I’m not referring to an individual interpretation of Sennen Joyû when I speak of peeling away the surface to get to the story. I am referring to just that, the basic story of the film. That too is subjective, but it is my belief that the story becomes clearer the deeper into the film one allows him, or her, self to be drawn. In that sense I didn’t find Sennen Joyû to be a tough film and I want to do my part to make sure that people don’t pass by this work from Kon-san because they have heard it is tough to grasp.
What Sennen Joyû makes its audience work for is the themes that accompany the story. For my part I felt there was a definite treatise being put forth on two things. First was the obvious Kon-san tryst with reality and how reality can be bent to mean many different things. That aspect of the film was interesting, but mainly from the perspective of it being a standard trope of Kon-san. What I really enjoyed digging out of Sennen Joyû was the theme of movies and the role they play in our collective memory and subconscious. The journey we take through the life of Chiyoko Fujiwara isn’t a simple retelling of her life. The events of her life, her films, and the way the three parties involved in her present day interview remember her life and films combine to form a wildly spectacular trip.
I don’t believe that Kon-san was interested in creating doubt in the viewer about what they were seeing like he was in Perfect Blue. In Sennen Joyû he was exploring our memories, how we interpret them and the role film plays in those memories. The film is in reality linear, but because it is a collection of memories and old films it takes on a stage like presentation. Stages of Fujiwara-san’s life play out right alongside the movies she was in. At the same time her main interviewer, Genya Tachibana, and his cameraman go along for the ride. They enter in and out of her memories and take on roles within said memories. This isn’t a simple case of fourth wall destruction, rather I took it as a showcase for reality to bleed into memory and into the play world of film. Every stage feeds into the next, Fujiwara-san’s life journey is there plain as day, but at the same time Kon-san is testing the waters of perception. Kon-san probes the role film plays in our memory through Fujiwara-san’s old films, and the way present films can manifest in memories through the actions of the documentarians. All of this is done in typical Kon-san style, which some have described a a mind fuck, but I like to think of as a free flowing brain exercise.
The only negative I felt throughout Sennen Joyû was the animation. I didn’t mind the blankness of the background characters, that is a staple of Kon-san’s films. He wants the focus to be on his main characters and thus the background characters, and backgrounds in general, are usually plain. No, my issues were with some of the animation styles employed and with some of the accentuation of facial features. It’s not that the Sengoku era samurai figures in the distance were animated badly, they were just animated in a style that did not appeal to me. The ears of the characters, on the other hand, were constantly bothering me. I know, I know, they’re just ears, but something was wrong about the way the characters ears were animated. They looked incredibly fake and possessed a wrongness I could not get past.
Minor quibbles aside, Sennen Joyû is an absolutely splendid film. Satoshi Kon was a rebel figure in the world of anime, but most of all he was a respected figure. The intricacies of Sennen Joyû and the pleasures that can be gleaned from watching his second feature speak to his skills as a director. Sennen Joyû doesn’t reach the heights of Perfect Blue, but it also avoids the pitfalls of Papurika. Sennen Joyû rests comfortably in the middle, it provides its audience with a visual and auditory treat that will give your brain a workout in the best of ways.