Narrating Life. Dimensions of the Biographical in “Millenium Actress”
What is a life? This core question of biography as a literary form immediately refers us to a problem, namely the one of life becoming form; meaning, that in order to be literarily processed, a life must become a subject matter, a thing to be looked at. But does that not violate the very fabric of what has actually been lived?
In its objectification, its becoming a literary entity, the biographical form fuses the linearity of the continuous ‘stream of life’ with the Aristotelian structure of narrative, namely beginning-middle-end, which distorts one’s own aspirations and sufferings to lesson-spewing truisms, situating it all within a general formula — the naiveté of childhood, the awkwardness of first love, the worries of adult life. Embedded, reduced to variations within a limited repertory, these experiences assume an air of necessity, becoming claustrophobic in a desperate “Is that really all that there is?” Seeing one’s own youthful worries processed identically in a plethora of coming-of-age novels and films not only offers potentials for relatability, but can also renders it difficult to put one’s finger on wherever it is that my struggles are exclusively mine.
The inherent danger of biography as a literary form lies in the mingling of the lived life with the narrated one, in an indifference between fiction and life. The question arises as to whether one’s sympathy with the living differs from one’s identification with the hero, and whether and to what extent there is something in human beings that makes them more than just characters, or if a life can really come undone in a couple of bound pages. The whole problem becomes even more complex in fictional biographies, like Millenium Actress, which, at the same time, in their self-referentiality offer the possibility to question an all too easy distinction between ‘reality’ and fiction, that can all to easily be collapsed in an ostensibly flattering transfiguration of life into art.
a. Situational framing and the performativity of narration
The problem of the biography is laid out in the situative frame of Millennium Actress. Due to the closing of a famous movie studio, two documentary filmmakers are visiting a retired actress, Chiyoko, who was the star of said studio. They are supposed to film a retrospective of her life in the form of an interview. Let us first of all note that (1) the actress is supposed to narrate her own life (it’s an autobiography). This means that her own life becomes the subject matter of this narrative, just as she becomes its own protagonist; and since it is her own life, she becomes at the same time its narrator. It is, one could say, a self-fictionalization. On the other hand, however, (2) she is a legendary film star; therefore known to the public primarily in fictional form, playing fictional characters, just as her life has become mystified due to fame. The retrospective is about discovering ‘the true’ Chiyoko behind the legends and the characters she played. In this perspective, it is a de-fictionalization. These two aspects concern intradiegetic dynamics.
In addition, we must note that (3) it is an animated film; that is, there is no real actress who plays the role of the actress (as it would be in a live-action movie). For example, Emmanuelle Seigner, a real actress, plays Vanda in Venus in Fur (2013); there, she is to play the Wanda of Sacher-Masoch’s famous novel, which was adapted by David Ives etc. All this is meant to blur the line between ‘reality’ and fiction, as the ‘actress’ constantly falls out of her role to reveal her ‘real self’, which, of course, is once again a role within the film. But as we’re dealing with a drawn character in Millenium Actress, we therefore also have to deal with a figure completely separated from ‘reality’ (except for the voice actress). So we are as firmly on the ground of fiction as we can get. Finally, though, (4) Millennium Actress approaches the documentary effect of live-action film through the use of an extremely realistic drawing style, very naturally restrained characters, and indeed its whole slice-of-life atmosphere, which is also thematically reflected. Here again we recognize an extradiegetic dynamic, which contrasts with fictionalization.
We can see that in this animated film it is not, as it is known from literature or live-action film, about producing indistinguishable zones between fiction and ‘reality’, as when the recipient’s self-assured distance of the ‘as-if’ in relation to the diegesis is broken. We know such strategies from Nabokov’s writing, a very recent example that has become notorious is the game Doki Doki Literature Club. Quite the contrary, in Millenium Actress we can identify distinct and contrary dynamics of fictionalization (1+3) and de-fictionalization (2+4) that create a complex pattern. But, as we can see in the problem of the biographical form outlined above, such strategies have their legitimate reasons. For as the biography is inherently confronted with the problem of indifference between fiction and life, such a dissolution cannot be at the same time the problem’s solution; because otherwise the whole thing boils down to the conclusion that a lived life and a fictional story are indistinguishable. This brings us dangerously close to aestheticism. Thus, instead of starting out with two inherently separate and rigid realms — fiction and ‘reality’ — and then collapsing them to unsettle their self-reliance for a short moment (as in Nabokov), we can identify in Millenium Actress two distinct dynamics or, rather, tendencies —namely fictionalization and de-fictionalization — that run counter and that are neither exclusively on the grounds of fiction nor ‘reality’. However, this leads to a shift in relation to the problem of biography: It is no longer about differentiating two imploding realms, but rather about setting them in motion and tracking their distinct moments.
But at the core and in the origin of this dynamization is the act of narrating itself in its performative power. The decisive advantage of the above framework, which is based on tendencies rather than realms, is in fact that it established from the beginning that a life is not to be found in a pre-established form, not is it neatly transformed into one; quite the contrary, the act of narration draws on dynamics of self-fictionalization and de-fictionalization that precede it and sets them in motion. Thus, the actress Chiyoko does not tell the story of her life in a linear monologue, but evokes it in a dialogical and participatory interview — as the interviewers suddenly find themselves participating in the narration. This is more than immersion, as an emotional involvement, but a true collaboration in whatever it is that the act of narration produces. But let us see in the following, how this plays out.
Chiyoko, as she is still alive and speaking about her own past, exposes in the course of the narrative sense structures that have shaped her life, be it consciously or unconsciously. The recognition of structures on the one hand enables self-distanciation in the form of self-fictionalization (i.e. looking at oneself ‘from the outside’), thus, for example, helping with the overcoming of compulsive repetitions which we will discuss later. But more important at this point is that narration also enables the revival of those aspects of one’s own life that have long since been mortified by memory and its sedimentation; as Chiyoko tells interviewer Genya on her deathbed: “It’s as if while I was talking to you the girl I was came back to life.”
On the one hand, this concerns moments of latent and unconscious self-distancing, in which we subliminally isolate and externalize unpleasant, shameful or traumatic experiences that happened in the course of our lives, and, if possible, forget them. With some experiences, we feel as if they had happened to someone else. On the other hand, it concerns the ‘mundane autobiography’ that we inadvertently create ‘on the go’, i.e. our everyday understanding of who we are, in the sense of selecting preferred and formative stations and aspects of our own lives; all those things that immediately come to mind when someone asks us: “Tell me something about yourself.” In short, our character.
With regard to the sedimented parts of our lives, the act of narration enables the re-appropriation of the lost; with regard to the ones we nourish and cherish, it allows us to question allegedly self-evident features that shape our everyday self-image. Both concern questions about our own motivation, secret desires and, indeed, traumata. By recognizing how they have contributed to what we are now, the act of narration allows us to recognize them as part of ourselves again, or uncover the foreign origin of what we’ve always considered to be our most intimate aspects (for example, life goals that turn out to be not our own or quirks that we’ve adopted from someone we like). Paradoxically, the becoming-form of life leads not only to the objectification (of life as a thing), but also to the internalization of life, which, in its entirety, becomes mine. The act of narration therefore serves as a dynamic of de-fictionalization as much as of self-fictionalization, which both, at the same time, are equally real. In this regard, autobiography can as well be understood as a return-to-oneself.
Let us summarize this double dynamic. By narrating my own life as if it was over, as a totality (self-fictionalization), I’m taking a viewpoint ‘from the outside’ and thus am looking at it as an external thing; but my gaze also sets free those aspects of my life where I usually do act as if they were not mine or that I consider to be parts of a life-story that I constantly and subliminally ‘tell myself’ (de-fictionalization). This indicates that the ‘pure stream of life’ also has tendencies towards fictionalization, which enriches and determines my self’s experience of the here and now, while, at the same time, the act of narration can revive aspects that one’s self-understanding has considered to be dead, objectified, foreign. This becoming-aware of latent elements is associated with the psychoanalytic therapy session and working through traumata that again refer to the productive moment of the autobiographical.
b. Autobiography, trauma, and joyful desire
There are two traumatic experiences that determine Chiyoko’s life, and together they form a frame. The first experience dates back to her childhood during the Second World War. There, in a snowy winter, she bumps into an injured man who helps her back to her feet. They look at each other for a long time, until they hear voices and the man runs away — he is chased by the police. As the latter ask Chiyoko if she saw the man running past, she points in the wrong direction and saves him. She then hides him in a barn. It turns out that the man is a dissident and also a painter. Chiyoko falls in love with him and he promises to invite her to his hometown once the war is over. For now, however, he wants to fight in Manchuria. She sees him wearing a key on a chain, which he says is “the key to the most important thing there is,” whereby Chiyoko does not want him say what it is for (though she suspects it); he should tell her the next day. But before she can visit him again, he’s been discovered and had to flee. She only finds the key, together with a bloody bandage, in the snow. From now on, it is her life’s main quest to find the artist and return the key to him.
The second traumatic experience takes place when she loses said key in an earthquake, during which she is rescued by an assistant from a falling piece of a film set; this is also the last scene of the embedded narrative, where it is revealed that the assistant who saved her is actually the interviewer currently sitting in front of her, Genya. The fact that her first traumatic experience is the one where she finds the key and the second one where she loses it, shows the central role that it plays in her life. One could say that the key is the ultimate prop of her life. We do not need to point out the obvious symbolic meaning of the key here.
It is the key that connects Chiyoko’s main goal, the main drive throughout her life, namely, to find the painter, her first love, and to give it back to him. This gesture of seeking is the fundamental gesture of her life. It is for this reason that she accepts the very first movie role offered to her (thereby becoming an actress), namely because she finds out that the film is to be filmed in Manchuria, where the painter intended to flee. This initiates her career as an actress and she uses the visibility, which her career provides her with, to find the painter who might see one of her films. Her entire public life was therefore solely serving a private goal, which originates from a traumatic experience from her youth. But after she loses the key, she gives up her quest and definitively withdraws from the public, from now on leading a reclusive life: “After the accident, I realized something. I wasn’t the girl he’d remember anymore. … I didn’t want him to remember me old.”
We can recognise in it an act of resignation, of letting go. Chiyoko distances herself from the image of the girl, which she was keeping not only in a literal sense — Chiyoko kept the portrait of her that he had painted that evening all her life — but also in a figurative sense by acknowledging her age, something that her second traumatic experience made clear to her. Holding on and letting go, these are the two pillars that determined her life. But that does not mean that we are at the end, but rather just at the beginning. There are in fact two types of reading in relation to these pillars, which have very different meanings.
(a) The psychoanalytic reading, in which Chiyoko falls into compulsive repetition is too obvious to be ignored. And it is not just that this compulsion manifests itself in the constant attempt to regain the lost condition of happiness, namely finding the painter (which itself might be the solution to some previous repressed repetition perhaps stretching back to her earliest years), but in the constant repetition of the very scene that had happened in her youth, her first traumatic experience. Hence, all her films, films that are embedded in different historical settings, follow the very same basic pattern, with her playing the very same role: She, the protagonist, is searching for her lover, who is being persecuted by the police and is always rescued by a third figure, which is always played in her memories by the interviewer Genya. This constant repetition of the traumatic scene, which is transferred to the fictional realm of film, strongly resembles a compulsion, even though it is unclear whether she consciously looks for such roles, or is unconsciously attracted to them. Freud summarizes this tendency very lucidly: “[T]he patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out. He reproduces it not as a memory but as an action; he repeats it, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it” (Freud 1914, 2501).
Chiyoko’s unwillingness to let go, the compulsory repetition of the traumatic experience, would in this light be of tragic character. She would thereby repeat and transfer her destiny to the filmic screen, losing her self in an all-encompassing work of fiction, her life. The blocked memory would not let her get ahead and would make her forever hold on to the self-image of the young girl who fell in love for the first time. The resignation that begins with the loss of the key would offer no real closure, but rather a kind of energy loss with a no less tragic retreat into recluse life. The whole focus of this reading lies on the interview, which actually assumes the task of a therapeutic session, namely “curbing the patient’s compulsion to repeat and for turning it into a motive for remembering” (ibid., 2505), where “[o]ne must allow the patient time to become more conversant with this resistance with which he has now become acquainted, to work through it, to overcome it” (ibid, 2506), for a “reconciliation with the repressed material” (ibid., 2503); to quickly summarize the Freudian conception. The psychoanalytical goal of the interview would be to work through the trauma to attain a final closure and thereby also a final distanciation from the desire to find the painter. Putting the whole search to the past and summarizing it in a narrative, objectifying it in a cinematic retrospective, can in this light be understood as an act of pure fictionalization (i.e. the quest was just something that Chiyoko played to herself, while she has ‘come to herself’ by becoming a house wife — a truly Freudian conclusion).
But this is not what happens; while the end of the film is clearly to be understood as conciliatory, the reconciliation does not lie in the rejection of the desire for the artist. We need to rethink the whole dynamic to get a full understanding of it. However, it is not about a rejection of the above reading, but rather a necessary addition.
(b) The whole dynamic shifts if we understand Chiyoko’s repetitive gesture not as unconscious but as conscious. On the contrary, then, the unity of the gesture, which in the above manner of reading comes to light as a tragic stepping-on-the-same-spot, attains the clarity of a crystal [This metaphor I take from Eric Dumont (cf. Dumont 2014: 386)]. Crystal, because the individual moments of her life, which basically begins with the encounter with the painter (which already reinterprets the role of the traumatic), shows individual facets that are reflected in a single light, that of her desire. In this light, Chiyoko expresses an impressive clarity about herself in her last words: “After all, it’s the chasing after him I really love.” This is not the cheesy ‘the journey is the destination’, but a deep realization about what desire is. Desiring gives us pleasure, and this inner pleasure is completely different from a quest that is initiated by a lack, and ends unsuccessfully — this shifts and breaks the Freudian conception, in which, according to him, it is the “satisfaction of an instinct [that] is always pleasurable” (Freud 1915, 2977; my emphasis), and not desire itself, which is characterized purely negatively by a lack.
The fact that, as it turns out, the painter was killed in the war, and Chiyoko therefore was looking for a phantom, therefore does not witness the world’s cynicism, but in contrast reveals a humanity which is indifferent towards attaining external things; Chiyoko does not lose herself in a regressively nostalgic girl’s love, but on the contrary, by keeping her love to the painter young in her desire, she comes to herself. I cannot refrain from quoting Kierkegaard at this point, who speaks in a passage of Fear and Trembling about the ‘Knight of Resignation’, who falls in love with a princess. To fulfil this love proves to be impossible for him, which is why the knight resigns:
“The desire that would lead him out into actuality but has been stranded on impossibility is now turned inward, but it is not therefore lost, nor is it forgotten. […] He keeps this love young, and it grows along with him in years and in beauty. But he needs no finite occasion for its growth. From the moment he has made the movement, the princess is lost. […] He has grasped the deep secret that even in loving another person one ought to be sufficient to oneself. He is no longer finitely concerned about what the princess does, and precisely this proves that he has made the movement infinitely” (Kierkegaard 1983, 44).
Likewise, the painter is lost from the beginning, and Chiyoko’s quest is all but about him (“I never thought I’d see him again …”). Yet, after the loss of the key, Chiyoko gives up and retires, and only the act of narration, which coincides with the returning of the key, allows her to reappropriate a part of her past that she thought to have left behind. The film ends with Chiyoko looking for her lover beyond death. This resurgence, yes, resurrection of desire refers to the de-fictionalizing moment of narrative developed above. Her life had not been dissolved in art, as a mere means of transmitting her compulsive repetition; art, her film career was quite on the contrary a means to keep her desire alive as long as it was possible, to multiply it in the faces of the crystal. In this respect, it was not about life for the sake of art, but about art for the sake of life. The conciliatory moment in which the film ends, can therefore not be understood as a result of a therapeutic overcoming of compulsion, but on the contrary as a re-appropriated selfhood vitalised by desire.
While this optimistic reading is entirely against the Freudian one, we must not forget that the two types of reading are in an indissoluble ambivalence. Not only because it remains unclear to what extent Chiyoko was aware of her repetitions, but especially with regard to a scene or rather a figure that emphasises this ambivalence: namely the witch. She first appears in a movie scene in which Chiyoko plays the wife of a deceased samurai and where the witch offers her a potion, which is supposed to bring her to her lover. The movie’s protagonist thinks it is poison so she can commit suicide, and thus she’ll join him in death; but it turns out, after taking the potion, that it is immortality tea and the witch had tricked her. She prophesied: “Now you will burn forever in the flames of eternal love,” and when asked who she is, she says: “I hate you more than I can bear, and I love you more than I can bear. One day you’ll understand.”
The witch appears again and again in the course of the film and finally at a crucial point. Towards the end of the interview, Chiyoko once again takes that portrait that the painter had drawn of her and sees, in the covering glass, the reflection of her aged face in contrast to the depicted young girl in it. For a moment, the witch’s face is superimposed with her own and thus makes the interpretation plausible that the witch is actually Chiyoko herself, but aged and looking back. “I hate you more than I can bear, and I love you more than I can bear” expresses an ambivalent relationship to her own past, which results in a self-hatred over a lost life — as it results from the Freudian analysis — as well as a self-love — in the desire that has remained young and that has given her enormous strength. It is this refusal of final meaning which gives the whole movie an immensely authentic power and expresses its closeness to life. To grasp this depth can undoubtedly be considered to be one of the main tasks of biography as a literary form.
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We can see how the whole thing amounts to a conception of selfhood that is embedded in a complex web of fictionalizing and de-fictionalizing tendencies, whose strands do not always result in a consistent and unambiguous image, in which one’s actions and motivations would fall into place. Quite the contrary, the refusal to come down to a final, sedimented totality, which would lay claim to being the life — the life of Chiyoko, the life of you or me — , the refusal to capture lived experienced in a literary entity, in short, the refusal to capture life in a form, allows not only to rescue biography as a literary form from its collapse into aestheticism, where life and art become indifferent, but also to improve the understanding of our own lives. Life and fiction, the ‘real’ and the artificial, are not two separate realms, but rather distributions on the field of selfhood. We are not mathematical points sliding down the straight arrow of time, neither are we aggregates of biographical facts and key words, heaping on a fixed past to an uncertain future. Instead, parts of our past that we once considered to be wilted can suddenly activate and bring our future into disarray. One of the ways to initiate that is the act of narration as a possibility to reoccupy the field. The biography doesn’t answer the question, who Chiyoko is. Quite the contrary, the film begins with everyone already ‘knowing’ the answer to this question — a retired filmstar, an iconic figure, a failed lover. It ends with an all-encompassing sympathy, but with no answers.
Turning away from the understanding of fiction and ‘reality’ as two separate realms therefore opens up the perspective that the biography is less concerned with access to experienced life, an access which it is denied anyway, but rather with the relations and connections that the act of narration uncovers and that affect everyone involved, the narrator, the protagonist, as well as the recipient. It is therefore for a reason that the two interviewers in Millennium Actress reappear in Chiyoko’s story and it is for a reason that an animated actress can evoke the same emotions in us as someone who’s sitting in front of us and is narrating her life story. What we encounter in fiction can incite us to de-fictionalize moments of our own life just as much as life can appear to us in the garb of cheapest fiction. The act of narration does not bring things into form, it sets them in motion.
Dumont, Eric 2014: «Cinématoscopie mélodramatique du réel : le cas de Satoshi Kon» In: Nasta, Dominique (ed.): Le mélodrame filmique revisité / Revisiting Film Melodrama. Bruxelles, S. 381–391.
Freud, Sigmund 1914: «Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through» In: Complete Works (Digital Edition by Ivan Smith), pp. 2496–2506.
Freud, Sigmund 1915: «Repression» In: Complete Works (Digital Edition by Ivan Smith), pp. 2975–2988.
Kierkegaard, Søren 1983: Fear and Trembling / Repetition. Princeton University Press (trans. Howard/Edna Hong).