I hate you more than I can bear. And I love you more than I can bear.-The Old Hag
The fact that life is lived as performance is a truth I’ve understood as long as I can remember. Though everyone puts on a performance, many spend a large part of their lives completely unaware of it. They convince themselves that the conventions they have been conditioned to adopt are simply reality as it is, and will take great offense at the implication that they are somehow being disingenuous. Even when they learn this truth, they may delude themselves into believing they are somehow an exception and spend their entire lives ignorant of their own performance.
I was not privileged enough for this ignorance, as I’ve understood myself as the other since the moment I was born. The moment I entered this world I had to be taken from my mother and put inside a glass cage, where tubes stuffed into my body would hopefully prevent my underdeveloped lungs from killing me before my life even began. Isolation, discomfort, fear, shame, and a longing for the warmth of connection. I have no memory of this time, but I have experienced all of these emotions, and they resonate into my past. The sensation of being in that glass cage is one I’ve continued to carry into my ongoing present.
When you wear a glass cage, it’s the people around you who notice before you do. Even if you aren’t immobilized and filled with tubes, you won’t recognize the boundary that’s been constructed around you as anything but an extension of yourself. When the kids at school would react to it apprehensively or with derision, and the teachers would find it flummoxing and antagonizing, I could only sit there, immobilized as their accusations dug into my body for reasons I could not understand. As the tubes remained in my body, I had no choice but to acclimate. I figured out what I had to do to avoid their ire and appear as if I had never had such obstructive origins, I learned how to breathe. But even if they could no longer see it, I still felt myself inside the glass cage.
Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress is a film where the images of the past and the future continually resonate into each other. It tells the story of Chiyoko, a retired actress who attempts to reconcile her fractured memories of life through her films, aided by documentary filmmaker Genya and his unnamed cameraman. Chiyoko’s life is defined by a formative experience from her youth, one in which she saved the life of a revolutionary artist fleeing from the government. She never learned his name and no longer remembers his face, but her life his driven by the promise he made that the two will meet again someday. In one of her early flashbacks, she conjures a device for comprehending her life not unlike the glass cage I built for myself. She envisions herself as a princess who has just lost her beloved prince, and is tricked by a spectral hag into drinking a “Thousand-year curse”, a spell that justifies the life she would lead chasing the ghost of a man from her past.
I couldn’t help but see the parallels between my cage and her curse. Both are ideas that are born from understandings of truth born from an unremembered past, yet manifest in fantastical forms that blur the line of metaphor and reality. Both are used to rationalize the way our past echoes into our future. Both are used to justify the meandering and incoherent struggles of life, a way to give meaning to the suffering we’ve experienced. In this conception, we can’t help but see our constructs as enemies. My glass cage is a prison, denying me a true connection with the world; and Chiyoko’s curse is the spiteful attack of an old, withered hag, denying her reunion with her beloved.
The strongest parallel between us, however, is our mutual love of media as both an escape from and architect of our mutual prisons. If there was one part of life where I didn’t feel the glass cage’s presence, it was in stories. Books, television, movies, and games. It wasn’t so much that they made the cage disappear, at first, rather that they would circumvent the cage’s boundaries, causing no friction in my capacity to experience them. Almost as if appearing on the surface of the cage itself, like a reflection. Yet, if I was not so nurtured by media, the vistas of imagination that have so heavily influenced my reality, would I even have come up with such a grandiose construct as a glass cage to describe my condition?
In their essay on Kon’s work, Kerin Ogg summarizes the fundamental truth at the heart of his art: “modern man is saturated by and exists through media; his mental landscape is a pastiche of movies, ancient myths, literature, television programs, memes, and images.” This truth is clearly visible in Mellenium Actress, where Chiyoko’s history is told almost entirely through the film roles she has inhabited. The course of Japanese history, from the ancient feudal past to the distant star-flung future, is the map by which she charters her life.
This process even becomes collaborative through simultaneous author/audience surrogate Genya. Going beyond his role as a mere observer, Genya consistently finds ways to integrate himself into roles in Chiyoko’s memories. Though he is revealed to be much closer to her than either the audience or the creator is, he is still fundamentally taking part in her recollections as a means of reinventing himself. Rather than scorn him for this, the film treats his process positively, implicitly inviting its audience to follow suit.
In the final act of Millennium Actress, Chiyoko uses her reflection to reevaluate herself and how she has conceived that self. In looking at a cracked form, holding an image of her lost youth, she realizes the truth of her thousand-year curse, the old hag who cursed her is none other then her future self, seen clearly in the glass’s reflection. A manifestation of her frustration at the fleeting nature of a youth spent on a chase she now knows she can never fulfill. I realized that my cage was the same. I wasn’t using my cage as a mirror, my cage is the mirror. Or rather, I was choosing to see my mirror as a cage.
At the end of her life, Chiyoko chooses to see her curse as a kind of blessing. She realizes that even if her quest, her endurance of a thousand years chasing a man she can never reach, was always futile, she still lived a full life. In her dying words: “The part I really loved was chasing him”. I began to think I should see my own construction in the same way. Not a prison, but a mirror that constantly follows me, constantly giving me new insights into myself in opposition to the world around me, whether I like it or not. If Genya can reinvent himself this way, why shouldn’t I? Instead of a glass cage, a magic reflection.