Millennium Actress, a Japanimation import, is a sweeping epic of love lost, found and lost again. It's as much a cumulative history of Japan as it is a boldly atypical romantic saga. Fans of Hiyao Miyazaki's more operatic flights of fancy will find themselves well served by this melodramatic, nonlinear story.
Director Satoshi Kon helmed the excellent Perfect Blue a few years back, and since then he's apparently had time to ponder the nature of identity and the effect that the passing of time has on it. Millennium Actress is full of big, lush ideas about self and self-sacrifice. They match the rolling scope of this ambitious production, but at heart, Kon's film is really just a simple little love story between a young girl and the shadowy male figure she ends up spending her whole life pursuing.
It begins as Genyo, a documentary filmmaker, and his assistant Kyoji go in search of a faded movie queen from the golden age of Japanese cinema. Chiyoko is like Norma Desmond on Prozac: Content in her beautiful mountainside home, she passes the days dwelling more on her garden than on her past. This changes with the arrival of Genyo, who requests an interview with her in the hopes that she will reveal why she left films at the height of her popularity during the mid-'50s. What follows is a history lesson set to animÃ. As she recounts her various roles over the years, Chiyoko is seen century by century, from the 15th to the 20th. She's shown as the characters in her films, while Genyo and Kyoji pop up from time to time as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on Chiyoko's actions and reactions. Genyo also discovers that Chiyoko had been pursuing a nameless rebel ' an enemy of the emperor ' throughout the course of her life.
If this sounds confusing, it's not. Millennium Actress has more layers to it than the proverbial onion, but Kon's sure hand keeps things moving right along. And while you're never sure what might happen next, the film's flow is as hypnotically serpentine as a river. Kon's animation style is the only drawback, but if you can manage to get past the flat and jerky feel of it, the rest of the film has plenty of rewards.