Directed by Satoshi Kon. Voices by Miyoko Shôji, Mami Koyama, Fumiko Orikasa, Shôzô Izuka. (2003, PG, 87 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 24, 2003
Absolutely nothing like that other recent Japanimation import – Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space – this sweeping epic of love lost, found, and lost again is as much a cumulative history of its country of origin as it is a boldly atypical romantic saga. And while the tentacles ’n’ virginal schoolgirls hentai crowd will probably be lulled off to a peaceful slumber in the absence of any shape-shifting mayhem, fans of Hiyao Miyazaki’s more operatic flights of fancy will find themselves well served by this melodramatic, nonlinear love story that spends as much time jumping back and forth through time as it does explaining why. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. Director 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 nothing if not 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. Her star long since tarnished by neglect and the fickle memories of her once-adoring audience, 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 very height of her popularity during the mid-Fifties. What follows is a history lesson set to animé – as she recounts her various roles over the years, Chiyoko is seen century by century, from the 15th through the Shogunate and up 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 – and enemy of the Emperor – throughout the course of her life, ending it only when she was sure of his fate. 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 into the next historical period. And while you’re never sure what might happen next, the flow of the film – intercut with brief asides from Genyo in the present day – is as hypnotically serpentine as a river. Kon’s animation style is the only drawback, and if you can manage to get past the gratingly flat and jerky feel of it, the rest of the film has plenty of rewards. Still, with a plot as dense as this one, why settle for animation that looks like it came straight off of Cartoon Network’s grade-B manga block?