Millennium Actress

Voices of Miyoko Shoji, Shozo Iizuka, Hisako Kyoda. Directed by Satoshi Kon. Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese, with English and French subtitles). 87 minutes. 2003. DreamWorks Home Entertainment 90393. PG. $19.95.

Picture ****
Sound ***1/2
Film ***1/2

Heralded for his work in 1997's haunting and dark Perfect Blue, Japanese director Satoshi Kon makes the perfect comeback with the award-winning anime film Millennium Actress. Alongside Hayao Miyazaki's critically acclaimed Spirited Away, Millennium Actress was granted the Japan Agency of Cultural Affairs Media Arts Festival Grand Prize, and won several other awards on the international film circuit. This DVD—the film's US debut—should keep American audiences spellbound.

In Millennium Actress, the fictional main character, Chiyoko Fujiwara, was once a major movie star of Japanese cinema. Many years after she went into hiding, Genya Tachibana, a longtime admirer and devoted fan, manages to track her down, in order to document her remarkable movie career. His arrival catalyzes a rush of memories that is the vehicle for the film's powerful, moving story.

Chiyoko's story begins with the memory of a fateful meeting with a fugitive, an injured artist with whom she falls in love for the first time in her life. After helping him escape from Japanese government officials, she risks everything by hiding him in her storage house. However, before he reveals his identity to her, he is forced to run away once again, and so remains a mystery to Chiyoko. All he's left for her is the knowledge of his mission to go to Manchuria and a key to "the most important thing there is"—which is never revealed to us. Chiyoko's acting career actually begins with the sole purpose of finding her love once again, as she tumbles through a lifelong trip through Manchuria, war-torn Japan, and far beyond. Her dynamic movie career is eerily paralleled by events that occur in her real life, with moments interweaving between cinematic fantasy and the confines of her reality. As she and Genya trek through their sentimental journey, the actress moves beyond conventional time and space. Through each role she plays, she revisits the memory of meeting the mysterious stranger, by portraying characters that are chasing the same shadow—a ninja princess fighting to rescue her enslaved prince, or a geisha swearing her devotion to another man.

The story initially moves quite slowly, but once Chiyoko starts reenacting her various movie scenes, you're in for an action-packed and mystical experience. As Chiyoko goes through her chameleon-like characters, you find yourselves consumed by her stories within the story and hanging on every moment, waiting to see if she ever will discover the stranger or even catch a glimpse of his face. You are right there with her, hoping that she reaches the end of her rainbow, because ultimately, you want to meet the stranger/artist/ prince/activist too.

For its DVD debut, Millennium Actress has undergone a high-definition telecine transfer, including careful cleanup of film artifacts. With its images now nearly flawless, the movie looks as if it were originally created digitally. The vivid colors and lush backgrounds strongly contribute to the richness of the story, and successfully reflect the beauty of Japanese art and culture. Satoshi Kon's editing style is truly remarkable because he effectively blends each scene nicely into the next. Each scene is fluid, with such dynamics that the movie never seems to lull or become stagnant. You can't even stop to blink because the story is always moving. The DVD runs short in the special features department, but there's a documentary on the making of the film, with interviews and commentary with Satoshi Kon, completely done in Japanese, as well as the original US theatrical trailer.

The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital Surround Sound is amazingly full. I had expected the dialog to be dubbed in English, as in Spirited Away, but by 30 minutes into Millennium Actress I'd grown to respect Kon's decision to keep the original Japanese dialog track, which immerses the viewer entirely in the film and its native culture. There are subtitles in English and French.

Even if anime films are not what you usually watch, make an exception for Millennium Actress. With a powerful story, impeccable visuals, and sound quality explosive enough to blow a hole in your subwoofer, this film is a hearty stew with all the right ingredients. If imagination and poignancy are food for the soul, then Millennium Actress should be your first course.—ACG