What you begin wondering about is why--aside from why DreamWorks would launch a niche label that's called Go Fish--a major studio that is fitfully making its mark in animation as a second Disney would decide to release "Millennium Actress" domestically. The film's palette is muted, and so offers nothing akin to the colorful gamut of the audience-pleasing efforts from Studio Ghibli ("Spirited Away," "Kiki's Delivery Service") that Disney has brought to the U.S. The themes are not those that will intrigue children. And the storytelling is arcane: A documentary producer, Genya Tachibana, and his cameraman, Kyoji Ida, travel to visit the reclusive actress Chiyoko Fujiwara, and during their discussions they are physically transported, back and forth, to the times she describes when she was a huge star of Asian cinema. They experience her turns in films set in the likes of the Meiji Period or the Showa Period or Second World War era of Japan, filled with shogun and samurai, as if they were real life. As Kon puts it, "Millennium Actress" is "not in the mainstream of the animation industry."
Happily so. Although American audiences are likely to miss most of the references to Japanese cinema pieces (Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood," Shintaro Katsu's "Zatoichi" turns) except for the Godzilla-like movie, and certain Asian sensibilities might seem alien to domestic tastes, they will follow the basic throughline: A young woman's first love is forced to flee from her, and she searches for him for the rest of her life. Despite the fact that the characters are animated, her yearning is clear, then poignant, then almost unbearable, as her heartbreak is never quenched. Thought-out symbols abound, from the simple (Tachibana gives her a long-lost key that opens her memory to her past) and the complex (recurrent earthquakes). And the strange becomes familiar; the moviegoer becomes more involved in the storytelling even as the characters do.
If unlikely to generate the Oscar-leaning buzz of "Spirited Away," and in a sense deflated by the film's last line, Kon's latest effort is an striking achievement, similar in intrigue to the great "The Mystery of Rampo." Like Naruse and Mizoguchi before him, Kon is known as a feminisuto director--one sympathetic to a woman's way of looking at life. It serves him well. As one gets deeper and deeper into the narrative and its emotional subtexts, "Millennium Actress" finds its colors among the cells and sinews of a feeling human being. Voices by Miyoko Shoji, Mami Koyama, Fumiko Orikasa and Shouzou Iizuka. Directed by Satoshi Kon. Written by Sadayuki Murai and Satoshi Kon. Produced by Taro Maki. A DreamWorks release. Animated. Rated PG for thematic elements, violence and brief mild language. Running time: 87 min.