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An animated adventure through history

Centuries of Japan are visited in Satoshi Kon's 'Millennium Actress.'

September 12, 2003|Charles Solomon | Special to The Times

"Millennium Actress" ("Sennen Joyu," literally "1,000 Year Actress") may seem like a tough sell to American audiences. It's a complex and sophisticated film that encapsulates the development of Japanese cinema as well as nearly 500 years of Japanese history. That it's also animated and subtitled in English would seem to further limit its prospects, at least among people who think animation is just for kids or who balk at foreign-language films.

But the second feature from director Satoshi Kon is not limited in imagination or its scope. Americans understandably might not know much about Japanese culture, but according to Kon, "Millennium Actress" -- which DreamWorks has chosen to launch its art house-indie unit Go Fish -- provided a learning experience for many Japanese viewers and the filmmakers themselves.

Speaking through an interpreter from New York City, where his third film, "Tokyo Godfathers," premiered at the Big Apple Anime Fest, Kon explained: "When we started this movie, we didn't have any idea how rich the history of Japan was. I hope this discovery is reflected in the film and that Americans will learn about Japanese culture -- as we did. Japanese viewers may not know anything about the American Civil War, but when we watch 'Gone with the Wind,' we enjoy the movie -- and learn from it."

DreamWorks has realistic ambitions. "I think 'Millennium Actress' is a niche film, and we're not expecting it to be something that it's not," says the company's head of animation, Ann Dally. "There are movies that don't get the exposure they deserve in the United States, and we hope to bring some attention to a fabulous piece of filmmaking that might otherwise be overlooked."

Born in 1963, Kon made his debut as a manga (comic book) artist while a student at Musashino Art University. After graduating, he moved into animation, working with noted directors Mamoru Oshii ("Ghost in the Shell") and Katsuhiro Otomo ("Akira"). "I've seen so many movies, I can't really say whose influenced me," Kon said. "Among Japanese directors, I admire Akira Kurosawa, because he created such powerful films; among Americans, John Ford. And I worked with Mr. Otomo on so many projects, I've probably been influenced by him without knowing it."

Kon's directorial debut, "Perfect Blue" (1997), impressed viewers on both sides of the Pacific. In the dark, unsettling tale, Mima, a young singer, quits a bubblegum pop trio to pursue acting. Angry fans stalk her in cyberspace and the real world, until neither Mima nor the viewer is certain where reality ends and fantasy begins.

When he learned that American critics, including The Times' Kevin Thomas, compared "Perfect Blue" to Alfred Hitchcock's work, Kon laughed. "That comparison would embarrass Hitchcock."

"I made 'Perfect Blue' as an OVA (original video animation) in six months; it was intended for Japanese viewers," he continued. "I never thought I was making it for overseas audiences and was rather shocked by its reception in the U.S. But I was confident I had spent enough time and money on 'Millennium Actress' for it to have a chance in overseas festivals. Both films depict characters who live in a mixture of reality, fantasy, memory and hope. I think that's the way human beings really live."

"Millennium Actress" opens with a secular pilgrimage: Documentary filmmaker Genya Tachibana has finally been granted an interview with film star Chiyoko Fujiwara, whom he loves and who has been living in seclusion for 30 years. As their conversation begins, Kon interpolates scenes from Chiyoko's movies and memories. Tachibana and his blase cameraman, Kyoji Ida, find themselves inside these visions; Ida is shocked, but Tachibana takes it in stride. They watch as the adolescent Chiyoko falls in love with an injured artist, a fugitive who gives her a brass key saying only that "it is the key to the most important thing there is."

Kon handles the transitions from reality to memory and fantasy with rare panache. In Japanese-occupied Manchuria, bandits attack the train teenage Chiyoko is riding. The fiery railroad car becomes a burning castle during the 15th century Warring States period and Chiyoko a princess. Despite the raging battle, she refuses to abandon the body of her husband -- a scene that reduces Tachibana to tears (as it has every time he's seen the film she's recalling).

In another movie, Chiyoko portrays a girl menaced by evil guards.

Tachibana appears as a wandering ronin (masterless samurai) who comes to her aid in an homage to Toshiro Mifune. He also turns up as a rickshaw driver who carries Chiyoko through a series of delicately beautiful settings based on woodblock prints.

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